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.
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.
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.