Review: Palm's Versatile, Inexpensive New Centro Smartphone

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Published January 13, 2009

| FoxNews.com

Before we get into evaluating the low-priced, recently upgraded Palm Centro smartphone, let's take a moment to reflect upon the imminent demise of a hardy survivor: the Palm operating system.

Born in 1996, the intuitive handheld OS was the stepchild of Apple's Newton project and succeeded where the latter had failed.

The Palm Pilot and other devices it ran on greatly expanded the once-booming personal-digital-assistant market, and later the still-booming smartphone sector.

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The touchscreen interface was simple, versatile and turned on instantly just where you had left it. (Try doing that on a BlackBerry). It created an entire ecosystem of free and low-cost third-party applications a decade before the iPhone's AppStore.

But its success was hindered by boardroom chaos. Palm went through two clueless owners, lost its founders (who founded Handspring and made the first Treo smartphone), was spun off, reabsorbed Handspring, gave up and then regained control of the Palm OS and began putting out Windows-based smartphones to stay competitive.

Meanwhile, the OS foundered as Palm continued to put out physically excellent PDAs and smartphones. It hasn't had a significant upgrade since 2002, an eternity in the tech field.

With its cartoonish icons, primitive Web browser and limited multimedia capabilities, it feels stale next to an iPhone or late-model BlackBerry.

This past Thursday, the Palm OS's fate was sealed as the parent company unveiled its long-awaited replacement at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas: a brand-new, sleek, Linux-based OS with full Web and multimedia capabilities.

Called webOS, the new operating system is clearly patterned on the iPhone version of Mac OS X — but it won't run "legacy" applications created for its predecessor.

That means more than a decade's worth of Palm OS development is effectively dead.

No more goofy third-party apps and ports of classic arcade games. No more "beaming" items from one Palm device to another using infrared signals.

Worst of all, no more Palm Date Book/Calendar, for my money the most versatile and useful electronic scheduler available on any PDA or smartphone.

Let's raise a glass, then, to the Palm OS, and consider it fitting that the last new device it runs on should be a cheap, cute and yet very capable little smartphone for the masses.

This new Centro is a Sprint exclusive, and has double the internal memory (128 MB vs. 64 MB) of the older Centros offered by AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless, and can take up to 4 GB of extra space on a MicroSD card.

It also comes with Google Maps (which the other models can download) and Facebook access (which they can't).

It's got a pleasing soft rubberized surface that helps it cling to desktops and other hard surfaces and comes in subdued dark red and medium green as well as black. And it's quite a bit smaller than the iPhone, BlackBerry Bold or T-Mobile G1.

Despite the limited space, it's just as fully functional as my wife's much more expensive Treo 680.

I still don't understand the advantages of one over the other, except that the Treo's got a bigger screen and keyboard. I had to use my thumbnails to type on the Centro, but quickly got used to that.

The small, sharp screen displays photographs and Web pages well, though some video was a bit blocky, even the TV-like videos that Sprint sells over the air. The camera's 2-megabyte still images could be sharper, but it handles low light well and can also record short video clips.

I was able to send MP3 files via Bluetooth from my iMac and play them without trouble, and while short MP4 video files worked as well, the media player choked on older-format .mov files and Windows-standard .wmv files.

Web and data access was very fast, thanks to Sprint's 3G EV-DO network, but the Blazer Web browser has some serious limitations.

Mobile-phone optimized Web sites, such as mobile.google.com, loaded quickly, but heavier, image-laden pages took much longer and looked terrible. I couldn't get YouTube videos to play due to lack of bandwidth.

There are other drawbacks. The headphone jack is for 2.5-mm plugs, not the standard 3.5-mm plug, and Sprint sent me neither headphones nor an adapter to test out the sound quality.

I was able to play audio through the tinny speaker on the back, but it's not as rich-sounding as the iPhone's external speaker.

There's also no Wi-Fi on the Centro, as is the case with most Palm devices. The cellular-based data access is very speedy and Sprint offers only unlimited plans for this model, but it'd be nice to have Wi-Fi in an area with weak cellular coverage.

Setting up the unit to fetch my Yahoo and Google Web-based e-mail was a snap, though in both cases you have to manually initiate checking the inbox; there is an option for BlackBerry-style "push" e-mail from corporate servers, but you have to get mail server information from your company's IT department.

Retrieving e-mails was very fast, thanks to EV-DO. The included DocumentsToGo software lets you open and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files.

The handset also has AOL, Yahoo and MSN instant-message clients. I was able to use my usually dormant AIM account easily and quickly.

Porting applications from my older Palm device using HotSync with a Macintosh was a snap, though some of the older apps lose functionality due to different button configurations. Syncing with a PC or Mac is done through either a USB cable or via Bluetooth, but the slow transfer speed of the latter means a Bluetooth sync can take an hour.

That brings us back to the core mission of the Palm OS — the Calendar app. Just as no one's beaten the BlackBerry for smartphone e-mail, no one's got a better scheduler and organizer than Palm. It's why I still keep my creaky 2002-vintage Palm m515 PDA.

As with all Palm-based devices, typing in things to do on the Centro is quick and easy, and it alerts you when you miss an appointment. It syncs easily to the Palm desktop software (which is a lot better on PC than on Mac) so that you've got an organizer whether sitting at your desk or on the go.

Switching between applications is a bit trickier. Like all Palm devices, the Centro has dedicated keys for the phone, Calendar, and e-mail apps, but to launch or switch between other apps you've got to go to the Home screen, which gets its own button.

The five-way jog dial in the center of the face is very useful, with the center button selecting whatever's highlighted on the screen.

As a phone, the Centro is flawless. Dialing is done either via the physical keypad or the touchscreen, and an option to hang up appears immediately, though that can also be done with a physical button.

Calls were sharp and clear, with none of the "walkie-talkie" effect I've noticed on AT&T and T-Mobile phones that let only one person speak at a time. The Centro also offers to input each newly dialed number into the address book.

The address book can looking daunting at first, but typing in "J" and "S", for example, brings you to "John Smith" and anyone who shares his initials. If a phone number is listed, you can dial it straight from there.

Battery life was remarkably good, with about two days going between full charges. You'll get much more life if you turn off the phone, since a Palm device uses almost no power once the screen times itself out.

"I'm sold," said a friend of mine who uses both a Palm-based Treo and a BlackBerry as he tried my review handset out. "I want one of these. This is easier to use than my wife's iPhone."

And, as Steve Jobs would say, there's one more thing.

The Centro is a seriously good deal. Sprint is selling it for $50 with a two-year contract, about what you pay for the older but similar AT&T and Verizon models, but third-place and financially troubled Sprint is much more competitive than the Big Two on monthly service pricing.

The carrier's all-you-can-eat smartphone plan, which includes unlimited talk time, unlimited text-messaging and unlimited data access, costs $100 per month.

A similar plan from Verizon runs $165, while AT&T's is $150; both include an insulting $20/month for unlimited texting, which costs the carriers essentially nothing to provide.

More limited Sprint plans at $70 and $90 per month cut back the talk time to 450 and 900 minutes respectively, but still have no limits on data and messaging.

Because Sprint also has an exclusive on the Pre, the first webOS-based smartphone, Verizon and AT&T (and Sprint) will continue to sell Centros and Treos for at least a couple of years, but in terms of new Palm OS-devices the upgraded Centro is the end of the line.

In that regard, it's a fitting send-off for the now-teenaged OS. It really takes the environment's possibilities as far as they will go — and makes glaringly clear where Palm's next OS needs to fill in the gaps.

Let's just hope the scheduling app is as good on the new machine.

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