A Month With The Treo 650
Despite a baffling interface, PalmOne's latest smartphone gets better with time.
By Om Malik

(Business 2.0) – This damn Treo 650 has already cost me a friend. The smartphone's five-way navigator looks great and is designed to make one-handed operation easy. Hit the center button once and your address book comes up. But hit it again, which is easy to do accidentally, and you're instantly dialing the first entry. In my case, that's a New Yorker who used to be a good pal before I woke him up after midnight one too many times. "What's wrong with you, man?" he snapped. "Never call me again!"

Perhaps this is an antidote for another long-standing Treo problem: It's too easy to hit the "Hang Up" key with your cheek while speaking on the phone. After living with PalmOne's latest creation for a few weeks, I've given serious thought to hanging up on it too.

Don't mistake me for a Treo hater. When the 650's predecessor, the 600, came out, it was love at first sight. Despite its diminutive size, the Treo 600 packed a lot of punch—a full-fledged organizer, a digital camera, a Web browser, a keyboard for text messaging, and a phone that worked around the world, all for $449 with a new service plan.

But the affair soured quickly. The device had glaring shortcomings: The keys were too squished together and tough to push, resulting in thumb pains and misspelled e-mails. You could play music, but the sound quality was choppy. And the camera took dark, grainy photos. Two months after I got the 600, I banished it to the back of my gadget closet.

So I, like many other Treo fans, had been looking forward to the new 650. It boasted Bluetooth wireless, a much-improved screen, and a keyboard that was a delight to type on. Would it be worth dropping $600 less than a year after buying (and abandoning) the 600?

Despite my familiarity with the 600's buttons and keyboard, I found the learning curve on the new device was steep. Take my gaffe with the five-way navigator. There's a new button on the left side of the 650 that can call up any application you choose. But I went for days scratching my head as RealPlayer popped up before I realized I could change the setting. (Sure, it's in the manual. But who wastes time reading that?)

Still, the interface changes were minor problems compared with battery life and memory. My 600 went without a charge for about four days. The new device drained the battery in less than a day. Then, as I started to install applications from my old Treo, I discovered they wouldn't fit, thanks to a new memory scheme that essentially gives you less room than the 600 had. (On the plus side, it doesn't lose its memory when the battery runs out, as prior Treos did—an essential feature, given the 650's short battery life.) The apps I could fit often crashed the 650.

Once I got past those frustrations, though, I found a lot to like. The home-screen interface puts the tiny real estate to great use. Right at the top, you get an unread e-mail notice, the number of text messages, and your next appointment. Below the onscreen dialpad, you have quick access to "Favorites," which are like bookmarks for applications, websites, and phone numbers. (On the 600, you must first launch "Favorites.")

The screen has four times the resolution of the 600 and is much easier to read. The Bluetooth, despite being a battery drain, is pretty slick. Headsets by Ericsson, Jabra, Nokia, and Plantronics pair with the 650 in less than a minute, and the phone syncs flawlessly with my IBM ThinkPad. The camera is a definite improvement over the previous version. In three weeks the 650 turned me into a cellular shutterbug. And thanks to the improved keyboard, I've been sending text messages like a teenager.

So would I buy one? There are arguably better smartphones out there, like Sprint's Audiovox 6601 Pocket PC phone, which has a slide-away keyboard. But at $699, the 6601 is suited for you only if you can persuade your boss to pay for it. Me, I pay my own way—and may well buy the 650. Anyone want to buy a slightly used Treo 600?