Ease of use and reliability — the strongest features of Palm Centro

Since the day when it was acceptable to sell an electronic organizer without phone functionality, Palm has been known for its business-oriented portable products.

Now that we’re in the era of the smartphone, Palm is looking to break that mould with their smallest smartphone yet, the Centro.

Perhaps inspired by the hype around Apple’s iPhone and the success of BlackBerry’s blurring of the line between business and consumer model phones, Palm is looking to woo mainstream consumers.

The Centro is billed as a social-life enhancing, full-fledged multi-media device that anyone can use and is super portable. It’s lightweight and comes in several different colours.

Available in Canada through Rogers Wireless, the Centro is competing against some tough contenders.

Installation

Out of the box, the Palm Centro comes with the standard smartphone fare: an installation CD, a power cord, a USB cable, and a headset. Just about anyone with basic knowledge with Windows can easily install the software.

The installation, however, took abnormally long on my machine. It hung at the “Updating Registry” portion for over 10 minutes, but eventually worked. I definitely recommend closing any programs before installing this.

Once that minor snafu was over, the rest of the install went like a breeze. The software guided me to connect the Centro to my PC and perform a Hot Sync. I was given an option to use the Palm Desktop software or Microsoft Outlook to sync up with. After choosing Office, my contacts, calendar and to-do list were quickly transferred to the phone.

Interface

Overall, the Centro is a pleasure to use. The manipulation is done with a four-directional button at the phone’s centre. Thumbing around on this was easy to do, and I was clicking through menus and selecting icons with no problem. A stylus is also provided to use with the touch screen.

The stylus could be better. A plastic stick is provided with the phone, and has a flimsy feel to it. I prefer a more solid-feeling metal stylus, and could see this one breaking accidentally.

Short-cut buttons around the joystick are quite handy. The phone, calendar, messages and applications are a mere thumb-press away. The phone application is well thought-out. By offering multiple tabs on the screen, I could shift between my contacts, recently completed calls, and favourite applications.

Users of this phone will live quite comfortable in this space and be able to access most of the Centro’s features easily.

 

At first appearance the keyboard seems small. But Palm’s beveled keys are amazingly easy to type with. I found I never made a mistake and was hammering out messages at my usual phone-typing rate, thanks to the QWERTY keyboard.

I find the keyboard is on the phone’s face a bit daunting. My personal preference is a slider, or flip-style keyboard to keep those keys safely tucked away. Who knows how long these keys will last, exposed to the elements like this. Having a slider-style keyboard could have opened up more real estate for a larger screen.

Communications

The interface is the shining strongpoint of the phone’s communicating features. Text message conversations are displayed in a instant message-style format that shows the last several messages exchanged. This is far better than the one-message-at-a-time view that I’m accustomed too.

You are always presented with multiple ways to communicate with the contacts on your phone. Receive a text message and you can click a button to phone that person. Miss a call, and click a button to text message that person. Or even choose to ignore an incoming call and append a text-message explanation.

The Centro uses CDMA connectivity for its phone feature. I found the audio quality very good when having conversations, and my correspondents found it easy to hear my voice while I confabulated.

Palm’s included Bluetooth v1.2 on this phone for your wireless device needs. It could be used to keep in sync with your laptop, navigate with a GPS device, or use a hands-free headset.

VersaMail v4.01 is the e-mail client that comes installed on the Centro. It is quite easy to log on to my office e-mail and start pulling down messages from the server, but the message downloading seems a bit slow. Just getting 9 kb took long enough for me to want to twiddle my thumbs.

I also would like to see a feature to sync my e-mails with Outlook. I often find it handy to sort through unread e-mails I’ve downloaded on my desktop while on the go. But there’s no way to accomplish this out of the box with the Centro.

Usability

My biggest beef with the Centro’s design is its battery cover. The smooth, rounded edge cover may look sleek, but proves difficult to remove and attach back on to the device. I had to call on the assistance of a more dexterous colleague to help me accomplish this task.

Getting in and out of the battery compartment wouldn’t normally be a requirement. But the design of the Centro hides the expandable microSD memory card slot under the cover. That means a lot of fiddling if you plan to be moving data to and from the card directly. Even more frustrating for me was the failure to get my microSD card working. No matter how I tried to insert it into the slot, it was not detected by the phone.

Viewing the screen on the Palm Centro is easy on the eyes. An adjustable backlight can get quite bright, making it easy to see text and graphics. But at a 320×320 resolution and only 2.25″ of screen real estate to work with, this just doesn’t compare to other smartphones on the market.

The Centro is capable of streaming video and playing back video you’ve recorded with the camcorder feature, but I can’t imagine watching it for too long.

The battery life of the device also leaves much to be desired. The 1150mA lithium-ion battery lasts for about 3.5 hours of talk time, considerably less than other phones on the market.

Bells and whistles

The Blazer mobile Web browser does a decent job of downloading text quickly and surfing over sites optimized for mobile devices. Logging on to my Facebook profile was a snap, and I was browsing through photo albums and reading status updates without breaking a sweat. Google search also responds quickly, with the results streaming in instantly.

But it’s a different story when I try to surf to a Web site with richer material. Attempting to navigate around a news Web site to get the latest Olympic updates proves slow and frustrating. The graphics are coming in well after I request the page, and the links are scattered in a non-organized manner. The Centro uses the EVDO for Web connectivity.

Many carriers, such as Rogers, offer a mobile-friendly home page for smartphone users. Stick to the links provided here and your Web browsing experience will be solid, but stray to untested Web sites and you may be frustrated.

The 1.2 megapixel camera included on the Centro is typical of phone cameras on the market. The resulting photos are often grainy in low-light environments, and it is hard to keep a subject in focus. Decent enough if you’re viewing the photos or video on a small screen, but the poor quality is exposed on a larger monitor.

The best entertainment feature that comes with the Centro is an application called “pTunes.” It is a handy music player that will be smart about reading and organizing what artists and songs are on your device.

Given the phone’s rear mono speaker, you could even play your tunes for a small audience, as it is capable of being fairly loud. But the headset jack is too small to plug in your favourite pair of ear-buds. You’ll need to buy an adapter if you want to really make use of this as a music playing device. Though losing battery life might stop many for exercising this usage.

Conclusion

Palm’s strongest features are its ease of use and reliability. Even new users will have no trouble unlocking the features of their new smartphone with Palm’s well thought-out interface. Those coming from a standard cell phone will no doubt be delighted by their new-found functionality.

But for those who set the bar higher for smartphones, the Centro is not a viable option. I can understand the value proposition of the Palm Centro in the U.S., where carriers are selling it for $99 with a three year contract. It’s a smartphone on a budget.

But it is no surprise the Centro is decidedly less of a bargain in Canada. Rogers sells the Centro for $299 to new customers and $199 to current Rogers customers. When a new customer could go with the iPhone for $199, or get a Blackberry for a similar price, it’s hard to see many choosing the Centro.

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