The Smartphone Refined: Palm’s Centro

This post is about my new cell phone. Although a bit removed from the usual topics of this blog, my previous posts about Sprint mobile phones have proved popular so I thought I would weigh in on my latest purchase, a Palm Centro. As gadget purchases go, this one was unusual. Usually I upgrade phones in order to get a phone with flashy new features or take advantage of a leap forward in technology. While the Centro is certainly more advanced than my previous Treo 650, I’ve found it to be a sophisticated refinement of the Treo line, not a revolutionary leap forward.

When he pulled up my account, the Sprint employee laughed when he saw that my the Treo 650 was three years old. I had kept the device for what is an eternity in the cell phone world precisely because it was such a good device. The standard software made sending text messages a breeze, pulling up my Gmail on the browser was convenient (despite the somewhat slow data service), and I’ve long used the intuitive Palm calendar software to keep track of my schedule on the fly. I upgraded mostly because the device was showing signs of wear. After years of regular use, the “talk” button had started sticking, preventing the phone from turning on without a reset. Occasionally when making calls no sound would come from the earpiece. The connector for the PC cable had become corroded, requiring I back up my data using the slow Bluetooth connection. Finally, I was anxious for a phone with faster data service, a better camera, and a look that didn’t resemble a Star Trek Communicator.

The Centro delivered on those counts, and more. At $99 after rebates and a 2-year contract, the device was much less expensive than others in its class. Instead of the bulging, rounded aesthetic of Treo, the Centro is a sleek, compact device that comes in black or red. Palm retained the extremely convenient external switch to toggle between a silent vibrate and normal ring modes. The QUERTY keyboard is necessarily more compact than the Treo’s, slowing down typing, perhaps the only drawback to the device.

Inside, the software remains largely the same with a host of refinements and improvements. The phone now ships with a chat client (compatible with Yahoo, MSN and AIM but not Jabber), software that allows you to create and view Word, Excel, Powerpoint, PDFs, and text files, the Pocket Tunes audio and video player, Blazer browser, and the slick Google Maps for Palm application. I easily installed Solitaire and Tetris from my old Treo with the built-in Sudoku and Solitaire applications. While I’ve only dabbled with a few, it’s nice to know the device would run a wide variety of existing Palm applications. Migrating my data was simple. To avoid problems, I exported the calendar, contacts, and memo data from my old Treo profile in the Palm Desktop application, set up a new profile for the Centro, and imported the data. (Mac users who have made the mistake of installing iSync should uninstall it and reinstate the old conduits in the Library folder)

I’ve discovered a host of small improvements. The screen is brighter and crisper. The vibrate ring is quieter. The brightness of the screen can be set, and the ringer can “escalate” in volume. The tight integration of the device’s functions continues to be a major strength: as before the device favorites menu is fully customizable and can launch any application, website, or phone number, incoming calls now contain a button to “dismiss with text message,” mobile numbers in the contacts and call log trigger a “message” button to send a text message. Look up anyone with a full address in your contacts and a “map” button pops up that maps the address in Google Maps. Web browsing on Sprint’s network is brisk, although navigating conventional websites remains a bit unwieldy.

Interestingly, I never had trouble with battery life with my old Treo 650, a usual complaint with old cell phones. Despite a large backlit screen, fast processor, and frequent recharging, the phone continued to hold enough charge for over two hours of talk time and 2-3 days of standby. While I haven’t tested it extensively, the Centro’s battery is sufficient but noticeably less than the old Treo. (It has a 1150 mAh battery versus the Treo’s 1800 mAh)

While the iPhone’s potential to merge my phone and iPod into one device is appealing, I’m not sold on the idea of tapping on the screen to type short messages and can’t afford the $400 price tag. Plus, I’m steps from a full-sized computer most times I need it. Compact, refined, and affordable, the Centro seems destined to be a top seller.

See CNet review, official site, Treonauts comparison matrix

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. The UI is what makes the iPhone for me. But as a hearing aid wearer — the non hearing compatibility is a non starter. Plus I’m pretty locked in at Sprint. And despite problems they seem to have holding on to customers — I’ve been quite pleased.

    I’ve read really good things about the Centro. Even from such interaction designers and bloggers that praise the iPhone. That’s a real testament to Palm’s expertise here.

    I just bought a new phone from Sprint (and didn’t go the way of the smartphone — I’m still not ready to admit I’m that much of a geek). But the Centro is compelling. And although I like the looks of my Samsung m300 — the UI is such a mishmash of competing ideas that I cringe when I have to do anything other than send a text message. Or make a call.

    I may just have think about upgrading again. Thanks for this review.

  2. Great review. I’m curious–have you heard whether or not Palm will release the Centro to other mobile companies? I have t-mobile and would -love- this phone!

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