Mobile Computing: Treo as Notebook Alternative, Part 1

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I'm on a quest to find a lightweight device that will enable me to leave my notebook at home for at least a few days--and not regret it.

Not long ago, I tested a wireless Research In Motion BlackBerry 7520 smart phone as a notebook alternative; read "BlackBerry as Notebook Alternative, Part 1" and "BlackBerry as Notebook Alternative, Part 2" for the details of my experiment.

My conclusion: A BlackBerry is fine for handling e-mail and basic Web browsing. But navigating documents using its scroll wheel--as opposed to the touch-screen interface most PDAs offer--gets old quickly.

This week and next, I'm reporting on my experiences using a Palm Treo 650 smart phone as a notebook alternative. I tested the Treo on the Sprint Nextel network in San Francisco by doing what I'd normally do with a notebook: sending and receiving e-mail, with and without attachments; writing and editing Microsoft Office documents; and browsing Web sites.

Why didn't I test the new Treo 700w? The Windows Mobile-based Treo is currently available only from Verizon Wireless and has been on the market since January. The Treo 650, however, was released in fall 2004 and is available from Cingular Wireless, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon Wireless. In other words, far more readers are likely to be interested at this point in using their Treo 650 in lieu of a laptop. Also, according to a Palm spokesperson, no new Palm-based Treos are due before mid 2006. So the Treo 650 is likely to retain its popularity for the time being.

Handling E-Mail

The BlackBerry is renowned for its push e-mail service. Several times a minute, a BlackBerry downloads your latest messages. But the Treo 650's VersaMail e-mail program comes extremely close to the BlackBerry's service.

The Auto Sync feature in VersaMail automatically downloads messages as frequently as every 5 minutes. You can also tell the Treo which days, and what time of day, to download messages. For example, you could configure your Treo to check e-mail every 5 minutes between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and not at all on weekends. As someone who doesn't want to receive e-mail constantly, I love this feature--which has no equivalent on a BlackBerry, according to a RIM spokesperson. You could also conserve battery power by telling the Treo to only download messages during work hours.

Another cool feature: VersaMail lets you delete messages from the Treo as well as from your ISP or enterprise mail server. Imagine that your Treo just received your 3645th e-mail advertisement for a fake Rolex watch. When you delete the message in VersaMail, you can delete it from your mail server, too. If you do, the Rolex message will not be downloaded the next time you check e-mail on your computer. (Only BlackBerry models on the T-Mobile service can delete e-mails from both the handheld and the source mail server, according to a RIM spokesperson.)

I spent much less time managing e-mail on the Treo than I did on the BlackBerry. This requires a little more explanation, so stick with me. On my notebook, I use Microsoft Outlook as my e-mail client. When I check e-mail in Outlook, the messages are downloaded to my notebook and then deleted from my ISP's mail server. As a result, when I check e-mail on the Treo 650, I receive only those messages that my have not been downloaded to my notebook yet.

By comparison, the BlackBerry Internet Service automatically forwards a copy of every message sent to your e-mail address, regardless of whether they've already been downloaded. As a result, I had to delete unwanted messages twice when using a BlackBerry, compared to just once on the Treo. You can set up a few junk e-mail filters on the BlackBerry Internet Service, but that's a bit of a hassle and the filters don't capture all spam.

As for e-mail attachments, I had no problem receiving or viewing the Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and image files I received. I used Documents To Go, which comes preinstalled on Treo 650s, though other Office-compatible utilities for Palm OS devices are available. However, one message containing nearly 8MB of file attachments was delivered to the Treo without the files, as VersaMail maxes out at around 5MB. (The BlackBerry Internet Service didn't deliver some attached files, either.)

Check back next week, when I report on my experiences with typing, editing documents, and browsing the Web on the Treo 650.

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