Monday, July 23, 2007

The Palm Foleo: A Hands On Review

Palm hosted four Foleo Sneak Peek events last week. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Manhattan event held at the Rockefeller Center retail store in New York City. What follows are my first impressions of my hands on time with Palm’s latest product offering.

Palm has positioned the Foleo to be an accessory to your mobile phone. When it is launched later this summer, the Foleo will ship with support for the company’s Treo smartphones; however, Palm has expressed interest in expanding support to other mobile phones. (Foleo Fanatics will cover third-party phone support when it is announced. The remainder of this article will deal specifically with the Treo.)


Who and Why

The Foleo is aimed squarely at mobile professionals and executives who spend a lot of time reading and composing email and working with email attachments. When paired with a Treo, email and attachments (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Acrobat, and images) are displayed on a crisp 10-inch display. Typing up a longer email is easy with Foleo’s full-sized keyboard. For this first Mobile Companion product, the Palm designers have decided to stay focused on the core customer and the applications that are used. When developing the Foleo the designers looked at what applications worked best with a large screen. Email and document editing came to the forefront. The PIM applications work equally as well on the Treo’s screen or the Foleo’s screen and would have less of an impact on the customer experience. Palm is working with their solution partners to ensure Foleo customers will have additional applications to use with the Treo and the Foleo when the product does launch.

Hands On with Foleo

The first thing that I noticed about the Foleo was its large 1024x600 display. The display was crisp and easy to read. Since it was raining this particular afternoon, I wasn’t able to view the screen in direct sunlight, but the screen’s brightness did pass the sunglasses test.

As it turned out, the Opera browser was the foreground application and I wanted to test out web page rendering. The first thing that I tried was viewing the Foleo Fanatics website. It looked just as good on the Foleo as it does on my Mac or PC. I also tried out blog posting to Blogger with the Foleo and it worked as expected. The Foleo was up to the task and within minutes I had a new post up. The demonstration Foleo that I used was configured to use Wi-Fi. I was not able to try to connect the Foleo to the Internet with a Bluetooth connection with a Treo 755p. I can say that over a Wi-Fi connection, the Opera browser seemed just as fast as the wireless connection from my MacBook.

Switching to a new application is easy. Just press the App key on the keyboard and the Application Menu drops down from the top left of the display. If you are of the keyboard-oriented sort, you can use the keyboard shortcuts to launch a new application. To start the web browser, press the App and B keys. To switch to the email application, press the App key with the E key. Any one worried that the application-launching lag that may have crossed over from the Treo 700p to the Foleo will be happy to hear that, under Linux, application launching was snappy. In my time with the Foleo I did not experience any lag while applications launched.

The keyboard was roomy and comfortable, but that is not the only way to interact with the Foleo. Palm has included a track stick located between the G, H, and B keys just as they are on PC notebook computers. The really cool feature is the scroll wheel. To navigate the screen, you use your index finger and your thumb to scroll the screen up or down. To activate an object on your screen you can use the left or right mouse button. One nice feature that I learned about from attending the event was the “zing.” A quick flick, or “zing,” of the scroll wheel up or down will move the screen up or down a page at a time rather than a line at a time.

Another feature that I believe will be popular with business customers is the VGA video out port. Included in the Foleo box will be a VGA adapter that will allow you to connect the Foleo to an external video device like a table top projector. When the Foleo is connected to an external display, the screen resolution is changes from 1024x600 to 1024x768. Once connected the Foleo becomes a vehicle for PowerPoint presentation delivery. This capability has been available on Palm handheld PDAs and Treo smartphones for a while, however the solutions always required special drivers or hardware to make it work. Since I have to give several presentations a month, I will be looking forward to testing this new feature out in the real world once the Foleo ships.


Additional Information

During the Sneak Peek event I did manage to get some additional details about the Foleo. The first is that there is a USB port on the Foleo and that there is a USB host driver in the operating system. The USB host driver will allow you to connect things like flash drives, keyboards, and mice to the Foleo. I was not able to determine if the Foleo would support a desktop USB microphone as suggested by fellow attendee Martin Jablow.

According to the Palm staff running the demonstrations, the battery should provide about five hours of continuous use with both the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi 802.11b radios enabled. With moderate use, the Foleo’s batter should be able to provide a day and a half to two days of use. The 802.11b radio was a compromise include Wi-Fi and to extend battery life. As I mentioned earlier, web pages were loading quickly enough that I don’t think that this will be a serious problem. Given the choice of longer battery life or an 802.11g Wi-Fi radio, I’d take the extra battery life. The Foleo’s battery will be user replaceable, however, for the event, the batter compartment was sealed. Palm has yet to release the specifications of the battery being used. I did confirm that the Foleo does not use the same AC adapter as the Treo, which means that if you are going to on the road for more than 2 days you should pack the chargers for the Treo and the Foleo.

The Foleo will ship with 128MB of non-volatile memory. Customers who need more storage space can add Compact Flash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD) cards to boost storage capacity. When a CF card is inserted, the Foleo uses the CF card as the primary customer data storage space. Presumably, the included file manager will allow customers to move previously stored data from the built-in memory area to the newly inserted card. When you insert a SD card in the SD card slot, the Foleo presents it to the operating system as just another storage volume. For the time being, Palm is recommending that SD cards and email are easy ways to move data between the Foleo and the Treo. While this arrangement will work, I can see customers looking for a way to browse the contents of the Treo’s inserted SD card using the Bluetooth connection and eliminate the need to shuffle SD cards around. I can also confirm that a PNY 4GB SDHC card did work with the Foleo. I was able to create a new Word document on the Treo, saving it to the card, and then read and update the same file on the same SDHC card on the Foleo, save it, and then view it back on the Treo.

The Foleo also sports a headphone jack along the right side of the device. The headphone jack is a regular 3.5mm jack (the Treo uses the cellular carrier specified 2.5mm jack) and it is a stereo jack. The speaker built-in to the Foleo is a mono speaker. The existence of that jack makes me wonder if a certain popular audio player for the Treo will be making an appearance on the Foleo before the year’s end. If the old saying “If you build it, they will come,” is true, I expect to see third-parties porting audio and video players to the Foleo once the software development kit (SDK) is released later this summer.

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to obtain any substantial information about the processor inside the Foleo. The only information that I was able to glean from a coy Palm representative was that the Foleo is faster than the TX. If we interpret this information literally, the Foleo uses a processor that is faster than the Palm TX’s 312 MHz Intel ARM processor. Palm has been using the 312 MHz processor in the Treo line, but long time Palm customers will recall that the Tungsten T5 handheld used the faster 416 MHz processor. All of this information is speculation on my part, and the full product specifications will be released close to or on the Foleo launch day.

In conclusion

The first Foleo Mobile Companion has clearly been designed with the mobile business professional in mind. From my brief time with the Foleo I was impressed by what I saw. The Foleo is a light-weight sturdy device that can easily be integrated into my regular business day.

The Foleo can be used as a stand alone computing platform; however, it becomes more useful when it is paired up with a Treo smartphone. The software that is bundled with the device will allow customers to get setup and working with little or no intervention from their company’s Information Technology department. And Palm is working with third-party solution providers to ensure that additional software will be available for the product launch and beyond, expanding the features and capabilities of the Foleo.

According to Palm, the Foleo is on track to meet an undisclosed release date later this summer. (The last day of summer is September 22.) When the Foleo goes on sale, it will retail for $599 and will be initially available at Palm retail locations and from the Palm online store. During an introductory period, there will be a $100 mail-in rebate on the Foleo bringing the total cost down to $499. It is expected that big box retail locations, such as Best Buy, will begin carrying the Foleo before the end of the year. (I don’t have any launch information for regions outside of North America.)

For more information about the Foleo, please visit the Palm website.
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