Centro: satisfyingly cheap

Go back five years when Palm handhelds ruled the mobile device market, before smart phones began their ascendancy. It’s easy to imagine that Palm’s new Centro — the company’s first smart phone not named Treo — is the device Palm envisioned as the future of handhelds.

That’s not damning by faint praise, either. Centro is far smaller than those old handhelds. For that matter, it’s significantly sleeker than Palm’s Treo, yet it provides most of the Treo’s capabilities and, at $99 (with a two-year contract from Sprint plus rebates) is quite inexpensive.

And with its simple-to-understand Palm OS and touch-screen/stylus interface, it retains some of the feel of those old handhelds. Overall, Palm’s Centro, initially offered only by Sprint in the U.S., is a pleasing device.

Out of the box
Centro is a candy bar-style device that comes in two colours: bright red and black (my review unit was red). The first noticeable thing was its somewhat unorthodox size.

If you absolutely must have the sveltest smart phone available, you won’t be interested in the Centro. Still, this device is hardly a heavyweight and, at 2.1 by 4.2 inches in size and weighing 4.2 ounces, it fits quite comfortably in the hand. In fact, I found it more comfortable to hold in my largish hands than smaller devices such as the BlackBerry Pearl. But part of that comfort came from its thickness — at .7 inches thick, Centro hardly qualifies as a slender device.

Palm appears to have carefully thought through the size of the device. For instance, it was just small enough to stow comfortably in a jeans pocket. And it is just barely large enough to have a full QWERTY keyboard.

The keyboard, however, was a mixed bag. In testing, it was more difficult than usual to do thumb-typing because the keys are so close together. It was also a bit confusing that most of the keys were the same red color as the entire phone, making it harder to visually find a key. That was particularly true with the space bar, which has no markings on it at all; rather, this red key blended into the phone and was hard to find.

Getting started
Say what you will about the long-in-the-tooth Palm OS, it is extremely simple and intuitive to use. And over the years, the platform has been refined to work well with phones. For instance, when you’re in phone mode, buttons for contacts, voice mail and the call log appear at the bottom of the screen.

And for the most part, Palm did a good job with the buttons. Clearly marked buttons for switching to the home screen, phone mode, contacts or e-mail are on the front, surrounding a large, easy-to-find, five-way rocker button for scrolling and making selections.

On the left side of the device are volume buttons. Conveniently, a switch on the top of the phone automatically turns off the ringer. The 320 by 320 display was adequate but wasn’t unusually bright or crisp.

As has been the case with the Palm OS for more than a decade, finding what you want is simple — the home screen has icons for all applications. Also, as has always been the case with the Palm OS, you can make your selection either by using the navigation buttons or a stylus, which tucks out of sight on the back, right-hand side of the Centro.

However, Palm’s old Graffiti handwriting recognition system does not make a comeback in the Centro. Graffiti has been gone from smart phones for a long time but given the smallness of the keyboard, it might be a good idea with Centro.

A more serious missing capability is a “back” button that returns the user to previously displayed screens. I had to remind myself to look for the “Cancel” button on any given screen to return to the previous screen. Sometimes, that button wasn’t available, such as in the video camera and music player applications. Then, the least frustrating way to return to a previous screen was to hit the Home key, reopen the application and renavigate to the desired screen.

Highly communicative
Centro receives reasonably high marks for its communicativeness. In particular, it supports Sprint’s EV-DO 3G network and access was satisfyingly fast. Needless to say, however, you’ll need to purchase a data plan from Sprint. Also, its 312-MHz Intel XScale processor, while not a true speed merchant, handled all tasks, including Internet-related tasks, acceptably fast.

Using the included Blazer Web browser, long a staple on Palm OS devices, remains a bit clumsy in terms of basic tasks such as entering Web addresses. The device also comes with a full host of other communications capabilities. Palm includes the VersaMail e-mail application, and I set up a POP3 account quickly and without hassle.

The device also supports Microsoft Direct Push technology to retrieve information off Exchange Server 2003. The included instant messaging application supports AOL Instant Messaging, MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger.

As is the case with virtually all phones these days, Palm’s Centro supports Bluetooth 1.2. You can connect the Centro to the USB port of a laptop and with the right service plan, use it as a modem. However, the device does not support Wi-Fi.

Multimedia savvy

The Centro has reasonably strong, although not spectacular, multimedia capabilities. In particular, it’s 1.2-megapixel camera with a 2X zoom and video recorder are probably sufficient for most users, although not as powerful as the two megapixel capabilities increasingly found on smart phones.

Perhaps its strongest media capability is PocketTunes Deluxe for playing music. This application provides a lot of flexibility in terms of playing tunes by, for example, artist or genre, but its interface was a bit confusing to navigate.

That good news-bad news approach continues with its microSD card slot. Oddly, the slot is on the side of the device but to uncover the slot so you can insert a card, you must remove the cover to the battery compartment. Unlike some devices, including some of Palm’s Treos, you don’t have to remove the battery to insert the storage card, but it is still annoying.

Another annoyance is that, like many other smart phones, the Centro only has a 2.5mm jack for headphones. That means you must use either Bluetooth to listen to your music or get an adapter to use wired headsets. Still, we found playback quality to be reasonably clear.

Overall, though, all but the most demanding users should find the Palm Centro to be highly satisfying to use. Value-hunters will like it, too; you can spend a lot more to get less, at least when it comes to specific features. For instance, it supports 3G, something that the iPhone and many other higher-priced smart phones don’t support.

Put differently, while power users won’t be attracted to Palm’s Centro, and some may find it slightly chunky, it is one of the most intuitive to use smart phones I’ve seen and has virtually all of the features that most people want.

David Haskin is a contributing editor specializing in mobile and wireless issues.

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