The Treo Pro is the first of what is clearly a new design direction for Palm -- a shiny, black mutation of the popular Centro coupled with a few lines from the Treo 500 and a dash of the original Xbox thrown in for good measure. Under the hood is the staid and familiar Windows Mobile 6.1, with few changes save for the typical Palm shortcuts and the inclusion of an HTC-licensed task manager. Is this combo powerful enough to lift the smartphone-maker out of the doldrums of its current lineup, or is it just another half-step along the uneven pavement the company has been treading? Read on to find out.
What is most obvious and striking about the latest Palm device is the almost-entirely revamped design. Where the Centro was a logical progression of previous Treo housings, the Pro is a somewhat radical departure, losing that awkward silver band and adding a rounded-button motif throughout. While there's much to praise about these updates -- the flush screen, the glossy black finish -- the overall design still feels slightly dated. There just seems to be too much going on at once.
The keyboard we've seen on the Centro makes an appearance here, though its keys are more widely spaced, making quick typing slightly easier -- though by no means easy. The odd, jellied feel of this QWERTY is still uncomfortable and imprecise, and more often then not you'll find yourself backtracking to correct clumsy mistakes. The keyboard from the recently released (though far less interesting) 800w is closer to what we know and love from Palm, and the company should seriously consider a return to that form in future models.
Palm has scored big time in a few regards, however. Not only has the company dug that sunken screen out and made it flush with the casing, but they've also managed to trim up the device considerably, creating a competitively lean phone that sits alongside the iPhone 3G or Touch Diamond and more than holds its own. They finally hit on one of the crucial pain points for Treo devices, and have at least leveled the playing field in that regard.
The display, however, is a standard 320 x 320 resistive touchscreen, and we're getting a bit tired of these cramped workspaces on the Treo line. While everyone else is working to up the resolution, pixel density, and contrast ratios of their displays, Palm seems to be asleep at the wheel. For as much plastic as we see here, the abysmal lack of actual screen is annoying.
Inside the plastic, you'll find a Qualcomm MSM7201 400MHz CPU, HSDPA cell radio, 802.11b/g WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth 2.0, 256MB of ROM, 128MB of RAM, a 2-megapixel camera, and support for microSD cards up to a whopping 32GB capacity. Palm has jettisoned the annoying and outdated HotSync cable in favor of the somewhat-obscure micro USB port -- though it's a step in the right direction. Another hardware change sure to win points is the inclusion of a 3.5mm headphone jack, allowing pretty much any standard headset or earbuds to be used without an adapter.
All of those on-board radios do a terrific job -- we had excellent and speedy reception in 3G areas, and found the GPS to be immensely useful even though it took a bit of doing to gather satellites and pinpoint our location. Palm has included a modernized Comm Manager to make switching on and off services easy, and it's planted a dedicated WiFi button on the phone (much like the 800w) that makes getting onto networks slightly less of a hassle than you're used to with WM devices.
Apart from the new hardware, however, this is in many ways the same Palm you've always known. Where devices like the aforementioned Diamond or the Samsung Omnia have strived to distance themselves from the aging Windows Mobile OS with complex skins and UI improvements, the Treo Pro does little to mask the platform. Partly this is by design: the company is targeting a business user with the phone, and they say the less bloatware or cruft on the device, the better. Unfortunately, pairing something as clunky and dated as WM 6.1 (and its unenjoyable Mobile IE) with a device that so fiercely eschews the status quo in design is an uneven message. It seems to us had Palm applied just a little more effort in molding the user experience, this would have been carried off more successfully as a cohesive whole.
As far as straight-forward WM encounters go, however, this is probably as painless as it gets, and moving around from app to app is quick and easy. That included HTC task manager helps, as do the multifarious hard keys -- you're never very far from what you're looking for.
Possibly the most interesting -- if not somewhat confusing -- aspect of the phone is the way in which it's being sold. For the first time, Palm is marketing this device in an unlocked form out of the gate (in the US at least, contract prices will be available in Europe). If you've got $549 and a deep desire for freedom, the Pro can be yours no questions asked. This puts it right alongside Nokia's latest higher-end phones and HTC's offerings, and it's a bold (no pun intended) move, but one which puts an average buyer at a disadvantage.
All in all there really isn't a lot to say here. The Treo Pro is is a solid, if fairly familiar device that will please the business set and few others. For all its good looks and clean lines, this isn't being marketed to a wide range of customers -- not with its software or its price, and because of that the Pro creates a strange dichotomy. It's the first time in a long time we've seen inspired design from the company, but it's also the first time we've seen them market a device destined solely for the upper tier of buyers (and believe us, up there you've got some pretty stiff competition). Palm, we hate to repeat ourselves, but here's what you should be doing right now: getting your new OS out the door, getting it onto a device that follows in the Pro's design footsteps, and leveraging those hardware costs against a reasonable carrier deal. The Treo Pro is a fine phone, but not the device that will put you back up on top of the pile.