With all the excitement this month about the Palm Pre and the upcoming iPhone 3G S, I'm instead turning my attention to what is, perhaps, a surprisingly less modern product. Palm's Treo Pro, first released a year ago, is based on Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional. Sounds unexciting, right? But the Treo Pro proves two things to me. First, Palm provides a quality product with an excellent synthesis between the hardware and software. And second, Windows Mobile phones don't have to stink. Far from it, in fact: The Treo Pro is an excellent smart phone.

Hardware

The Treo Pro itself is elegant and of high quality. Though the screen of course pales in comparison to the larger screens on the Palm Pre and iPhone, it does feature touch support, and it's used to good effect with software buttons augmenting the device's ample supply of hardware buttons. It features Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) and GPS, as well as Bluetooth and support for both HSDPA or EvDO Rev A wireless data networks. It features a suddenly paltry 64 MB of internal RAM but is expandable with microSD up to 8 GB.

Palm Treo ProOK, I know this all sounds unexceptional. But the thing is, the Treo Pro works. It fits nicely in the hand and the keyboard is easier to type on than that of the iPhone (which is, of course, virtual). It's multiple buttons--derided by Apple CEO Steve Jobs and resulting in the almost button-less iPhone--aren't just usable, they're useful. Dedicated buttons for Calendar, Mail, and the camera? Heck yeah.

Another plus: Unlike with the Apple device, the Treo Pro has a removable battery. That means you can bring extra juice with you on long trips in a very portable package (the batteries are tiny) and, should the battery ever wear out, you can replace it yourself.

Overall, I give the Treo Pro hardware high marks. This is a beautiful, even lust-worthy device.

Software

It's hard to discuss a current generation Windows Mobile device and not express some disappointment with the software, but Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional is decent, if utilitarian. Unlike with the Standard version of the software, Professional does not come with the nice sliding panel UI, but instead offers up a touch-capable version of the old Windows Mobile home screen. This is actually an OK user interface, but I do find the bifurcation of capabilities between Windows Mobile Standard and Professional to be a bit odd.

Microsoft's built-in software reads like a who's-who's list of obsolete relics from another era. Internet Explorer 6 Mobile. Outlook Mobile. An Explorer dating back to the first version of Windows CE, from 13 years ago. It's in bad need of a makeover. A do-over. Something. One of the few things Microsoft does get right is sync: Windows Mobile Device Center is excellent and, on Windows 7, it installs automatically the first time you plug in a Windows Mobile-compatible device. And to be fair, IE 6 Mobile supports Flash, unlike, say, the iPhone.

Palm, to its credit, tries to gussy things up a bit. The theme is flat black, very reminiscent of those Windows Mobile 6.5 shots we've all seen, and quite a bit nicer than the normal, bulbous-looking Windows Mobile 6.x themes on most phones. Palm uses a center "Palm" button for instant-on access to the device, to unlock it, and to serve as a general "select" button, and it works well. Palm also includes a number of useful software applications, like Adobe Reader LE, a multi-platform instant messaging application, an interesting all-in-one app called Pocket Express, You Tube, and some others.

Final thoughts

While the Palm Treo Pro isn't going to give the iPhone or Palm Pre any serious competition in the new market for consumer-oriented smart phones, it's a serious business tool and has certainly gone a long way towards redeeming Windows Mobile in my eyes. There aren't too many great Windows Mobile phones out there right now, but this one does edge into the exceptional category. I'm more eager than ever to see what Microsoft and its partners can do around Windows Mobile 6.5 now.