Treo 680 First Looks All Over Again

I think that I've been lucky with all of the phones that I've reviewed in the Smartphone Round Robin. I think there's a proper order. I began with the device furthest away in mentality to the iPhone, the BlackBerry Curve, and it was a fine device. I missed having a touchscreen, but it was a good device. Then, I got to use the Tilt for a week, and that was actually another good device -- very powerful with its touchscreen, and it has a form factor at least in parts reminiscent of the iPhone, though maybe without some of its ease of use. And last, I get to review the Treo, which is in many ways the closest of all of the phones we'll review to the iPhone. Did you know that iPhone owners were 7 times more likely to have used a Treo (or Sidekick) than any other phone?

I reviewed the Treo 680 before as a writer for TreoCentral, and as far as I know, it's in the top five of the TreoCentral page views to this day. I reviewed the 680 (Graphite) and then promptly went out and bought one (orange). I then handed off the trusty 650 to my wife, and that was the way things were until I bought an iPhone. Some crafty thief broke into her car to get her 650, and I then handed my trusty orange 680 off to my wife and focused on the iPhone and our site for it, phonedifferent.com. I didn't intend to look back, but that's more or less what I've been doing for the past few days with the Treo 680: reminiscing.

I say reminiscing because the Palm OS look and feel hasn't really substantially changed in quite some time. It still looks and behaves more or less the same as it did when I got my first Palm, the Palm III. Now it has colors, of course, and it's a phone too (and a pretty handy one at that), it can browse the web, play media, sync with a computer, all sorts of stuff. I don't lose all of my data when the battery runs out anymore. The screen is a generous 320x320; considering the phone has been out for a year, it's still ahead of most of the rest. The icons, though unified in appearance, are different enough to easily differentiate. It's a testament to how well PalmOS was designed that it is not just sold, but that it's still relevant. When Palm messes up, you still hear about it. People still look to Palm as a smartphone savior, they still want Palm to succeed. If they didn't, we wouldn't get the occasional blog rant from wherever on the internet about how Palm is mussing up and Palm should do this and Palm should do that (think Engadget).

But that's not really the point of this review. My job is to review the 680 and to give it some first looks again, like I did almost exactly a year ago. I re-read my review, and I don't feel it was as good as it should have been. I talked about specs and what's included and how does this match up and how does that match up, to be sure, but the review seems incomplete: it was a review aimed at anyone that had already been using a Palm OS Treo and was technically proficient with a Palm OS Treo. I should have broadened the scope of my review to be sure. Part of that was a time constraint; Palm moved the release date forward a bunch of days and we decided to rush to get it done in time to publish. This review will hopefully not make those same mistakes.

First Looks, um, Second Looks

Palm OS is admirable in that Palm has consistently tried to make things easy and consistent for the person using it. Palm thinks of everything on the main "home" screen as an application, including the phone app. The home screen is the application launcher. Palm OS was initially built to do some very simple things: take care of To-Do lists, calendars, memos, and manage contacts. Everything else has been bolted on over the years.


the app "home" screen from the Centro is more or less the same as the 680


the app "home" screen from the iPhone

The application names and icons tend to give a good idea of what each application does, as opposed to function as branding. With the exception of HotSync and some of the branded apps like GetGood, XPressMail, and My Treo (which should probably have been called 'Help'), everything is straightforward. Not all of the apps are totally user-friendly in that a lot of not-always-useful stuff is loaded on the starting screen. I know for a fact that my wife has never used the Card Info app, or Security, or Sim Srvcs, or SIM Book, or Wired Car Kit, or what have you. I almost would prefer for Palm to hide some of the branded and advanced apps a bit more behind the scenes. Maybe there could be an advanced app that would hide them. Maybe Palm could make a seciton in 'Prefs' that would hide or unhide those apps. Maybe 'Quick Tour' could hide itself after you ran it for the first time. Or perhaps Palm could incorporate the notion of folders into their launcher program. For their talk of 'expanding the smartphone market' to featurephone users, there are still myriad options on Palm OS. I bet they could put the Wired Car Kit options into the 'Prefs' app if they really wanted. My favorite personal solution for the extra cruft here is 'Invisible.prc,' which uses Palm OS' own mechanism for hiding files from the Launcher.

But herein lies the rub: Palm OS is dying, seemingly not especially enamored by Palm themselves (but more on that later). Palm will probably never make those changes -- For all we know, the 680 represented the last great push of features into Palm OS. It got an updated version of Blazer, a new phone app, and the return of the voice memo app. Palm recently released an update to the 680, but only for Cingular AT&T customers, which means that they probably only released the patch because AT&T made them do it talked them into it.


the 5-tab 680 phone app

I was always fond of the 680's phone app, it represented one concept that I liked about Windows Mobile: the 'today' screen. It also brought wallpaper to Palm OS. Some liked the new phone app, some didn't, some thought the old method of lists on the phone app were better, etc. Palm claimed that the phone app may or may not have been tied to the GSM chipset and therefore we wouldn't ever see it on CDMA phones like the Centro, which I think is unfortunate -- it's a good update to their other phone app, which is a few years old now. It makes things more friendly. It's the right thing to do.


oh hey, the iPhone has a 5-tab phone app too

The Future of Palm OS

Palm will not invest any more time or money in Palm OS than they absolutely have to. And from the looks of things, they don't intend to invest any time or money into Palm OS. Palm OS is like Latin, except that it's not dead. Palm is going to make a Linux smartphone, and that's their software future. They haven't announced any plans to ship a linux phone with Android, they aren't likely to ever ship a linux phone based off the Access Linux Project, they are shipping THEIR OWN LINUX PHONE. They have a plan for the future, and it will probably be revealed to us in trickles along the next two years when they finally finish their new Linux Palm OS.

I really look forward to this, the OS that they created for PDAs was brilliant and ahead of its time. I love my iPhone. If you want it, you're welcome to pry it from my cold dead hands. That said, I'm really interested to see what Palm releases, as they have a significant opportunity in the present to start from scratch, unlike *all* of their competitors. With their other competitors, it seems that the die has been cast. If you listen to the TreoCentral TreoCast starring myself and Dieter, you've heard me voice this sentiment before. The Palm of now is the Apple of 1996 -- in the dumps with a faltering stock price with much of their product lineup fading into irrelevance, but newly reinvigorated by an influx of cash and management talent.

And so in the meantime, Palm OS is what we're left with.

Though They're Done With It, They Didn't Finish It

In a lot of ways, there's a bunch of stuff that Palm OS just doesn't do. Extended profiles, for example: Palm ships with two, and you switch between them with the vibrate switch up at the top. You can totally do custom ringtones, all you have to do is 1) find a decent MIDI file site or 2) convert your MP3s or WAVs to AMR files, further convert them to a .pdb file, and presto! You're done. Easy as pie, right? Everyone followed along there? Good! Now, we'll put some MP3s on your device to play with pTunes. First, copy the MP3 files you want on your SD card to /some/convoluted/path. If your software doesn't support copying playlists to arbitrary directories, you'll want to copy each song manually. This will be a bummer if you use iTunes with all of its nested directories. What's that? Most of you do use iTunes? Well, that's okay. You just spend as much time on this step as you want.


wi-fi was possible on the 650 by a valiant effort from Enfora, but not pretty. No one came forward for such a beast on the 680.

And if you want wi-fi, you're pretty much out of luck. When Palm added the code for multiple radios (bluetooth and cell radio), they did it in a way that it wouldn't be easy to put in a 3rd radio. Sure, Palm OS will do wi-fi, but it won't do it in conjunction with a cell radio. Enfora figured out how to add wi-fi with a sled, but it's a pretty sub-par solution compared to the SD card wi-fi bits you can get for Windows Mobile. That's too bad -- wi-fi on a cell phone at home changed my life. Every time I look at my cell phone, I think that someday I'll be making VOIP calls on my iPhone over wi-fi at home instead of dealing with my crummy cellular signal.

I'm being snarky here, but you get the idea: Palm effectively stopped development on PalmOS about a year ago, maybe more. As other smartphones and featurephones become more advanced, Palm OS abides. Slowly becoming irrelevant feature-wise. The checklist of powerful features that PalmOS once dominated has grown, and with each passing day, other smartphones add features that the current version of Palm OS (Garnet) will never see.

You Can Do Anything Except Multi-Task

Palm OS is a single-tasking operating system for most things -- you can listen to music in the background, but you can't download something while you watch a video or have multiple tabs or anything like that. The flip side to this is that everything you do (minus viewing the web) is pretty snappy.

The Treo's web browser, aka the itty-bitty kinda-sorta internet

The 680 is a lot like Windows Mobile, in that it has a bunch of programs available that you can install to do just about anything. There are some excellent media add-ons available with Palm OS, and if you have one of the Treos with 3G, there's a Sling player available for Slingboxes; there's the excellent Kinoma directory for plenty of content available for watching on Treos, it's a very video friendly device. You can install J2ME and use Opera; you can buy PocketTunes deluxe to get iTunes syncing (minus DRM protected AAC files bought from iTunes).

One of the unfortunate things about the 3rd party support for Treos is that some developers have left the fold. Since Treos don't grow at nearly the rate of other smartphones, some folks consider it "dead." For some reason, this also includes Palm -- we once interviewed the CEO of Opera and asked him why they didn't make a Palm native version of Opera, and he told us Palm told him not to bother, since their new OS would be coming. That was probably a few years ago. And though some of the heavy-hitting search apps do make their way to Palm OS, some of them don't. Some of the third party apps that I used to love using are gone -- my favorite alarm clock hasn't seen an update in quite some time; some of the apps that I used in earlier years aren't even available to download anymore. Some of that can be attributed to the length of time Palms have been available, but not all -- for a number of reasons, Palm just didn't capitalize on the success of their PDAs when it comes to smartphones.

But even though these developers have left the fold, that doesn't mean that there's not a bunch of fun tweaking to be had. If there's something that bugs you about Palm OS and you're technically inclined, it's possible to burn your own firmware if you like. There are many, many possibilities available on Palm OS. As is usual with all smartphones except for the one I've been using for the past few months, there's 3rd party software to take care of any shortcomings. I don't know what's popular for ringtones, and I don't know what people use to manage ringing profiles, but the software is out there, and there's plenty of it.

In Hindsight, iPhone 0.5 Beta

Using a Treo is a lot like using an iPhone, though. It looks to me like Apple borrowed pretty liberally from Palm OS, which was probably a smart idea since Palm OS is very usable, very easy to grasp, and still pretty easy on the eyes. I'm still surprised at how good it looks. Surely there are nits: there's no font smoothing out of the box, the browser is ancient, and the icons are somewhat blocky by modern standards. Minus the phone app home screen that the 680 Treo has, the iPhone seems almost a hit-for-hit evolution of the fundamental principles of Palm OS. For example, settings for most things are hidden within the Prefs app on Palm OS. On the iPhone, they're hidden within the 'Settings' app, though the iPhone does a better job of stowing everything inside of their respective settings app than Palm OS. It could be said that the iPhone is the logical conclusion of Palm OS, minus a few key omissions.

I think this is the main reason that Palm OS users tend to flock to the iPhone -- the iPhone gave all of those Palm OS users the upgrade path they've been looking for. A lot of people didn't upgrade their 650s when the 680 came out, since the 680 wasn't a compelling upgrade in all cases. I think those same users flocked to the iPhone at 7x the rate of other phone owners. They might return to Palm OS once Palm's Linux OS comes out. Heck, I might go back once Palm's Linux OS comes out.

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There are 22 comments. Add yours.

tftp says:

One thing I've never understood is why people consider the Treo 680 "inferior" to other Treos, i.e. 700p, 755.
[LIST]
[*] The user accessible memory is the same (about 64 MB), but what is that extra 64 MB of non-accessible memory used for?
[*] The CPU clock speed is the same (312 MHz), but what are the real differences amongst the series of XScale chips (PXA270 vs 271 vs 272)?
[*] EDGE vs EVDO is something else that is mentioned, but if you are on T-Mobile that point is irrelevant
[*] Battery life is an issue with the 680, I accept that (and feel the pain every day)
[/LIST]
Can somebody clearly explain what these differences really mean and why the 680 is a lesser Treo than the 755 (ignoring EVDO vs EDGE)?

Geo-Treo says:

One thing I've never understood is why people consider the Treo 680 "inferior" to other Treos, i.e. 700p, 755.
The real question is what makes any of these phones better than the Centro?

Geo-Treo says:

Mike's observation on the similarities between the Treo and iPhone are interesting. And I'm just as he describes: a Treo 650 user who has seen no compelling reason to upgrade in the Treo line and is just waiting for the next version of the iTreo, err, I mean iPhone.
What I don't understand is the comment about the cluttered home screen. I just make up categories for frequently used apps (main, utilities, games, etc.) and go to that screen if I don't already have a button assigned. This was one of the first things I did when getting the phone.

janric says:

Great article Mike !
I think a lot of former Treo users (like myself) migrated to the iPhone because, the OS X for the iphone is what Palm OS II should have been now.
I am excited about Palm OS II, but given the mobile OS space is getting a little bit crowded, I'm not too sure on Palm's OS future. I am seeing another deja vu of PalmSource happening again. Remember the time that they also stopped support for Garnet to focus on Palm OS on linux (now ALP)? After that, they just ran out of cash and got bought out.
The new elevation deal seems that Palm received an influx of cash, but take note that they also borrowed a lot of money to pay the shareholders. I do hope Mr. Rubinstein has a trick up his sleeve. :)

gadgetluva says:

Seriously just waiting for the Linux Palm OS. I'll probably have another 3-4 phones before we see it though...

roams11 says:

Mike makes some great observations in this article- it's a good read.
Also, the comparison screen shots of similarities between the iPhone and the Treo are revealing. It's a forceful, logical article.

Cascade says:

Another great article, Mike! Great insights, and good stuff to think about. It sure seems like the Palm community is just trying to figure out what to do in the "interim" time, doesn't it? Lots have bailed to the iPhone. Lots have bailed to WM (me included ... maybe). It'll be interesting to see if they'll come back in a year or two or three whenever the new stuff emerges. Palm's fate probably depends on that.

jbonnot03 says:

Great article. I like many others like the comparisons with the Iphone. Keep up the good work.

nitido357 says:

thanks for the article Mike...
I disagree with most of the things you say about the Palm OS needing more tweaking. I think that devices such as the Blackberry and Iphone have raised the standards on their respective strong suits (Email and Media) that in that respect they have dwarfed the Palm OS' ease of use in everything.
A device has to fit your lifestyle.
Iphone's are for people who have the time to enjoy the multimedia capabilities.
Crackberries are for people who need their email fast and with very little troubleshooting and need to communicate with other crackberry addicts.
For those of us in between, there are Treo's.
If I had time to watch a video through a tiny screen, I would probably be with the evil orange and blue and own a Stevephone.
If I checked 500+ emails a day such as some of you and all my friends (who I actually communicate with daily) owned a crackberry, I'd probably have a crackberry.
I still think that a Treo is a more complete device than all of its competitors. They just don't have the cold-hard cash and name recognition that the Blackberry and Iphone enjoy.
and for the record...as far as Operating Systems go...nowadays they take a while to get released...think about the gap between Windows XP (rel. 2001) and Windows Vista (rel. 2006-2007) Palm could have gone out half-cocked and released what they have now, full of bugs (and we know the current Garnet has got many already) and end up just like Microsoft ended up with three OS within three years, ME, 2000 and XP.
As buggy as Garnet is, I prefer a devil I know.

Antoine of MMM says:

Mike, aside from asthetic aspects, and the wifi that you mentioned, were there any other areas on the 680 that you just found wanting compared to you iPhone? It seems like they are pretty much similar for you, hence my question.

Bla1ze says:

While I'm not really a fan of Palm devices, I am a fan of Linux, I'm waiting patiently to see the mobile version that Palm comes up with at this point, it's been a long time coming...so it better be good lol...I expect it to be better then Mokka.

roams11 says:

One thing I've never understood is why people consider the Treo 680 "inferior" to other Treos, i.e. 700p, 755.
Can somebody clearly explain what these differences really mean and why the 680 is a lesser Treo than the 755 (ignoring EVDO vs EDGE)?
Not sure if I will clearly explain, since as you mention, much of the hardware is essentially equal. The differences in hardware are a more powerful original battery, a better camera (.3 vs 1.3), and mini SD slot. But there is more than just hardware.
Key in comparison is the connection of EvDO being about 6 times faster than Edge- not a factor for you, but huge if you are comparing devices and want to stream music and make use of all the software.The hardware differences there are tilt toward the 755p, but probably not so drastically that it would be worth the cost when you already own a 680.
Also important is included software. The 755p offers more, meaning you have to purchase less from third parties...off the top of my head, it includes a later version of p-tunes for streaming, docs to go 10, plus a free instant messaging program for YIM AIM and MS. It also addressed quality issues regarding memory lag.
The differences are clearly incremental. With the exception of EvDO and the camera, everything (including battery life) can be equal or better on the 680 with third party applications. It's a small evolutionary gap to the newer 755p making it incrementally better than the 680...not so important when considering you can get the 680 for free with a contract right now.
If it could've been managed, the 755p (or Centro) was better suited for comparison in the Round Robin because of the speed advantage, and less necessity to tweak for optimum use, but that's just my feeling.

Bla1ze says:

Oh man, I was just looking at the Nokia N810 which runs on Linux as well, now if PalmOS looks half as good as this when they launch it, Palm may win back alot of people...sorry I know this directly does not pertain to the article but..it may be giving us a heads up on what to expect from Palm in the future...Have a look here

Geo-Treo says:

I still think that a Treo is a more complete device than all of its competitors. They just don't have the cold-hard cash and name recognition that the Blackberry and Iphone enjoy.
The Treo sure doesn't seem complete sometimes with its lack of GPS and wi-fi among other things. I look at it as a versatile platform beyond its prime. We mostly get by well enough with the Treo but can't help but watch the new kids on the block strut their stuff.
As buggy as Garnet is, I prefer a devil I know.
Familiarity is what it boils down to. The Palm OS is comfortable and it still works well enough for most uses. In another year it will be that much farther behind, though.

dairyfree says:

Didn't Palm originate at Apple? Did it not succeed the Newton? If so, it seems that a lot of the same goals and strategies are at work at Apple today as they were back when they came up with the palm pilot in the first place.

Geo-Treo says:

Didn't Palm originate at Apple? Did it not succeed the Newton? If so, it seems that a lot of the same goals and strategies are at work at Apple today as they were back when they came up with the palm pilot in the first place.
Ha! The Newton (1993-1998) was interesting page in Apple's history but I don't believe there was any connection with the PalmPilot (1996+) other than that one Palm founder was coincidentally an employee of Apple in the 1980's. The Newton was a PDA before that term existed. I remember handling one the year they came out and thinking it was pretty neat but rather large and awfully expensive.
Palm took the basic idea of the Newton and other early PDA attempts and greatly improved the concept with the PalmPilot. Over a decade later the heritage of today's Palm OS is clear and undoubtedly a reason some of us treat the Treo like an old friend even though it disappoints in some ways. Even brand new devices like the iPhone can't help but have some similarities to the original Palm.
It's interesting that handwriting recognition which was the basis of the Pilot (and the Newton before it) has never really caught on, so now we deal with laughably small physical keyboards or "soft" keyboards.

roams11 says:

Ha! The Newton (1993-1998) was interesting page in Apple's history but I don't believe there was any connection with the PalmPilot (1996+) other than that one Palm founder was coincidentally an employee of Apple in the 1980's. The Newton was a PDA before that term existed. I remember handling one the year they came out and thinking it was pretty neat but rather large and awfully expensive.
...
It's interesting that handwriting recognition which was the basis of the Pilot (and the Newton before it) has never really caught on, so now we deal with laughably small physical keyboards or "soft" keyboards.
Yes, Palm was a Silicone Valley startup with very little capital and no connection to Apple. A good read on the history of Palm from a few yrs ago is Piloting Palm, worth the time to read if interested in the period.
The marketplace pretty much demanded the keyboard as it is quicker and more accurate for most people. You can still get versions of Graffiti on todays phones through places like inkmarksoftware, but no one is demanding it still be bundled; kind of sad in a way.
I envision a truly next generation Treo losing its edges, moving the home buttons off to the sides and expanding to a 480x320 screen while keeping a keyboard.

Cascade says:

I envision a truly next generation Treo ...expanding to a 480x320 screen while keeping a keyboard.
I'll be first in line for that one! We can only dream............

roams11 says:

I'll be first in line for that one! We can only dream............
LoL- yes, dream and pray for no more Palm vaporware!

sbono13 says:

Nice observations. My feeling, as a longtime Treo user (600/650) who has been on a Sprint Q for a year, is that both Palm OS and WinMob Smartphone are easy-to-use, and do everything that I need, but the iPhone is not only easy-to-use, but also fun-to-use. Palm OS is even more utilitarian than WinMob, IMO, and is in dreadful need of some eye-candy.

roams11 says:

Palm OS is even more utilitarian than WinMob, IMO, and is in dreadful need of some eye-candy.
It's been said previously here that in order to make the Palm appealing a third party launcher and phone shell are needed...unfortunate that Palm didnt spend a bit of time on the visual appeal issue lately.
I guess energies are being spent elsewhere at Palm - the next couple of new Palms are reportedly going to be winmob devices but lets hope they give us an idea of where the hardware end of things is going.
Random thought here...I don't know if it's been integrated into a phone yet, but wouldn't it be cool for Palm to introduce something similar to Sandisk's new Take TV into their next gen phones.