Improving ever so slightly on the popular Palm Treo 650, the new Palm Treo 680 is a basic, easy-to-use smartphone.
The Palm OS is still the simplest thing around for calendar-and-contacts management, so this smartphone will attract folks skittish about combining their phones and PDAs.
More advanced users, however, will find that this handheld has a strong whiff of 2004 about it.
The Treo 680 comes in two varieties: a gray Cingular model, which sells for $199 with a contract; and an unlocked $399 model in white, red or copper colors, which works on Cingular and T-Mobile's GSM networks.
Slightly sleeker than the 650, the Palm 680 has no external antenna. The keypad uses the new Treo 700 layout, which makes the QWERTY keys square instead of rounded, squares the cursor pad and moves the menu button into the place of the lower right-hand shift key.
The full-size Secure Digital card slot has been moved from the top of the phone to the right-hand side.
Other than the "missing" antenna and somewhat lighter weight (5.6 ounces instead of 6.3), there's one other major advantage here: a delightful 66 MB of user-available memory, nearly triple what the sometimes-cramped Treo 650 had. This increased space lets you install plenty of Palm OS programs on this gadget without running out of RAM.
Otherwise, though, changes from the two-year-old Treo 650 platform are disappointingly minor; it's as if Palm declared its design and technology perfect a while ago.
You can now mute a call and send a text message at the same time (an innovation that started on the Treo 700w), and there's a new phone-dialer application that integrates the Favorites screen.
The excellent DocumentsToGo Microsoft Office-document reader has been bumped from version 7 to version 8 (although the latest version is 9) and the Blazer Web browser has been updated to the Verizon 4.5 found on the Treo 700 models.
The 680 performs almost exactly like the 650 on benchmark tests. That's probably because it uses the same 312-MHz Intel processor, the same sharp, bright 320-by-320 screen and the same quad-band EDGE modem, which gets download speeds averaging 116 Kbps.
The Bluetooth chipset has been upgraded from version 1.1 to 1.2 — but the most recent version is 2.0.
The Palm OS continues to be extremely easy to use for basic functions. Navigating through your address list and calendar operating system still takes fewer taps and clicks than it does on most Windows Mobile phones, and the interface feels snappier than Windows Mobile.
But if you use more advanced features such as multimedia, the Palm OS and the EDGE network show their age.
The Treo 680 doesn't multitask, except with the PocketTunes MP3 player. The network stack sometimes times out and claims it has no connection.
Kinoma's new streaming video player performs very poorly, rebuffering every 30 seconds or more often on both audio and video tracks.
You can't even play music over wireless headsets. And no, you can't add a Wi-Fi card.
Palm says the Treo 680's voice and camera quality are better than the 650's. I didn't have a Cingular Treo 650 to test side by side, but I found reception to be about on a par with a Nokia E62 — that is, good.
Call quality was just average, with occasional heavy compression artifacts heard in transmissions. The speakerphone isn't loud enough for outdoor use, and it distorts at top volume.
Though the phone paired with Plantronics 655 and 590 headsets, you can't initiate voice dialing from a Bluetooth headset, though you can both send and receive files and use the Treo as a PC modem over Bluetooth.
Battery life, at 6 hours 15 minutes of talk time, is nothing terrific. (It's shorter than the Treo 650's, largely because the 680 only dims the 2.5-inch screen during calls, whereas the 650 turns its screen off entirely.)
In a world of one- and two-megapixel cameraphones, the handset's 0.3-megapixel VGA camera can't possibly impress. Low-light photos are more sensitive and less contrasty than on the 650, but also less sharp. Photos taken in regular light are a bit better balanced exposure-wise, but also a touch less sharp than on the 650.
Alas, compared with the competition, the Treo 680 looks fat, old and slow. The BlackBerry Pearl has a better camera and terrific e-mail software, and it's cute, though it's not as flexible as the 680. The Samsung BlackJack is thinner, too, with high-speed data and a better camera.
If the Treo 680 cost less than these alternatives, we could crown it the king of the entry-level smartphones. But you can get more for your $199-with-contract nowadays.
The Palm Treo 680 is the smartphone equivalent of a nice cup of chicken soup: well-known, basic, safe, nourishing. But there's no "wow" factor here; it isn't Southwestern chicken soup, nor was it made with free-range chickens.
The masses will find it helps them get organized, but for early adopters, there's just not enough spice here.
BOTTOM LINE: An incremental update to the Treo 650, the Treo 680 is still the easiest smartphone to use. It will appeal to new smartphone users but not to the tech-savvy.
PROS: More memory than Treo 650. Still very easy to use.
CONS: Lacks high-speed data, stereo Bluetooth, multitasking and other common modern features. Not a great speakerphone.
EDITOR RATING: Three out of five stars.
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