I have had the Palm Treo 680 for some time now. And while my initial impressions were positive and reserved, I can honestly say that after longer use I am still very impressed with this smartphone as a package, but not necessarily because of some of its parts. There are some performance and battery issues, but largely this is an excellent, low-priced smartphone.
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Compared to other models in this price range, the 680 doesn’t have the slim design or all the same features of features, but it just seems to put a smile on your face. For that reason, I have had the hardest time giving it back to Palm. This Treo isn’t the best, but it does define a lot of why Palm and the Palm OS work well together.
Design and Construction
The Treo 680 (and it companion model the Treo 750) mark the first major design changes for the Treo series of smartphones since the introduction of the Treo 600. While the most notable change has been the removal of the antenna, numerous other design tweaks have been made to the Treo design to make what has long been regarded as an impressive form factor for a smartphone even better for prolonged use.
The top of the 680 still has the familiar on/off switch and Infrared port. Nothing else.
The left side has toggle buttons similar to the Treo 700 series. The buttons while having good feel, are harder to discern which is up, down, or third button. By default the third button is set to Voice Recorder.
The bottom of the 680 has the familiar Palm multi-connector. Unfortunately, I do not have cradles and other accessories to test whether the 680 sits in them as the 650 and 700p do.
Also on the bottom is the 2.5mm headphone jack. While the included two-ear headset is mono, the port offers the ability to listen to stereo sound.
The right side of this Treo is quite flush despite having a covered slot for the SD card. I am of the opinion that if you switch cards often that you will not like that the slot is covered, and with a somewhat flimsy cover. At the same time I say that, I never had an issue before of an SD card popping out on me.
The 680 is supposed to support up to 2 GB SD cards; however, some 4 GB cards do work, but not if they are labeled SDHC.
The back of this smartphone has been pleasantly redesigned. The battery cover, while easy to take off, does not come off accidentally.
The speaker cut-out is larger. Sounds from the speaker are fuller sounding but not as loud sounding as on my Treo 650. Apparently the highs were taken out for a fuller sound that works better in more environments.
Not everything is better. The camera (VGA, 640-by-480-pixels or 0.3 megapixel) is located too low on the 680. Many times I found my finger covering the camera lens.
At the top of the rear is the stylus silo and the faux look-alike rubber thingy (sorry, no real name for it). I honestly had so little time with the stylus I wonder if it’s really needed any more on this device. Still, I found the stylus to be a touch too thin yet nicely weighted (for a mostly plastic stylus). It had some give to it, leaving me with the impression that it would bend and break, but it was just the soft touch coating of the stylus.
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Compared to the Treo 650, the 680 is a little bit wider, shorter, and a bit less plump. Like the 650, though, it is weighted well and sits in the hand easily for long periods of time. My only caveat with the 680 design is that I feel that the keyboard is angled too much at a slope. If it were just a slight millimeter less, the keys would land on my thumbs much easier.
The front of this smartphone is dominated by the display, a 320-by-320-pixel, 16-bit, TFT touchscreen. The whites were excellent and there was much better color saturation with the 680 than on my older 650. It very much reminded me of the Palm Tungsten E2 in how well the screen’s colors displayed.
Below the screen are the green and red action buttons. The green button is used only in the phone application. It can initiate a call after the number has been dialed or bring up a quick dial list when on the main phone screen. The red button will hang up a call, as well as turn off the screen when pressed quickly; or when pressed and held, turn off the cellular radio (airplane mode).
In between those buttons is the 5-way nav button. This was my first major grip with the Treo 680. While it is larger and easier to feel out than the 650’s 5-way, it is much harder to press and angled such that it is a bit uncomfortable to hit the down button. Here is one area where the Treo 650 had a better piece of the pie.
The four application buttons house the phone, calendar, messages, and home buttons. Pressing and holding the blue option key while pressing these four application buttons will open secondary programs for the first three.
The home button has a nice feature where, if you click and hold it, you will bring up a list of the most recently used programs. It really makes for another reason not to touch the screen or use the stylus.
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My main gripe with these buttons. though, is that there isn’t enough separation between them. I can’t easily feel which button I am pressing. They are also more recessed than the 650’s application buttons, making it less intuitive of a click.
The keyboard, or thumbboard to be more specific, is much improved over the Treo 650’s. The keys have more space between them and are larger. They do not have the dimple on them that the 650’s keys had, but because the keys are larger, you can type and not make nearly as many mistakes.
As with previous Treos, clicking the option button will show you a secondary symbol, and double tapping the option key will put the Treo in number lock mode for that text field.
The ALT button is slightly different in that you get a list now of many more signs and symbols depending on which option-button combination that you have pressed. It’s more user friendly in the respect that you can find the symbol without having to remember on which letter/option-letter combination that each symbol sits on.
The change in moving the menu button to the bottom right of the keyboard reminded me of the Treo 600’s placement. I prefer the 650’s placement since I use shortcut keys quite often, but had no problem getting used to the menu button’s new home. I did miss the second shift button, as I used the right one a lot with my 650.
Overall, I found the design tweaks good, but lacking in some usability refinement. Although most will get used to things (I have), some of the issues noted here would make for a much improved Treo the next time around.
Though I have mentioned some of the hardware specifications of the Treo 680, I will list here the entire listing:
Palm OS 5.4.9
Intel PXA270 processor @ 312 MHz
Transflective 16-bit TFT touchscreen, 320×320 pixels
Quad-band (850/900/1800/1900) GSM cellular radio, CPRS class 10, EDGE
Bluetooth 1.2/infrared (IR)
64MB user accessible memory (128MB total)
VGA (.3mpx) camera (video capture at 320×240 pixels)
1200mAh lithium ion battery (removable)
SD/MMC/SDIO card slot (up to 2GB memory)
4.4in x 2.3in x .8in
In the box:
USB HotSync Cable
Getting Started Guide
Installation CD with full user guide, Palm Desktop, and 3rd party software
Processor and Operating System
The processor is the same one that is used in Palm’s earlier Treo 650 model. While this in some respects is a faux pas for Palm, I believe that the reason this was done was because the older processor costs less to include, thereby keeping the price of the device down. That being said, a later version of this processor would have been better, as it is more efficient all the way around.
The Palm OS has not changed much in the past three years. Garnet 5.4.9 is mostly a bug fix to address performance and other issues with Bluetooth and network performance.
Maybe it hasn’t moved as fast as it ought to, but I believe that the strength of Garnet is in its simplicity of just letting you do what you want to do. The basic personal information applications saw an update a few years ago, but still have not caught up to Microsoft Outlook yet. The fifteen category limit is a big deal breaker for many still, although third party solutions are available to help that issue.
What is a real hindrance is that Garnet is not able to give users 3G cellular-wireless connectivity. My conversations with developers have concluded with saying that the network libraries, which control how this version of the Palm OS handles network data, are not stout enough to handle the requirements of voice and data that 3G support would demand.
This is the major knock on the Palm OS, as neither Palm nor Access Systems (the company that bought PalmSource) has mentioned being able to remove this limitation.
This and the lack of any other major change in the operating system in ages mean that this Treo essentially plays from the back of the pack despite offering excellent usability.
Other Input Options
You can also use a Bluetooth or Infrared (IR) wireless keyboard to input data to the Treo 680. I found that the latest version of the Palm Keyboard driver for the Palm Universal Wireless keyboard was sufficient, but leaving the driver ‘on’ could be the cause of some random resets.
The Treo 680 has two means of communicating with other devices: a via a wired connected using the multi-connector at the bottom of the smartphone, or through a wireless connection, such as cellular or Bluetooth (Wi-Fi is not supported for the Treo 680).
Using the multi-connector is quite simple. You connect a cable or device to the port at the bottom of the device and you are ready to roll. Syncing with a computer is quite fast, even though it is only rated at USB 1.1.
The Infrared port is located at the top of the Treo 680, next to the ringer on/off switch. While not the fastest connection, I found it to be reliable in getting information to and from this smartphone to other devices. The Palm Universal Wireless keyboard also uses the IR port to connect to the Treo, and I noticed none of the skipping of key presses that would sometimes hamper my 650.
Bluetooth is the other wireless connectivity option that you have with the Treo 680. In this smartphone, Bluetooth is upgraded to version 1.2. This addresses issues with interference with other wireless devices and offers a clearer connection. I had no problems with syncing or connecting to other Bluetooth devices in my testing. However, I did notice that connecting to my computer seemed faster to occur than with the Treo 650.
The Bluetooth profiles supported by the 680 are File Transfer, Dial Up Networking, and Voice Gateway (headsets). File Transfer uses the common Bluetooth OBEX file transfer protocol. Dial-Up Networking (DUN) was a bit different, though. While I was easily able to find and pair the 680, I could not make a DUN connection when Bluetooth was turned on and the 680 was in its non-discoverable mode. I would have to change the mode to temporary (a welcome additional mode) or discoverable in order to have DUN working.
Cellular is the last and most common means of communication that the Treo 680 has. This is a GSM phone supporting the 850/900/1800/1900 frequency bands. Supporting all four of these makes this a world phone, and therefore capable of working on nearly any GSM phone network in the world.
On the data side of the cellular connection, EDGE class 10 is the supported mode. Using EDGE, I got anywhere from 60k to 140k — a bit better than a 56k dial up modem to much better than a dial up modem in the DC Metro area. In more rural areas, the connection was only slightly slower.
Overall, I found the various means of connectivity to be sufficient for most needs. Though having Wi-Fi would be great for those times when you don’t want to use a cellular connection, the speed and ease of the cellular connection was more than sufficient for light browsing and email.
Audio and Video
In speaking about the audio abilities of the Treo 680, I will talk about them in terms of voice/sound quality on phone calls, speakerphone quality, and music/voice recording quality.
One of Palm’s accompanying announcements with this smartphone was that it had improved the sound quality over previous Treos. I was skeptical, but after the first phone calls, and going back to the 650 to be sure for a few more calls, I am convinced that Palm did a great job in shoring up this area.
I had no issues hearing other people (unless I was in my car and the phone was right by the window grabbing wind noise), and people on the other end stated that I sounded clear and normal. I do feel though that the speaker volume could go up one more notch, though. Holding the Treo 680 to your ear in a place where there is a lot of background noise can drown out the 680 as it doesn’t seem to filter out the sounds.
The speakerphone was not very loud, but the voices on the other end came through a lot clearer than they do with the previous model. I was quite comfortable with going to the speaker phone when needing just a bit more volume than a non-speakerphone call, and found that people were louder without sounding garbled. The on-screen button to initiate or end a speakerphone call was also quite convenient and I was not as apt to hit it with my ear as I did with the larger screen speakerphone button on the 650.
For playing audio files (music, video, etc.) the speaker was once again just right for a personal radio. The headphone jack is the same 2.5 mm port found on previous Treos. I did not care for the included ear buds that came with this device, but the Sedio ones that I have been using with my 650 worked just fine and gave me nice stereo sound through various audio files that I played.
If you are wondering that you may need a program like Volume Care to improve aspects of volume and tone as you might have with the 650/700p, I would probably say that you don’t. But if you are in environments with a lot of background noise, purchasing a program like that would help temper the outside sounds.
The video side of things is handled by the 0.3 mega-pixel (640×480 pixels or VGA) still camera (320-by-240-pixel video) and Camera application. While the hardware is exactly the same as the Treo 650, the shutter speed is slightly faster, and pictures come out with better color saturation. The camera is probably in the worst possible position for taking pictures, though, as in my natural holding of the Treo I often notice that my finger is covering a part of all of the camera lens.
Once you have taken the photo, you can click the left-most "stack" icon and be taken to a revamped media application. This application, now called Pictures and Videos, acts as both a means to categorize the various photos and videos that you have taken, and also as a place that you can make slide shows and send pictures to others.
New features in the Pictures and Videos application include the ability to take a picture and be able to make a contact out of it (instead of having to create the contact and then take the picture for it) and to save a picture as a wallpaper for the Phone application.
Having now said all of the fun things like how the Treo 680 is to use, the question remains, how long can you expect to have use of all of these newer and enhanced features? Well, if you had a Treo 650, then you will be disappointed if you run your 680 hard. The 680 just cannot play hard all day. The battery and other hardware components are not up to it. If you are a more casual phone user, however, you will not at all be miffed at the battery life once you have broken it in.
The battery tests that I performed mimicked both my real life usage and a totally non-me usage scenario in order to both get an idea of how this smartphone works under controlled and non-controlled conditions.
My normal usage: syncing eight VersaMail email accounts from 8 am to 10 pm once per hour; two hours of PocketTunes; two hours of phone calls; ten text messages; Bluetooth on one hour of dial up networking
- Treo 650 at 60% @ 6 pm, 20% @ 10 pm
- Treo 680 30% @ 6 pm; low battery warning @ 8 pm
Modified scenario: syncing three VersaMail accounts from 8 am to 6 pm once per hour; two hours of PocketTunes; one hour of phone calls; ten text messages; no Bluetooth
- Treo 650 at 60% @ 6pm; 40% @ 10pm; 20% @ 8 am the next morning after the first emails came in
- Treo 680 at 35% @ 6pm; 15% @ 10pm with low battery warning not long after
Another usage test had me do my normal Sunday usage (which is much less than what I do during the week) and see how long the 680 would last. In this usage test, the 680 does work here and there, sits for a few hours, does a bit more, and then sits for a few more hours before getting any hard use. In this scenario, this device came off the charger at 7:30 am; email syncing took place from 8 am to -6 pm once per hour as the only initial setup. I then proceeded to read the Bible for 20 minutes. There was then two hours of no use (email was being collected in the background), checking and responding of email with a Palm Universal Wireless Keyboard for 30 minutes; then two hours of no use. At 5 pm I was greeted with a low battery message. When on the go as I was, this was not at all good.
Changing the above test to not syncing email gave me the low battery warning at 9 pm. Still not great.
With no VersaMail email syncing, two hours of PocketTunes; two hours of phone calls and ten text messages, this Treo gave me just under a working day (15 hrs) of use before the "low battery" message came on. This test was performed on two separate testing days to ensure that I was getting consistent results.
All in all, I expected about a third less of what I was getting with the Treo 650 because of the one-third drop in battery capacity. To a degree, I was about right. However, when the Treo 680 is pressed into duty, the battery drain is quite a bit faster and a spare battery or charger should not be far away from you.
It’s pretty clear that the 680’s the lower capacity battery does hamper its ability to be a hard working smartphone. My recommendation is that if you are going on a weekend trip, take a spare battery or a car/solar charger. You may not lose your information when the battery goes out, but you will not have the ability to make call either.
One really interesting note: I found myself using the Treo 680 to browse the Web a good deal more than the Treo 650, and with just doing this and the occasional email coming in, I got more than two hours of continuous use. Using the browser is a high drain item because the screen is going, the processor is continually rendering pages, and the cellular radio is continually grabbing data. My Treo 650 performed exactly the same. I therefore assume that there was something done to make the Blazer (Web) browser more efficient in processor use, but that might not have been extended to other software on the 680.
Late review note: comparing the phone firmware of the Cingular model that I received from Palm and some of the user models that are unlocked from Palm that were reported in the Brighthand forums, there was an update released for the phone firmware that does seem to show a different (slight in some cases, greater in others) rate of battery drain. I am therefore concluding that it will be very possible that a ROM update for the early Cingular batch of Treos will be able to address issues with battery drain. However, I cannot stress enough that the 680 is just not as stout on the battery life as the 650/700 because of the smaller battery pushing the same hardware. Third-party batteries are becoming available that will be able to help users who do need a battery to last more than a working day, and I recommend purchasing one, if not just a second battery that is the same as the stock one.
This section is broken into two parts: the built-in software and the additional software found on the accompanying software installation CD.
Phone Application: The Phone application is the cornerstone of the Treo, and from it you can do or view nearly anything of immediate importance. This application has been updated over the versions found in the Treo 650 and 700p models and features the dial pad, contacts, main screen, favorites, and call log as one application navigable by a thumb-sized tab interface.
Other key changes in the phone application include a single list view for the favorites screen compared to the two column view in previous Treos.
Although easy to use and get started, there can be some lag in getting into or out of the Phone application to/from other programs.
MyTreo: MyTreo is a built-in user manual and support center for your Treo. It is designed to be an online and offline resource of information on how to use your Treo and its various functions. Using the wireless ability of the Treo, this database of information can be updated ensuring that you have the latest device information for your smartphone.
One of the more interesting aspects of the MyTreo application is that it has more information in it than the included paper manual (for example, I found out how to hard reset the Treo 680 using MyTreo).
Calendar, Contacts, Memos, and Tasks: The main personal information management (PIM) applications appear on the Treo just as they have on every Palm OS PDA. Nothing has really changed with any of them except that Contacts is the same as the Phone contacts tab.
One change to the contacts application that I did notice is that you can now assigned a specific ringtone to a specific contact or to an entire category, which you could not do with the Treo 650.
Email and XpressMail (Cingular models): Email cam be handled though VersaMail (named Email) or Cingular’s Xpress Mail. Not much has changed with VersaMail outside of some fixes to supporting Microsoft Exchange. Much like the Treo 700p, you have the option of syncing Contacts, Calendar, and Email (or a combination of the three). With Email/VersaMail, you can sync to preconfigured POP email accounts (nearly any one that you can think of or have is listed in the setup wizard). Setup takes about 5 minutes and then you are off and rolling with getting your email on the go. XpressMail from Cingular requires that you install a program on your desktop and that program will push your email to your 680 when your desktop email client has received it. This requires for your computer to be on all the time, but is not much usable in a setting where you do not have a desktop that is also getting the email.
More about Exchange ActiveSync: While I found the setup to be just as easy to perform as it is for normal POP and IMAP email accounts, I did encounter some occasional sync hiccups where syncing was not completed or there was an error message. This only happened when I was in the setup process, and once I got through a complete sync, I was able to sync on the hour just fine.
The downside of syncing with VersaMail’s Exchange ActiveSync is that while you can set it up to sync each of the Contacts, Calendar, and Email applications (or a combination of the three); you must sync all three of them on the first sync, and then after that, only that item that you have chosen to sync will sync. If your plan is to use Exchange ActiveSync for work email/contacts/calendar, you will not want to put your personal information into your device as it will sync those as well.
Messaging: Messaging is the Palm application responsible for sending text (SMS) and multimedia (MMS) messages to other cell phones. Compared to the Treo 650, the initial interface is cleaned up some and more readable, thought the functionality is largely the same and kept simple and efficient. Videos within MMS messages are limited to 17seconds – long enough to say something but too short to have a lot of fun.
Pics & Video: covered in the section Audio and Video
pTunes (Pocket Tunes): The Treo 680 comes with version 3.09 of the Pocket Tunes audio player. Out of the box it is able to play MP3 and OGG audio format files; however, to play WMA you will need to purchase the deluxe version from the Pocket Tunes web site.
Sound quality is adjustable using the graphic equalizer and bass boost functions, but I found that they were not needed with most songs. The playlist functionality is excellent. Compared to the 700p, there is not a lag when running Pocket Tunes in the background while using other programs except with those programs that connect to the Internet such as Web and Email. For those programs, there is a slight pause when trying to download something large when the music is playing. This is noticeable, but not at all a deal breaker.
Voice Memo: Voice Memo is a simple program that allows you to make voice notes. The really cool thing about these notes is that after you make them, you can send them attached to an email or MMS message pretty easily.
Like many lower-cost voice recorders, this one works best when you talk normally and your mouth is not pressed against the microphone, however background noise will come in just as easily as your voice would. Voice Memos save to your internal memory and I saw nothing less than 99:59 as the amount of time that I could record.
Web: Web is the renamed Blazer web browser that has appeared in previous Treos. Compared to the version found in the Treo 650, this version adds a Fast Mode (ability to turn off the cascading style sheet and/or images to load pages faster), a much improved caching mode that saves pages that you previously visited until you empty the cache, and some rendering improvements that allows for pages to load a good deal faster than with the Blazer browser on the 650. Many times, I could have sworn that I was not on an EDGE connection with how fast pages were coming up.
Not everything was well with Blazer though. The improved caching mode had this annoying tendency to remember the page that I was viewing whenever I would log into the forum, but would not show me logged in. In some cases, I would have to refresh the browser screen in order to see that I was logged in.
Another issue that I get quite frequently is that sometimes when typing in an address, or going to a web page from another program, I would get the message that the page cannot be viewed. Then in going clicking "Go" again, it would go to the page just fine. This was most definitely not a network issue and something that has pretty much happened at least once a day with this smartphone. Other than those two items, it has been fast and solid.
Wired Car Kit: Earlier in the year, Palm announced support for the hands-free initiatives of California and other states. The Wired Car Kit helps it fulfill that aim but streamlining how the Treo 680 interacts with Palm’s Wired Car Kit hardware. This was not something that I was able to test, but it is refreshing to see that Palm does know that people do talk on the phone while driving and has provided a safe means to do so.
World Clock: This is the same world clock application featured on other Palm devices. There have been no changes.
Additional Software on the Installation CD
Documents to Go version 8 (document viewing and editing)
Handmark Pocket Express
Audible audio book reader software
Palm Files (file management application)
Apple Quick Time
Windows Media Player
Adobe Acrobat Reader
VoiceDialing (trail application that gives the Treo the ability to dial via voice tags)
and a link to other enterprise software.
Comments and Reflections
One of the first things that struck me about the Treo 680 was the design. It looks the same as the 650 and at the same time it is refined. I know that the goal was to make something that was recognizable as a Treo, but I believe that Palm could have taken things a bit further with more daring departure aspects such as the shape of the application buttons or a thinner and wider profile.
Having said that, I love holding the 680 in my hand, compared to the 650 that totally got pocket and case duty. It really does feel great in the hand for short and long stints. I even like putting it in my shirt pocket (and I really never did that before because I was afraid that the 650 would fall out because it was heavier).
I do not like that the battery life is short. I have narrowed the culprit down to the data connection being on constantly, but that seems like something that Palm should not have let come out the door unless it was fixed. I do understand that the carrier gets the ROM and has to do their own testing and approval, and sometimes fixes can come while that happens. But on Cingular and Palm’s part, the battery life is the only deal breaker.
The Treo 650 made friends and family look at me and just say "techie." They all see the 680 and like it. They see it as a different model than the 650, much more so than my Treo-tuned eyes. I also like how people on the train or at work see the 680 and recognize it as more than just a BlackBerry. I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but the DC area sure is getting the point that the 680 is a Treo and not a BlackBerry.
No major software glitches. The keyboard driver reared its head as a possible problem, but no other programs that I tried caused a problem.
Did I mention that I don’t want to give this back and go back to my 650? I like it as a upgrade. I don’t feel that it is a side-grade whatsoever. I wish 3G was on here, but get the battery issues solved first and then give me a real 3G running Palm OS Treo. That will certainly be the ultimate and (with the right software) most useful smartphone available.
Conclusion and Rating
As of this writing, my time with the 680 is all done. It is going in the box and back to Palm. However I have a different opinion of Palm than I did when I started this review. Palm played its hand just right with the 680. I do think that they might have tried very hard to get 3G on it (evidenced by the clearly faster than EDGE ever seemed Blazer).
The idea to more tightly integrate the Contacts and Phone applications was also a functional and slick idea from a usability standpoint. The Exchange integration with VersaMail is fine once you get it all synced up the first time all the way through, but is more than passable for what is needed on the go. And the additional software is hit and miss depending on what you need (and what is current – Documents to Go 9 and Bejeweled 2 would have been better since they have both been out for a while).
My only real sores come with Cingular’s side of things. Despite the really nice initial price of $175 with a two-year contract, you will be looking at a bill that starts at $80 per month before taxes. That is way too high for the market that Palm is going after, and I think that will be the one thing that keeps the 680 from being a runaway success. Cingular’s definition of what is a smartphone and what is a PDA phone is what comes into play here, but I think that Palm should have pushed a bit harder to get Cingular to classify the 680 as a smartphone (by Cingular’s standards) and thereby get in the $20 per month all you can eat Internet.
Despite that, I still recommend the 680 as a gift for the upwardly mobile in your household. The software and hardware (minus the issues with the battery) work very well together. And the learning curve of getting started is about as simple as pen and paper. You can ask my mom, whose first experience with my 680 was to check her Yahoo mail, and she did so relatively easily and with little help from me.
If you are a really heavy Treo 650 user, you will not like that battery life of the 680, and that is about all. Getting used to the button placement and application changes takes only a day or so. But that battery life is not something to get used to. You will want an extra battery and/or a higher capacity one.
Usability: 5 out of 5
Hardware: 3 out of 5
Software: 4 out of 5
Overall: 4 out of 5
It’s a Treo. And a really good one to start with.