Palm Treo 680 smart phone
Bringing the price-fight to Windows Mobile
Review Palm's Treo 650 smart phone has spearheaded Palm's smart-phone business since its debut in the US in October 2004. Still, it's looking long in the tooth, especially after Palm shipped the Windows Mobile-based 700w and its Palm OS sibling, the 700p, earlier this year. But rather than ditch the older product, Palm's re-modelled it as a new handset, the 680, pitched at a lower price...
The new incarnation of the 650 sports the same design as the recently released Treo 750v, but tweaked a little to suit the Palm OS better. While the 750v has a pair of soft-menu keys for Windows Mobile, on the 680 they've become the call make and break buttons. What on the 750v are the call keys and the Windows Mobile Start menu and OK buttons are here four application keys: Phone, Calendar, Messaging and Home - the latter taking you to the OS' apps menu.
The 680's application keys are larger and more angular than the 650's were, and the older model's menu key has been repositioned to replace the right-hand Shift button. The move means there's an extra application key now, but it's less conveniently placed.
Like the 650, the 680's infra-red port is on the top of the device next to the speaker deactivation switch. On the left-hand side are the volume controls and a key that, if held, launches the voice recording app - a tool missing from the 650 - though like the application keys on the front of the 680, it can be redefined to run different things.
The right-hand side of the phone has a large flap under which is the 680's SD card slot, which not only supports MMC media and SD IO devices but also SDHC cards. Certainly, the 680 I tried had no trouble reading the 4GB SanDisk SDHC card I used with it. SDHC support isn't listed in Palm's Treo 680 tech specs, but it worked for me.
The 680's SIM slot is now inside the battery compartment rather than the top of the handset: there's a slide-out tray for the card rather than the recess used in many mobile phones and the 750v. Like the Vodafone-branded Treo, the 680 ships with a removable 1,200mAh battery.
Internally, little has changed between the 650 and the 680. The new model has the same 312MHz XScale PXA270 processor. The memory has been upped to 128MB - from 32MB - of which 64MB is available to the user, but the screen spec is the same - 320 x 320 and 65,536 colours - and continues to look good. Like the 650, the 680 is a quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE device. Both handsets have Bluetooth 1.2 on board.
There's the same 300,000-pixel VGA camera, with 2x digital zoom, round the back of the 680 as there was on the 650. The picture quality on stills and video is nothing to write home about and really should have been upgraded, given rival devices are already incorporating two megapixel cameras. Speaking of the competition highlights the 680's key omission: Wi-Fi, still missing from a Palm device despite so many Windows smart phones that offer it.
Missing too is a stereo headset - Palm's still bundling a mono one. Since the 680 is designed to be music-friendly - Palm bundles pTunes, a decent MP3 player app - it's silly that it doesn't include at the very least a stereo headset or an an adaptor for the phone's 2.5mm socket to allow the user to plug in a pair of 3.5mm 'phones.
The 680 runs Palm OS 5.4.9, up from 5.4.5 in the 650, but you'd not know it's beyond the appearance of Access logos in place of PalmSource's. That's not to say the handset's software hasn't been changed, but most of the appreciable tweaks have come to Palm's own code than the underlying operating system.
The new incarnation of the Phone app is a big improvement, and it's this that really lifts the 680 above the 650. It adds five tabs along the bottom of the screen to provide quick access to the dial pad; a list of favourite numbers, apps, email addresses and web pages; a Windows' Today-style screen; a simple contacts listing; and the call log. The tabs are selected by pressing the five-way navigation control right or left.
Together with the physical application keys, you can now operate the handset exclusively from the Phone app. If you set your favourites early on, you'll probably never need to visit the Palm OS' standard app menu. All this makes the 680 easier and faster to use than its predecessor and more than a match for Windows Mobile's Today screen - even with the additions Palm itself made to the Microsoft UI in the 750v.
As before, the 680 ships with Palm's fine Blazer web browser and VersaMail email app. DataViz' Documents To Go 8 is included too, to allow Microsoft Office files to be viewed and edited, and PDFs to be read. Palm's own Camera and Pictures & Video apps are present and correct, and as tightly integrated as they were before. In short, the handset comes with a solid array of software tools, and there are plenty more out there to buy and download.
The 680 is unlocked, and inserting a given network's SIM card triggers the phone's automatic network set-up app, which pre-configures connections for your carrier. I used an O2 SIM, and once the handset was up and running, I was able to make GPRS connections without the need to key in access point details, passwords and so on. VersaMail is likewise pre-packed with data for a host of ISPs from around the world. It's smart enough to makes sure your outgoing emails are sent via your network's SMTP server rather than your ISP's.
You can use the 680 to connect your computer to the internet via Bluetooth and the cellular network, though you'll find is slow if you're used to a broadband connection or 3G. By the way, Mac users can find modem drivers here. The 680's Bluetooth connection can be used for headsets, but there's no support for wireless stereo as there is with the 750v.
Palm claims a battery life of six hours' talk time and up to 12.5 days on stand-by. With a mix of calling, GPRS web access, a little music playback and Bluetooth on I got just over a day's real-world usage out of the battery, which is disappointing - I'd expect to get a couple of days at least. With Bluetooth on, the battery's charge dropped from 26 per cent to four per cent overnight. Forget to charge your Treo and you run the risk of ending up with a brick in your pocket. So expect to charge your phone up every evening, or buy a cradle and keep the 680 charging when you're not out and about.
On the other hand, the price is impressive. Palm's asking £299 inc. VAT for the 680 - £100 less than the last few 650s cost. You'll have a hard job getting a QWERTY keyboard-equipped Windows Mobile phone for that kind of money, certainly not one that's not tethered to a specific network.
Still, if you already own a 650, the move to a 680 isn't a compelling upgrade. Yes, the 680 is better, but it's not as much a leap ahead as, say, the 750v is thanks to its 3G connectivity. But the 680 is a good handset for folk who want to move up from a Palm PDA and a separate phone, or from a standard phone to a smart device. Like all Treos, the 680 is one of the best attempts to fit a usable QWERTY keyboard and a big screen into the smallest possible handset. I'd much rather use a Treo than Nokia's E61, for instance. RIM's BlackBerry Pearl may be smaller, but you're forced to use the predictive text entry technology.
The Treo 680 is a step up on its predecessor, dropping the 650's antenna stub, improving its software and increasing its memory size. It's just a shame Palm couldn't squeeze rather more out of the handset's battery. But the 680 is competitively priced, and while it may not be a must-have upgrade for 650 owners, its keen price should win over more supporters to both the Treo family and the Palm OS. ®