First look: Treo 680 is a solid, unspectacular update of an old favorite

The venerable Treo 650 is reborn as the Treo 680

While Palm Treo smart phones have been around for years, Palm's first fully functional Treo was, arguably, the Treo 650, which was faster and had a superior display than its predecessors. But time has caught up with the Treo 650 with its paltry 32MB of RAM.

Such shortcomings, plus rapidly falling prices for smart phones, explain the newly released Treo 680. The Treo 680, available in the U.S. from Cingular, both shores up some -- but not all -- of the 650's shortcomings and follows the trend toward lower-priced smart phones. It's $199 price (with a Cingular plan) is roughly what Treo 650s have been going for lately and is about $100 less than the more powerful Treo 700w or 700p models.

The Treo 680 looks like a slightly more svelte Treo 650 with its stub antenna removed. Unlike other Treos, the 680 has a totally internal antenna. It is also the first Treo to come in a choice of colors; you can choose among white, copper, red and gray.

Treo 680

Like the Treo 650, this update does not support Cingular's 3G HSDPA cellular data service. Rather, it only supports the much slower EDGE service.

With 64MB, the Treo 680 has twice the RAM of its predecessor. The added memory and the cosmetic changes are the primary differences between the Treo 680 and the 650.

Like the 650, the Treo 680 has an expansion slot, something that is becoming increasingly important as smart phone prices drop and consumers start buying the devices to play multimedia. To that end, it includes the Pocket Tunes application for playing MP3s. On the downside, the expansion slot is accessible by opening a flimsy and seemingly easily breakable flap.

The Treo 680 has the same 320-by-320 display of the Treo 650 and the same VGA-quality camera. It comes with the standard Palm applications, including an upgraded Blazer Web browser. Other bundled software includes Cingular's Xpress Mail service, which is more useful in corporate environments with server-based messaging than for the average consumer. Palm also slightly improved its ActiveSync capabilities, which sync with Microsoft Exchange Server.

In addition to the normal, largely unchanged Treo keyboard, you get a volume rocker on the left side and an assignable button. There's also a speaker silence switch on the top.

Palm's only other significant change is not a positive one: With the Treo 680, Palm continues its trend of making it harder to reset the device. On the Treo 700, for example, you must take the back cover off to get at the reset button. This characteristic is so annoying that it has spawned an active aftermarket business in covers with holes in them. The Treo 680 goes one step further: It has no reset button at all. To reset the phone, you must physically remove the battery.

Palm claims four hours of talk time on the phone, which is typical of the Treo line but is somewhat mediocre compared to Palm's competitors. Palm claims standby time is 300 hours but, as with most networked phones, that will go down quickly if your phone syncs a lot.

Interestingly, for an extra $200, you can purchase an unlocked version of the phone directly from Palm that you can use with any cellular operator that uses GSM-based technology. In the U.S., that includes not just Cingular but also T-Mobile, which isn't yet offering the Treo 680. However, virtually all European cellular operators and those in large swatches of the rest of the world use GSM-based systems.

The Treo 680 is hardly a quantum leap forward for Palm. But it does smooth out some of the shortcomings of an old favorite and fills out the Treo lineup so that making a decision about which Treo to buy is simple. If you want a Windows Mobile smart phone and aren't price sensitive, buy the 700w/wx. If you prefer the Palm OS, want the better camera and more memory, you'll want the 700p. These Treos are available from Sprint and Verizon Wireless. If you want to save some money and don't mind less power, buy the 680. Or you can pay the extra $200 and you can buy an unlocked Treo 680 that you can use around the world.

Opinions differ on the Treo 680. See what Mike Elgan has to say about it in our Cool Stuff 2006 Holiday Gift Guide.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to include the fact that the Treo 650 has an expansion slot, and that the Treo 680 does not support 3G.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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