TECHNOLOGY: Sep 05, AU Edition

treo650_340x719.jpgGETTING SMARTER
Have laptop? Get a PDA smartphone to make yourself fully mobile, suggests Ian Wishart

Stuck in traffic, and desperately trying to remember the name of that Turkish café further up the line so I could phone in an order ahead. Could I recall it? Not in a lifetime. I only did a little hooch in my youth, but I swear I can feel the loss of every single one of those brain cells two decades down the track.
My options were limited: try and play ‘guess the name you’re after’ with Directory Assistance, or simply turn up at the café and wait a further 20 minutes for the kebabs to cook. Neither option appealed.
Enter, the PalmOne Treo 650 smartphone. For a magazine that utilises the latest technology and software, the efficiency gains from making staff fully mobile have been tremendous. Even so, the Treo 650 has been a voyage of discovery. Combining all the bells and whistles of the Palm range with a mobile phone, the Treo range offers a versatility lacking in other PDAs. Frankly, I’d been sceptical of the PDA craze largely because I couldn’t see much point in them. Those who have laptops, use them. Those who don’t, use PDAs. Or so I thought. To a large extent, this remains my perspective. I still can’t see the merit in trying to do screeds of real work on a handheld device – texting is great for teenagers but you’re not exactly going to write King Lear on a mobile phone, are you? Sure, any PDA worth its name offers synchronicity with laptops or desktop PCs, but unless the PDA is fully wireless and independent in its own right then it still relies on said PC or laptop for its internet access which – to me – seems a little like putting an eagle on a leash. Great, so your PDA can link through your PC to go online. Yippee! Why not just use the PC to go online in the first place.
Ah, but the PalmOne Treo is an eagle set to wing.

Stuck in traffic, brain ticking over in that aforementioned mental dash for some kind of solution to my Turkish kebab dilemma, when suddenly a third option springs to mind: use the Treo’s mobile internet to Google a Turkish café in the suburb concerned, and see what turns up. Within seconds, not only had the café-whose-name-escaped-me popped up on the Treo’s screen, but the phone’s intuitive web interface gave me the option of dialling the café phone number at the tap of a stylus. And, after making the call, the experience was consummated by Treo offering to add the café to the address book.
Oh so easy, and it all took about 35 seconds – less time than it takes to navigate Telstra’s service menu.
The beauty of the Treo is that its web browser looks and works like a full monty browser: you get pictures, hyperlinks, the works. The PalmOne software supplied with the 650 optimises the internet so that websites download more quickly than you’d expect to your mobile phone.
As outlined above, Investigate magazine staff are equipped with the latest notebook computers and Telecom’s EVDO mobile broadband (for the NZ edition) and Optus mobile broadband in Australia. Thus, for heavy duty mobile journalism/production demands, we’re generally using notebooks. Where the PalmOne range slots in, however, is on those occasions where a notebook is too bulky or overt to be useful. The supplied software, again, provides an interface for Microsoft Office documents (Word, Excel or Powerpoint) to be optimised automatically and uploaded to the Treo, where I can either reference them in meetings or edit them on the run before emailing them to a colleague via the Treo’s online email function.
That email function, in the first instance, is a programme called Versamail 3.0, which comes as standard with the Treo. Others, like SnapperMail, can be purchased for a small extra fee. Initially it was the Versamail programme that gave me some grief on the phone. Thanks to interconnectivity issues between Vodafone (suppliers of the 650) and Telecom Xtra, one first has to purchase an extra service from Xtra for $2 a month before you can download email and – as I was to discover – a technical quirk with the Versamail software meant you couldn’t upload email to send via your Xtra account, you had to find another email provider to do this with. Conveniently, Vodafone allow the use of their own SMTP outgoing mail server so that problem was eventually solved. Alternatively, I could have purchased SnapperMail which works perfectly well with Xtra’s SMTP servers. The software integrates with Microsoft Outlook, although not with Business Contact Manager – if you use BCM you’ll need to select all your business contacts and copy them into the Outlook Contact directory in order for the Treo to see them.
The Treo also comes equipped with a digital camera and VGA video camera – again, a useful function both for home and business. Images and documents are either stored on the Treo’s 32mb internal memory or on an SD expansion card of your choice.
Bluetooth is standard on the 650, making for easy wireless synchronisation with the notebook computer or any other Bluetooth-enabled device you wish.
The 650 isn’t cheap – at around $1,150 plus GST it’s the price of a baseline laptop – but its versatility complements an existing IT setup. You wouldn’t purchase a PDA if you didn’t have a computer, and while you can get great PDAs for $400 upwards, without the mobile phone and internet coverage they’re not necessarily the best value for money if you need portability AND mobility. On the other hand, the Treo also comes in a cheaper format, the Treo 600, which is a similar phone designed for Telecom’s CDMA and 1X networks, rather than GSM. The Telecom version is on offer at $499, but differs slightly in that it doesn’t offer Bluetooth and its battery is built in, which means once the battery’s charge cycle is shot it’s a bit of a mission to fix.
Because of Telecom’s mobile internet framework, the 600 is reportedly slightly faster than the 650 online, but there’s not a lot in it. PalmOne’s agents in New Zealand tested their phones against the state of the art Harrier EVDO unit offered by Telecom, and found that on the Apple site, for example, the Palm units were only around 30% slower to download pages, despite the vast differences between the mobile internet and mobile broadband services on paper. That said, if speed is of the essence then you’re likely to be using a full EVDO wireless card on your notebook anyway and sucking webpages out of the ether at 500kbs. EVDO on handhelds is still not as fast as it is for computers.
Significantly, both Telecom and Vodafone will be offering much faster mobile broadband speeds between now and the middle of next year as network improvements are rolled out. Even so, the 650 is plenty fast enough for my purposes, and I’m an internet speed freak.