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PalmOne's Pricey -- But Cool -- Treo

Monday, December 6, 2004;

For those of you in holiday denial, just a reminder that there are only 19 shopping days left until Christmas. To help get you through the holiday rush, I'll be holding a Web chat every Monday from now until the 20th to field all your tech-shopping queries. Stop by at 2 p.m. ET or submit your questions early.

I suspect I'll be getting a great many questions about my recent comments on game consoles, in which I called the Nintendo GameCube "obsolete" and suggested that shoppers would do better with an Xbox or PlayStation 2.

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One or more GameCube sites pointed readers to the story (see, for instance, Planet GameCube), and now I have dozens of angry messages from angry GameCubists accusing me of bias. I will answer each of them in time, but for now I'll just say that I am impressed to see such passion over a $100 box.

Don't forget to check out washingtonpost.com's holiday tech shopping guide for more advice.

PalmOne's Treo 650

Yesterday's column featured the Treo 650, the fourth Treo smartphone that I've reviewed. I liked this one far more than the others, mainly because it didn't skimp on any features you'd get with a regular Palm handheld, such as a high-resolution color screen. There's only the little matter of its price -- $450. Not cheap, especially when you consider that the price exceeds the combined cost of a decent handheld and a color-screen camera phone.

I was talking about this with one of my colleagues a few weeks ago, and it hit me that PalmOne's lineup is fundamentally unbalanced: On the handheld side, it has devices that range from $99 to $399, but its Treo smartphones start at $349. Where's the smartphone equivalent of the Zire 21, the $99 entry-level model that's sold at checkout counters? How about a smartphone analogy to the Tungsten E, the $199 mainstream model that's been Palm's best-selling item all year?

I wonder if there wouldn't be a market for cheaper, less functional smartphones that used a stripped-down version of the Palm OS. Put a simplified version of the Palm contacts and calendar programs on the phone's home screen, and maybe leave out the to-do list and memo pad. Or put them below a secondary menu. Dispense with a dedicated text-input system, such as the Treo's keyboard; most users of such a device wouldn't be taking notes on it anyway.

I know this is possible, because another developer of handheld-organizer software has done exactly that.

A Fair Shake for Bluetooth

In other smartphone news, this last week has seen the Bluetooth barrier finally crumble. This was the strange and illogical segregation of this wireless technology from phones using GSM wireless technology -- those marketed by AT&T, Cingular and T-Mobile. Aside from Sprint PCS's sale of a few Sony Ericsson T610 Bluetooth phones a year or so ago, the other three carriers (Nextel, Sprint and Verizon Wireless) had acted as if Bluetooth did not exist, or that if it did customers had no interest in it.

That may very well still be the case. But now the subscribers of all those carriers can cast their own votes. Verizon broke the ice with Motorola's V710 several months ago, the Treo 650 and LG PM-325 have put Sprint back in the Bluetooth business, and just this week Nextel introduced its first Bluetooth phone, the Blackberry 7520.

Now if only these companies could do Bluetooth right -- yes, Sprint and Verizon, I'm talking to you.

Update on Mozilla's Thunderbird

My recent coverage of the Firefox Web browser prompted several readers to ask what I think of the e-mail program being developed by the same group -- Mozilla Thunderbird. I have, in fact, been using Thunderbird as my default client for many months now and have been keeping up with each new test release, including the "1.0 release candidate" that debuted this week.

While I am largely content with T-bird, I'm not ecstatic about it. This program is certainly more polished and a good deal simpler than the mail component built into the Mozilla suite, but it doesn't show the same relentless focus on simplicity as Firefox. The new 1.0RC version (to judge by that version number, we probably won't see another major release before a 1.0 release) features newly drawn icons and better mail-searching tools, but the dialog boxes a user must step through to configure mail accounts are every bit as cluttered as they were a year ago. The junk-mail controls interface is particularly woeful -- the checkbox you click to turn spam filtering on and off is hidden behind a tab, while less relevant settings are presented up front.

Thunderbird is also missing some features normally considered standard in mail clients -- the most egregious omission being the lack of any real-time spellchecking. The address book doesn't seem to have benefited from any development all year long; it barely supports the standard Vcard file format, and editing contact information requires clicking through a three-tab window. Each listing does feature a "get map" shortcut to request a MapQuest rendition of that contact's street address, but if you just want to copy his or her street address, you have to jump into that same awkward edit mode.

A lot can happen in a hurry in open-source development, but I'd be surprised if all these problems were addressed between version 1.0RC and version 1.0. We'll know for sure when that 1.0 release rolls around; look for a review in print, either of that program alone or as compared to one or two other mail clients.

-- Rob Pegoraro (rob@twp.com)


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