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The Thoughtful Treo Pro

Thu Aug 21, 2008 - 3:31 PM EDT - By Dieter Bohn

Overview

Although the Treo Pro is in many ways "just another Treo" and "just another Windows Mobile Smartphone," Palm has actually put quite a lot of thought into its hardware and software design. Read on to hear what what sort of design decisions Palm made while creating the Treo Pro

I've just completed a call with Palm's Product Line Marketing Manager, Parag Gupta, about the upcoming Treo Pro. We had a wide-ranging discussion about many of the design and marketing decisions that went into the creation of the product and its relative strength in the market. Bottom line: We've got some new and interesting information to share with you about the Treo Pro.

Hardware

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Flush Screen

Palm puts a lot of thought into the little pieces of every Treo they product, but none more so than the Treo Pro. One of the best things about it has to be the flush touch screen. The decision to finally "go flush" was not taken lightly. Palm sweated the details, including everything from standard stuff like tossing the Treo Pro into a dryer with keys to test its scratch resistance to changing the default behavior of the in-call screen. While in a call, the screen automatically locks, but there's a button you can hit to unlock the screen so you can interact with the (finally!) large, thumb-able control buttons (at right).

Having a flush touch screen also had an added benefit: Palm felt they no longer needed to include "soft buttons" for the 2 standard menu buttons at the bottom of every Windows Mobile screen. Though this presents some difficulties on some software (i.e. most people take Internet Explorer out of full-screen mode by hitting a soft button), it did add to the clean look of the device.

I'll need to test it on my review unit, but Gupta also said that the touch-sensitive region for the screen actually extended a few millimeters underneath the screen proper, making it easier to target the soft-button area with your thumb.

Making another appearance on the Treo Pro is the dedicated WiFi button, a very welcome addition; assuming it works as well as it does on the Treo 800w, a very elegant solution as well. The idea is that Palm has done everything they can with the Treo Pro to "lower the pain threshold" for users - they have given a lot of thought to trying to make the most essential features easy to interact with.

Palm also added one more new button: a power-button on the top of the device. That decision was driven by the fact that users were reporting that the red "End Key" was getting too overloaded with functionality.

Another thing that went into the decision to add a power button (which is essentially just a screen on and off button) is that it's become an industry standard for Windows Mobile devices. That's actually a theme for Palm -- people expect their phones to behave in a certain way and Palm doesn't want to thwart those users.

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Palm has added another hardware feature that's notable: the center button lights up when you have a voicemail in a very subtle way. Palm heard from their users that the LED basically meant "charge status" to most of them and that most users never bother trying to figure out what different colors or blink-types mean, alert-wise. So Palm kept it simple: LED for charge status, the 5-way light for voicemail. That KISS philosophy also kept email alerts off the 5-way light, for better or for worse. Hopefully whatever the method is for creating that light alert is hackable.

Of course, the Ringer Switch stays, but we have one addition that we all have been asking for: a 3.5mm headset jack! Palm has listened! When I asked why they finally chose 3.5 over 2.5 (or none at all), Gupta explained that 3.5 has basically become the industry standard for headsets now, with 2.5 jacks even for phone calls no longer found on most smartphones. Palm wanted to put a headset jack in, users wanted Palm to put a headset jack in, and 3.5 has essentially become the industry standard. Thus: we win.

Hardware Overall

The Treo Pro is the thinnest Treo to date and Palm worked hard to make it so. I find it incredible that they've also managed to include a 1500 mAh battery in that form factor as well. One of the reasons the Treo Pro is so thin is that they made the switch to the flush screen (and kept those soft buttons off).

I believe that another reason, though Palm wouldn't go so far as to say this, is that they went with a modified version of the Centro's keyboard. These types of keyboard are "printed" on a single sheet, enabling the device to be much thinner. The Treo Pro's keyboard is slightly wider than the Centro's, but otherwise appears to be pretty much identical.

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Another nice hardware touch is that the loudspeaker isn't located on the back of the device, but instead curves from the back to the side. This means you'll be able to hear the ringer or the speakerphone while the phone sits on a desk more easily.

All of this begs the question: Why does the Treo Pro's hardware seem so much better than the 800w's? Of course, Palm isn't going to knock the Treo 800w (and really, a lot of people will prefer its keyboard), but they did say that the issue was primarily the 'development cycle.' The Treo Pro was simply designed after the Treo 800w and though they were released in quick succession, some design decisions have to be made early and they get locked in.

It really is a function of when we are ready, and does the product meet the needs that we want to meet for our users. It literally is a kind of a lockstep kind of an approach -- put the best foot forward when you have it.

This is as good a place as any to mention that the Treo Pro supports microSD cards up to 32gb in size(!).

Software Enchancements

We are already pretty aware of the various software enhancements Palm has added to the Treo Pro: a great today-screen manager like those found on HTC devices, various "under-the-hood" enhancements that make Treos feel faster than similarly-specced Windows Mobile devices, and the above-mentioned light and in-call enhancements.

What is interesting is that Palm made the decision to drop their custom threaded SMS application and use the default threaded SMS found on Windows Mobile 6.1. Although I prefer Palm's app much more, it's a decision I suppose I can understand. Palm has limited resources and maintaining a custom app that's redundant with the default Windows Mobile build doesn't make much sense.

Fantastic Out of Box Experience

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One thing Palm wanted to emphasize was the "out of box" experience. This means a lot to them. The packaging is much better (it has rightly been called "Apple-esque."), but it goes beyond that. Unlike with current Palm devices, the Treo Pro comes with the battery inserted already, ready to be powered up and toyed around with. Instead of a giant brick of a charger, the Treo Pro comes with a relatively small adapter that can accept plugs for multiple outlet types and simply has USB on it for power (the Treo Pro uses MicroUSB).

The most innovative thing, though, is that the Treo Pro does not come with a CD. Instead when you first plug it into your (Windows-only) computer, it turns into a mass storage device and prompts you to install ActiveSync from the Treo. Gupta confirmed that it's not just that the Treo Pro asks you go to online and download ActiveSync, it literally has ActiveSync on the phone and can install it directly from there.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the Treo Pro continues to offer itself as a mass storage device after ActiveSync is installed.

Market, Pricing, and Availability

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The Treo Pro is aimed squarely at an Enterprise market, though it should have more cross-over appeal than the 800w. As far as competition goes, Palm feels that Windows Mobile Touchscreen gives them an edge over the BlackBerry Bold, the care they put into merging hardware and software design should help them against other Windows Mobile devices, and that the iPhone is essentially not a competitor as it's not going to be as present in business as Windows Mobile. We'll see.

When will we see? The Treo Pro is getting released with carrier support for anywhere from free on up to 549 Euro depending on carrier and contract. That will happen in September. The US will initially see the Treo Pro only in a full-priced, unlocked version for $549 in the "Fall." Hopefully "Fall" means "early Fall." No word yet whether or not AT&T will pick up the Treo Pro and offer it with a subsidized price. In the meantime Palm believes that Enterprise customers prefer unlocked devices to begin with because they offer more freedom.

Conclusion

So is the Treo Pro a winner? We don't know yet -- but we'll have a full review for you here at TreoCentral as soon as we can. Hopefully it will follow in the Treo 800w's footsteps by being more impressive in person than it appears in photos. As long as we're hoping, we hope that the actual release of the device goes a bit more smoothly than the launch has -- at least then Palm won't have any leaks to contend with.

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