First Look: A New Treo for the Masses

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Palm Treo 680
Photograph: Rob Cardin
With its distinctive candy-bar design and carefully crafted thumb keyboard, Palm's Treo has become an iconic PDA phone--but new models generally debut at prices only serious mobile professionals can easily stomach. The Treo 680 arrives with a lower price tag (especially if you buy the first carrier-subsidized model, from Cingular), a sportier and slightly svelter look, and features designed to attract a much wider audience. However, this successor to the aging Treo 650 also suffers from some drawbacks that seriously hobble the effort.

The first has to do with the pricing, and it's important enough to preface this review. Starting Friday, Cingular will sell you a Treo 680 for $300, but only if you commit to a two-year contract with a voice plan costing at least $40 a month. (It will cost $375 with a one-year contract.) You can bring the price of the device down to $200 through a mail-in rebate--but this also requires a two-year commitment to Cingular's all-you-can-eat PDA Connect data plan, which costs $40 a month. So to get the phone for $200, you must be prepared to shell out $80 a month for voice and data services.

Cingular's $20-a-month, all-you-can-eat MediaConnect data plan, which many people have been using with the Cingular Treo 650, will not be an option for 680 buyers. (Cingular says this plan was intended only for people whose smart phones don't have keyboards, and who are therefore likely to use a lot less data.)

If I'm going to pay more for data services, I'd want them to be faster than the dial-up-like EDGE service the Treo 680 supports. (At this writing Cingular has introduced only one PDA phone--the HTC-designed Cingular 8525--that supports its superfast, EvDO-competing HSDPA service.)

If you don't want to sign a contract (or are an existing Cingular customer and don't qualify for a phone-upgrade subsidy), the Treo 680 will cost you $450. In that case, you might want to consider getting an unlocked version of the quad-band GSM phone from Palm, which says that the units will go on sale on Palm's Web site and in retail stores for $400 starting December 1 (you can preorder one now on Palm's site).

A New Look

Announced six weeks ago, the 680 looks jazzier than its predecessors, in large part because it lacks the antenna stub found on all other models. The unlocked version will be available in four different colors: arctic (a sort of pale silvery grey), copper (orange), graphite (a darker grey similar to the color of the Cingular 650), and crimson (red). Cingular, disappointingly, is selling only the graphite model.

Some subtle sculpting on the case has made for a softer, less boxy look and a nicer feel in the hand. Palm has also tweaked the keyboard, making the keys slightly larger and flatter; though the change isn't the dramatic improvement that the 650's keyboard represented over the 600's, it does seem for the better.

But while the 680 is lighter than the 650 (5.5 ounces versus 6.3 ounces) and a tad thinner (0.8 inch versus 0.9 inch), it doesn't really feel like it's a whole lot lighter and thinner. And whatever progress Palm has made in slimming down the Treo is dwarfed by the skinny profiles of recent competitors such as the Nokia E62 and T-Mobile Dash.

The button layout on the 680 is similar to that of the 700p. A red power/hang-up button and a green send button flank a five-way navigation button. Surrounding it are phone and calendar buttons on the left and messaging and applications buttons (the latter bringing up the familiar icon-based Palm apps menu) on the right. Like other models, the 680 has a volume button and a customizable side button on the left; on the right, though, the 680 introduces a covered SD Card slot (previously located on the top, alongside the ringer on/off switch that hasn't moved). The Palm's SD support is limited to 2GB; you can't use some of the newer 4GB SD cards.

Speaking of storage, Palm has apparently learned its lesson following the fiasco surrounding the 650's launch with scarce and inefficient memory: The 680 has 64MB of user-available memory for storage of applications, and 64MB of SDRAM for executables (compared, respectively, with 24MB and 32MB on the 650).

Interface Changes

When you power up the Treo, you see the first visible indication that the Palm operating system has a new corporate owner: After the round orange Palm logo, a blue Access logo appears.

Next up, on the Cingular model, is the default phone screen with the default Cingular logo as its wallpaper. The bottom of the interface, however, has changed: Instead of four rectangular buttons with text that send you to your contacts, call log, voice mail, and the like, you see tabs with simple icons. I found the icons a bit cryptic at first, but I quickly adapted to not having the text cues.

Some go to the same places as the old buttons--tapping the human figure brings up contacts, tapping the list icon shows call logs, and tapping the phone keypad brings up--surprise!--the soft phone keypad. A new star icon brings up a useful, customizable list of Favorite buttons that can launch an application, send an e-mail or text message, initiate a call to a specific number, browse a specific Web page, or even show how much you owe on your Cingular bill or how many minutes you've used out of your monthly plan allocation.

And I really liked the 'Ignore with Text' phone feature introduced with the Treo 700 models: You can opt to answer an incoming call with a text message, which can be very useful if you're not able to talk but would like to give the caller something more personal than your standard voice-mail greeting.

Like previous Treos, the 680 is more usable as a phone than many other PDA hybrids. It's reasonably comfortable to hold to the ear, in part because it's not as wide as many competitors (2.3 inches, compared with, for example, the 2.8-inch width of the Nokia E62). I found the voice quality decent, and the volume seemed somewhat better than the 650's. The integration with Palm contacts remains a strong feature; the five-way navigation button lets you easily initiate calls with one hand, whether you're working from an address book entry or the call logs. (We have not yet lab-tested the Treo 680's talk-time battery life; check back for a full review.)

People who send a lot of text messages will appreciate Palm's threaded chat application for this sort of communication, which displays exchanges much the way they would look in an instant messaging application.

Software Goodies

The 680 comes with a robust bundle of software, some items preinstalled and some available on the Palm desktop setup CD. Cingular's included Xpress mail application makes getting just about any standard corporate e-mail on a Treo easy: Using a desktop redirector, I was even able to get my Lotus Notes mail and calendar on the 680. For standard POP3 and IMAP e-mail, you can use the included VersaMail client. The Treo also comes with support for GoodLink mail servers (Cingular has special rate plans for these users).

For productivity, you receive the Microsoft Office-compatible DataViz Docs to Go 8.0; for multimedia, you have the basic version of NormSoft's Pocket Tunes, a much nicer app than the Palm version of Real's player. Pocket Tunes plays MP3s and lets you create playlists; however, to play WMA files or music from online stores, or to stream Internet audio and enable crossfade (overlapping the end of one tune on a playlist and the beginning of the next), you must upgrade to the deluxe version. The speaker on the 680 seemed nicer than the 650's, and the audio quality sounded superior.

Also preinstalled is Google Maps, an invaluable aid for travelers who don't want to spring for a GPS kit or TeleNav service. Another freebie, but one you'll have to install from the CD that comes with the device, is the original version of the hit game Bejeweled (a great little waiting-room diversion).

A Plus You May Never Need

Palm has made some improvements that relate to customer service and tech support. The 680 itself has fairly robust built-in help, which you access by tapping the oddly named My Treo icon on the applications menu.

Perhaps more important, Palm technicians will handle the first 90 days of tech support for Cingular customers who buy a 680. This may not sound significant, but if you've ever gone through the frustrating experience of talking to a carrier tech support rep who has little or no familiarity with the device you're troubleshooting, you may well appreciate having immediate access to someone who is expected to know only the hardware you have.

Overall, the 680 makes for a decent entry-level Treo that improves on the 650 in lots of small ways and a few big ones (additional storage and the 'Ignore with Text' option, for example). People who've been holding off on trading in an older phone and a Palm for a single device will want to check it out.

But people who don't have an overriding interest in sticking with the Palm OS have a lot of other options these days; for example, Palm will probably have to make the Treo a lot skinnier to compete successfully down the line. And for the new users Cingular and Palm hope to attract to PDA phones, $40 a month for unlimited data on Cingular's somewhat poky EDGE network will fatten their monthly service bill so much they may conclude that the Treo 680's low after-rebate price wasn't much of a deal after all.

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