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Palm Centro review: Palm Centro

Palm Centro

Bonnie Cha Former Editor
Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.
Bonnie Cha
9 min read


Palm Centro

The Good

The Palm Centro sheds some of the weight and bulk of Palm Treo to make for a more compact smartphone. It also carries an attractive price tag and offers a lot for the money, including Bluetooth, EV-DO support, push e-mail, and a suite of productivity apps.

The Bad

The Centro's QWERTY keyboard is extremely cramped and the hardware feels a bit toylike. The phone's speaker is on the weaker side, and it lacks Wi-Fi.

The Bottom Line

The Palm Centro isn't the innovative product we were looking for from the company, but with its slimmer size, ease of use, and affordable price tag, the Centro is a good option for those looking for their first smartphone.

Palm has certainly come under a lot of criticism lately for its lack of innovation in the smartphone department, and rightfully so. While the HTCs and Nokias of the world continually churn out new and exciting devices, Palm can only offer up its aging lineup of Treo smartphones. The company tried to mix things up with the Palm Foleo, but we know that failed miserably. Fortunately, we think Palm will have better luck with its latest device, the Palm Centro. It's the first non-Treo, as well as the smallest and lightest smartphone from the company. Palm hopes that it will attract a new customer base of those ready to make the jump from cell phone to smartphone. For the record, we feel like Palm tried this already with the Palm Treo 680, but there are a number of factors that make us believe the Centro will be more successful at attaining this goal, first and foremost being price.

Available through Sprint, the Centro costs $99 with a two-year contract, which is a bargain for a smartphone, especially when you consider that you get all the features of a Treo and more. It offers ease of use, so first-time smartphone buyers shouldn't be intimidated, and it also provides a nice middle ground between the really basic and youth-oriented T-Mobile Sidekick 3 and more business-featured devices like the Sprint Mogul. The Centro certainly isn't without problems. There are some major design issues; it's not the best choice for serious business users, and it certainly wasn't the type of innovation we were hoping for from the company. However, for that target group of 20- to 30-year-olds looking to make the jump to a smartphone, the Centro is an attractive option. The "black onyx" version of the Palm Centro will be available through Sprint starting October 14, while the "ruby red" version will go on sale in November.

We've got mixed feelings about the design of the Palm Centro. At 4.2 inches high by 2.1 inches wide by 0.7 inch deep and 4.2 ounces, the Centro is certainly smaller than the bulky Treo, and it's a nice compromise between a regular cell phone and a business smartphone like the Sprint Mogul. For comparison's sake, the device carries a similar footprint to the HTC Vox S710 and will also make for a tight fit in a pants pocket.

The petite Palm Centro next to its bigger, older cousin, the Palm Treo 700p.

The Centro comes in two colors: black onyx or ruby red. (We reviewed the red model.) Palm hopes the latter option will help attract more female customers and, in fact, a female colleague passed by and said, "Oh, I like the red." So obviously, there's some logic there. That said, the design fails to impress us; shrinking the size and adding a splash of color wasn't exactly the type of innovation we were looking for. The Centro lacks the flash and "wow" factor of a device from HTC or Nokia, looking more like a toy, and in the hand, it feels, well, a bit plasticky. On the positive side, the smaller size and rounded edges make the phone more comfortable and easier to hold when held up to the ear.

On front, you'll find the Centro's 2.25-inch diagonal TFT display that shows off 65,000 colors at a 320x320 pixel resolution. It's crisp and bright, and perhaps the best news of all, it's a touch screen. This is an advantage the Palm Centro has over some of its competition, such as the BlackBerry Pearl. The ability to enter data, launch apps, and navigate the device via the touch screen is a wonderful convenience.

You also have controls beneath the display to help you operate the smartphone. These include Talk and End keys, and shortcuts to the phone app, home screen, calendar, and message in-box, and a five-way toggle. With the exception of the toggle, which consists of a thin ring and a large central select button that's raised above the phone's surface, the buttons are flat and don't have the best tactile feedback, feeling a bit cheap.

We weren't huge fans of the Centro's QWERTY keyboard, since the buttons are tiny and cramped.

The Centro's full QWERTY keyboard is another sticking point. Given that there's less surface area to work with, we figured the keyboard would be smaller, but we've got to say, it's pretty darn cramped. It's definitely better suited for women with smaller hands, but when we gave it to a few to try out, they remarked that it was hard to easily type messages with. Users with larger thumbs are definitely going to have problems. The individual buttons reminded us of gelatinous stickers, but tactile and well backlit.

There's a ringer silencer switch on top of the unit, while you will find a 2.5mm headset jack and multiconnector port on the bottom. The left spine of the Centro has a volume rocker and a customizable launch button. The right side houses the infrared port and microSD expansion slot, which is protected by an attached cover, but we found it quite difficult to pry off. Finally, the stylus, speaker, camera lens, and self-portrait mirror are found on the back.

The Palm Centro comes packaged with just the basics, including an AC adapter, a USB cable, a desktop software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons for the Centro, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.

Despite the smaller size, the Palm Centro still manages to pack in all of the features of the Palm Treo 755p and then some. To start with the basics, the Centro runs Palm OS 5.4.9 and comes with 128MB ROM and 64MB RAM. Of course, you get the standard personal information management tools, including a calendar, a to-do list, a memo pad, a calculator, a world clock, and a voice recorder. The Centro isn't just an electronic organizer, though, as the smartphone comes preloaded with Documents to Go (version 10), so you can open, create, and edit Microsoft Word and Excel documents, and view PowerPoint presentations and PDFs.

You can supplement the Centro's memory with the microSD expansion slot, which can accept up to 4GB cards.

You have several choices to access your corporate and personal e-mail accounts. There's the VersaMail e-mail app, which has built-in support for Microsoft's Direct Push Technology for real-time synchronization with Microsoft Exchange. VersaMail supports a wide range of POP and IMAP e-mail accounts, including AOL, Apple.Mac, AT&T Global, Earthlink, Gmail, and Yahoo Plus. Alternatively, Sprint offers Sprint Mobile eMail, which is available as a free download to its data subscribers and gives you access to up to three e-mail accounts. For our tests, we used VersaMail, and e-mail setup was really easy, as we simply input our username and password for our Yahoo Plus account and, within a couple of minutes, the Centro retrieved all our messages.

We're also happy to see that Sprint, once again, included its instant messaging app with AIM, Yahoo, and Windows Live clients. You can sign into multiple accounts and carry on simultaneous conversations. The Palm Centro also continues to support text and multimedia messaging as well as the threaded text chat view, which in itself mimics the look and feel of IM conversations.

As for voice communication, the Centro offers a speakerphone, a vibrate mode, three-way calling, speed dial, and the "ignore with text" feature, which allows you to reply to a call with a text message if you can't pick up. The contact book is limited only by the available memory, and there's room in each entry for multiple numbers, e-mail addresses, instant-messaging handles, and birthdays. For caller ID purposes, you can assign a picture, one of 37 polyphonic ringtones, or a group ID.

Wireless options include EV-DO support and Bluetooth 1.2. Supported Bluetooth profiles include those for use with wireless headsets, hands-free kits, object exchange, and dial-up networking (DUN) so you can use the Centro as a wireless modem for your laptop. Just be aware that the DUN capabilities will require you to sign up for the Sprint Power Vision Modem Plan, which runs $39.99 per month for 40MB or $49.99 per month for unlimited. Unfortunately, there's no support for A2DP, so you won't be able to use your stereo Bluetooth headset with this device. Also, the only way you'll be able to get GPS capabilities on the Centro (aside from e911) is to pair it with a Bluetooth GPS receiver, since there's no built-in radio. On the plus side, Google Maps for Mobile ships on the device and includes color maps, satellite imagery, and traffic data.

There's no Wi-Fi, but with the 3G support, you can experience broadband-like speeds on your device--around 300Kbps to 600Kbps--and enjoy faster Web browsing, data transfer, and streaming music and video. The Centro works with Sprint TV so you can watch short clips from a variety of channels, including CNN, Fox Sports, and the NFL Network, and you can listen to live streaming music and talk radio from Sirius, VH1 Mobile, and MTV Mobile. You can also now access YouTube videos using the Centro's Blazer Web browser. For more content, check out the carrier's On Demand feature, which pulls all the current headlines for the user's region (based on ZIP code) from the Web and delivers it right to your Centro. Sprint offers these services as part of the Sprint Power Vision pack, which ranges in price from $15 to $25 per month.

The Palm Centro also now comes with PocketTunes Deluxe Edition--the first time this version is shipping on a Palm device--so you can enjoy your favorite MP3s and DRM-protected music. Currently, the Centro does not work with the Sprint Music Store, but the carrier said this is something it is looking to add in the future. For down times, the device also comes with a sudoku game.

The Centro's 1.3-megapixel camera took decent photos.

Last but not least, the Centro is equipped with a 1.3-megapixel camera with 2x zoom and video-recording capabilities. Once again, though, like the previous Treos, the camera lacks a flash and any options for tweaking the white balance, resolution, brightness, and so forth. Once you are done capturing your shots or video clips, you can send them to others via Sprint Picture Mail or another online service, or upload them to an online album. Despite the lack of a flash and editing options, picture quality was actually decent. Images had sharp definition, although color wasn't as bright as we wanted.

We tested the dual-band (CDMA 850/1900; EV-DO) Palm Centro in San Francisco using Sprint service, and call quality was a bit mixed. On our end, there was a slight but noticeable background hiss, but it didn't disrupt our conversations with friends or prevent us from interacting with our bank's automated voice response system. Meanwhile, our callers were impressed by how crisp and clear we sounded to them, and reported no issues. We experienced similar results with the Centro's speakerphone. Volume was soft and weak to us, even though we had audio cranked to the highest level. Voices were certainly drowned out on louder streets. However, friends told us we sounded clear and didn't even realize we had turned on the speakerphone. We had no problems pairing the Centro with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset.

The Centro is powered by a 312MHz Intel XScale processor, and general performance was satisfactory. We didn't experience any significant or frustrating delays, but there was a brief lag when opening Office documents or waiting for streaming content. Unfortunately, after all that waiting, we were met by some pixilated videos with mismatched audio and images, so we definitely wouldn't recommend viewing clips longer than a couple of minutes. After our experience with the speakerphone, we weren't surprised that music playback sounded tinny and weak through the phone's speakers. Web browsing was swift thanks to the EV-DO support.

The Palm Centro's 1150mAh internal lithium ion battery is rated for 3.5 hours of talk time and up to 12.5 days of standby time. In our battery drain tests, the Centro was able to get 4 hours of continuous talk time on a single charge. According to FCC radiation tests, the Centro has a digital SAR rating of 1.35 watts per kilogram.


Palm Centro

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 7