Test Center review: Sprint's Palm Treo Pro and the debut of Microsoft's IE Mobile 6

Microsoft's Internet Explorer Mobile 6 browser is more usable than its predecessor and a better fit with Web-based business apps, but it crashed on complex sites

On March 15 the Sprint Palm Treo Pro officially goes on sale, and I've been testing a production unit for the past few weeks. It's basically the same Windows Mobile 6.1 smartphone as the unlocked Treo Pro that I tested in late 2008. But the addition of Microsoft's new mobile browser makes this release notable.

Sprint is the first carrier to ship the Treo Pro with Microsoft's Internet Explorer Mobile 6 browser, which will soon become available on other Windows Mobile 6.1 handsets as well. IE Mobile 6 brings more of a desktop browsing experience to mobile devices -- and therefore easier access to enterprise Web applications.

To quickly recap the other Treo Pro features, on the hardware side you get a high-resolution touch screen (resistive), a physical QWERTY keyboard, Wi-Fi, and GPS -- plus support for Sprint's EV-DO Rev. A mobile broadband network.

[ Not necessarily sold on Windows Mobile? See the Test Center reviews of BlackBerry Bold, BlackBerry Storm, BlackBerry Curve, Google Android-based T-Mobile G1, and Apple iPhone 3G. ]

Unlike with the plain unlocked version, Sprint includes exclusive features and services, a few of which should benefit mobile professionals. Sprint Navigation (for an extra monthly charge) provides turn-by-turn, voice-guided, and on-screen driving directions. Sprint IM lets you access Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, and MSN Messenger.

Sprint TV, Multimedia Messaging Service, and Music -- included at no extra cost -- are more for entertainment or keeping in contact with family and friends.

Mobile browser throwdown
For years Windows Mobile has included Pocket Internet Explorer 4, old technology that was designed for viewing mobile Web sites on the small screens of devices with little memory. Obviously, the past 18 months have seen massive changes in screen sizes, processor power, and available memory on handhelds. And Microsoft has been taken to task for not engineering Internet Explorer Mobile to make use of these new technologies. IE Mobile 6 partially makes amends.

IE Mobile 6 uses the same rendering engine as IE 6 on the desktop. That's important because many enterprise applications are written for IE 6, and now those sites should finally render properly. Indeed, after selecting the desktop mode (the old mobile setting remains an option), my intranet sites appeared properly.

Also a plus, IE Mobile 6 operates much like the old version, with the important addition of new menu options for viewing pages. For instance, with a full page displayed, I can move a rectangle to zero in on a section, then touch the area to zoom in completely so that text is readable. You can also use the zoom-in and zoom-out menu commands (in combination with finger or stylus gestures) to move around a page at different scales.

However, the browser experience sometimes falls short. I prefer the modeless design and additional zoom steps of Opera Mobile 9.5 beta (which I tested for comparison). Opera Mobile also renders pages about 20 percent faster compared to IE Mobile 6. On the flip side, Opera Mobile doesn't handle Flash natively, and the shipping version will cost you.

One of the most heated browser discussions involves Adobe Flash support -- which Microsoft addresses by licensing Adobe Flash Lite 3.1 and offering it to OEMs to install if they desire. The Sprint Palm Treo Pro includes Flash Lite, which lets me view Flash videos and sites that have Flash-based navigation.

But there's a lot more to this story, especially for developers. IE Mobile includes the JavaScript 5.7 engine from IE 8 beta. For testing, I developed a site using Adobe Dreamweaver that employed some fairly complex JavaScript and AJAX functionality. These pages also worked properly. IE Mobile 6, additionally, supports VBScript.

EV-DO test drive
The Sprint network in the Philadelphia area where I tested the Treo Pro gave me consistent connections at 1,000Kbps to 1,200Kbps, which is the upper end of the EV-DO Rev. A specifications. Put another way, loading my test site's home page required about five seconds -- a very good showing. For that same test page, my desktop's typical download time was two seconds.

In another test, streaming video from Sprint TV looked good and the audio stayed in sync with video.

One nice usability and performance combination is the integration of Microsoft Live applications. From the starting "Today" screen, I displayed Microsoft Live Search, Mail, and Instant Messenger. I easily scrolled through a summary of each, such as new mail, and then -- with one touch -- went online with the full application when needed.

The biggest challenge that I faced during testing IE 6 Mobile was accessing complex sites -- in particular Google applications, YouTube, and Facebook -- in desktop mode. There were consistent crashes, resulting in error reports. Granted, these sites are more consumer oriented, but they should work. They did function correctly with Opera Mobile. I asked Palm about the errors, and while the reps were very concerned, they didn't have an immediate solution.

I'll acknowledge that the Treo Pro, with its comparatively small 320-by-320-pixel screen, isn't the appropriate device for viewing sites designed with large desktop displays in mind. For business sites that employ Flash, graphics, and scripting -- but still optimized for smaller displays -- IE 6 Mobile is up to the task.

If you're shopping for a Windows Mobile-based handset, the Palm Treo Pro is one of the best. If you want the cost subsidized, and the IE Mobile 6 browser, Sprint's offering may be a solution.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Usability (20.0%)
Extensibility (20.0%)
Networking (20.0%)
Multimedia (10.0%)
Messaging (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Sprint (Palm) Treo Pro 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.5
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