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Palm centro blackWhat’s Good: Full-featured, easy to use smartphone for entry-level price; Clear, bright, high-resolution touchscreen; Compact body with rounded edges; Zippy EV-DO data with access to Sprint TV service; A-GPS works with location-based services

What’s Not Good: QWERTY keys are small and cramped; Display is smallish (if still easy to read); Hardware and software design feels a bit dated; Noticeably thicker than comparable devices; No Music Store access (yet)

Bottom Line: Get Centro in your hands.  If you like the way it feels and if the buttons aren’t too small for you, you might have found yourself the best value currently going in a full-featured smartphone built for consumers.  Palm OS is not slick, but it works well and Sprint’s fast EV-DO data network and excellent music store add value to the device.  But the cramped buttons and small screen will be deal-breakers for some.

Specs:

  • Make/Model: Palm Centro (690)
  • Network: CDMA
  • Data: EV-DO
  • Carrier: Sprint (Locked); GSM version available from AT&T
  • Size: 107 x 54 x 18.5 mm
  • Weight: 119 g
  • Form Factor: Candybar
  • Display: 2.25” Color LCD, 320 x 320 resolution, 65,000 Colors
  • Memory:  64 MB built-in, microSD card slot
  • Notable Features: Palm OS Smartphone Platform; POP3, IMAP, and MS Exchange Email support (including MS Direct push); IM support for multiple procotols; Web browser; Sprint TV and Power Vision compatibility including laptop tethering; ocketTunes Deluxe music player software including Internet Radio support; Sirius Satellite Radio support



Introduction

Palm Centro redI remember when Treos were all the rage amongst executives and Email addicts before Email addictions were trendy.  A sales exec friend of mine got married a few years back and I’ll never forget the image of her pecking madly at her Treo an hour before the ceremony as bridesmaids tended to her non-Email needs.  The Treo line really ushered in the age of QWERTY smartphones that combined robust Email and organizer features with a form factor small enough to slip into a pocket.

Fast forward a few years and everyone’s obsessed with IMs and SMSs, and the line between “phone” and “smartphone” has been blurred considerably by a recent wave of consumer-friendly devices that pack Email clients, Web browsers, and personal information management apps into tiny little packages.  Phone geeks debate the true meaning of the term “smartphone” while consumers simply enjoy unprecedented choice and value when it comes to considering a handset that’s as much an extension of their computer as it is a telephone.

Palm’s new Centro is a device that harkens back to the Treo’s salad days while also making a play for consumers interested in smartphone features packaged in a sleek, attractive, and easy to use package.  More or less a Treo 755p in a smaller, more colorful package, Centro is available in both CDMA and GSM versions.  Sprint sent me their CDMA model - the 690 - for review.  Marketed heavily towards youth and women as a “social organizer” more than a business device, Centro offers nearly everything that’s good about Sprint at a remarkable $99 price point.  Centro’s tiny buttons and rather retro user interface may leave some would-be buyers in the cold, but it’s also a very easy to use device that does a good job of blurring that line between consumer phone and smartphone.


Design & Features

Palm Centro Palm Centro is little, fat, and cute all at once.  It’s more the size of a regular phone than a business-class smartphone like Sprint’s HTC Mogul, and is available in a nicely dressed down black, a flashier red, and a soft pink, each of which is accented by a gray stripe running across the front panel of the phone.  While Centro’s 18.5mm thick profile means it bulges in a front jeans pocket, it’s small enough to easily use in one hand - provided you don’t need the other hand to work the stylus.

Looking at the candybar-shaped Centro from the front, it somewhat resembles a shrunken BlackBerry with its full QWERTY keypad laid out beneath a display and navigational array.  Centro’s 2.25” LCD screen is a touchscreen, which really adds to the handset’s usability, and despite it’s small (for a smartphone) size, the display is crisp and easy to read.  Thank its surprisingly high resolution (320 x 320 with a high dots per inch count) for that.  I wasn’t crazy about the display being recessed-mounted, and I also didn’t particularly like the plasticky feel of the device as a whole, but neither were big sticking points for me.  Centro feels a little bit like a toy, I suppose, but I never feared  it was about to break under normal use.

While Centro’s touch display isn’t really finger-friendly, you’ll have no problems navigating screens and menus thanks to the included stylus and the navigational array mounted on the gray stripe that separates display from QWERTY board.  The center-mounted four-way directional pad worked quite well for me, though the rest of the nav buttons could use a bit more tactile feedback.  They’re all plenty big (maybe even too big) but are flush mounted to the point of a little wonkiness. 

Treo aficionados will feel at home on Centro, while those coming from slicker current devices like Apple iPhone, LG Voyager, or HTC Touch might find the Palm OS a bit antiquated.  My take?  Centro’s UI definitely lacks for the eye candy that catches consumers’ eyes these days, but it makes up for it in sheer usability.  Menus are well laid-out, buttons and icons clearly labeled, and fonts easy to read.  Centro’s software certainly isn’t ugly, but it’s also more utilitarian than glitzy; “Easy to use, but not all that pretty” kind of sum’s up Centro’s menus and graphics.

That being said, the Palm OS opens Centro up to a world of user-installable applications beyond the comprehensive software that comes pre-loaded on the device.  So smartphone geeks on a budget may take an interest in Centro, especially if they’re tired of Windows Mobile.  But Centro is being marketed more towards the mainstream user, and there’s plenty for the “I’ll Use What They Give Me!” crowd to appreciate here.

VersaMail is an easy to use Email program with streamlined support for Gmail, Yahoo!, Apple .Mac and other popular Email services as well as user-configurable settings for any POP3 or IMAP provider.  MS Exchange is also supported, including MS Direct Push for real-time synching with Exchange servers.  Centro also comes ready to connect to your instant messaging accounts, and not only supports simultaneous logins to multiple accounts (including AIM, Yahoo, and Windows Live), but it also displays text messages as threaded (IM-style) conversations.  Expect to see threaded SMSs popping up as an option on more and more mobile phones in the coming months — Palm’s been doing it for years, actually, but iPhone’s made it popular as of late.

Centro also ships with Documents to Go 10, which lets you create, view and edit MS Word and Excel files (and view PowerPoints and PDFs) - something that many a so-called smartphone can’t do right out of the box.  Treo users will recognize Palm’s personal information software on Centro, including Calendar, Contacts, To-Do, and Memo apps along with a voice recorder.  The included Blazer Web browser is decent but not great, though Web pages loaded quickly over Sprint’s EV-DO network, and Google Maps for Mobile worked quite well with the integrated A-GPS chip in pulling down maps, satellite imagery, and traffic data.  On the entertainment side there’s a video player that’s fine for short clips but tended to skip and pixelate with longer movies, and support for Sprint TV and streaming radio from Sirius, MTV Mobile, and other providers.

My favorite pre-loaded app on Centro was probably Pocket Tunes Deluxe Edition.  This music player is easy to use, attractive (in that Palm sort of way), and supports both unprotected and DRM-protected tracks played off of microSD cards up to 4GB in size.  Pocket Tunes also supports Internet Radio, which is a cool little feature - combined with Sprint’s 3G network, you’ll have access to your favorite free streaming stations wherever you roam.  Well, wherever you roam within 3G network coverage, anyway.

 


Usability & Performance

First off, Sprint’s Centro worked great as a phone.  Signal strength was excellent virtually everywhere I went in the San Francisco Bay Area, and calls came through loud and clear on both ends.  The speakerphone was decent for a cell (i.e. Usable in a pinch), and I appreciated the “Ignore with Text Message” feature for deflecting incoming calls I didn’t want to take.  Calls may be dialed via the touchscreen or dedicated keys on the QWERTY layout, which are color-contrasted to the rest of the thumbboard for ease of use.

The handset features a 2.5mm headphone jack, and I was also able to easily pair it with a variety of mono Bluetooth headsets.  Unfortunately, A2DP for Stereo Bluetooth is not supported on Centro.  Voice quality and wireless range were good when using Centro with a wireless earpiece.  Centro’s Bluetooth support also supports “Phone as Modem” for tethering which, combined with Sprint’s 300Kbps + data speeds, makes Centro a pretty decent go-to option for getting online with your laptop when there’s no LAN or WLAN to be found.

Centro’s QWERTY keyboard is a bit of a mixed bag.  Initially I was really pleasantly surprised by how usable it was given the diminutive size of the buttons.  Frankly I was expecting the thing to be all but useless to me and my big hands and thumbs.  I was wrong - I quickly found myself able to tap out messages and URLs without making all that many mistakes.  However, once I settled into a thumb-typing groove I began to experience fatigue in my hands and thumbs.  Both the device itself and the keyboard are small enough that I had to bend my hands, fingers, and (most of all) thumbs in an uncomfortable way to effectively type on the QWERTY board.  I wound up with hand and thumb cramps. 

To be fair, I think many people could adjust to the device with reasonable success so long as they pay attention to how they’re holding the phone and don’t plan on regular writing of pages-long missives using the tiny buttons.  But if you’ve ever tried an HTC Tilt or Mogul or a BlackBerry 8700 or Curve, Centro’s keyboard will pale in comparison.  I’m not saying it’s a deal breaker, but I am saying you should get the device in your hands and type on the keyboard awhile before deciding it’s the smartphone for you.


Conclusion

Treos made a big name for themselves as the original Email phone of choice.  Their combination of a usable Email and PDA client married to a solid cell phone was revolutionary in its day, and Palm’s stable, usable, and expandable smartphone platform appealed to power users and consumer Email junkies alike.  Unfortunately the once-mighty Treo got lost in the shuffle during the amazing period of mobile phone innovation that’s come upon us in the last two or three years.  Compared to the Apples, HTCs, and Samsungs of today, Treos look like clunky relics of an era gone by.

Palm may well have found new life for the still-usable Palm OS and Treo hardware formula in its newly minted Centro.  A smartphone marketed more towards consumers than business users, Centro takes the ease of use and functionality that made Treo so popular and packs it into a shrunken down - if still chubby - form factor dressed up in flashy colors and packed by Sprint’s high speed data network and burgeoning mobile entertainment options.  Perhaps most importantly, Sprint’s Centro is priced to move.  At less than one hundred dollars, Centro packs the power of a smartphone, usability of a consumer device, and add-on entertainment options of Sprint’s Power Vision network at a price in line of handsets that can’t do half of what it can.  Though Sprint’s really got to get their music store working on this thing.

Centro’s diminutive size and small buttons will make it attractive to some and unusable to others, and its plastic feel and retro graphics won’t win over any bleeding edge diehards.  But for 99 bucks Centro gives you access to much of what’s great about smartphones and Sprint’s network, with some cash leftover to put towards those monthly service bills.

Palm Centro conclusion


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