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Palm Centro

Tue Oct 16, 2007 - 1:09 PM EDT - By Dieter Bohn

Form, Feel, and Keyboard

The Centro is quite possibly the most important smartphone release from Palm since their foray into Windows Mobile with the Treo 700w. This seems like a strange thing to say given that, except for its form factor, the Centro doesn't represent anything especially new in the smartphone field. In fact, it is so nearly identical in function and use to the Treo 755p that in our testing we have yet to find any significant differences. No, the Centro is important because it represents a two "firsts" for Palm:

  • Their first smartphone to retail at $99 (after rebates, it's a hefty $399 before)
  • Their first smartphone with genuine mass-market appeal

The Centro is also one very important "last" (we believe): the last platform that Palm will release featuring the original "Garnet" PalmOS. While it's highly likely we'll see further Centros on GSM as well as the Treo 755p getting released to other carriers, the Centro will likely be the last PalmOS platform until Palm releases their new Linux-based PalmOS in late 2008 or early 2009. The Centro is currently exclusive to Sprint.

In short, the Centro has its work cut out for it. But rather than take on the high-end iPhone (read sister-site Phone different's iPhone review here), the Centro is instead taking on the RAZR and the Sidekick. Like the Treo 680 before it, the Centro is designed to broaden the market for smartphones by bringing in users who would previously have never considered themselves "smartphone users."

So does the Centro have what it takes to appeal to the general consumer? Does it have what it takes to appeal to current Treo owners? Read on to find out!

Form Factor

Feel

The shape and feel of the Centro is clearly its defining factor, since it is "feature-identical" to the 755p. Let's get right to the point: the Centro's shape rocks. It feels incredibly good in the hand - certainly better than any Treo. The dimensions on the Centro are 4.2" tall x 2.1" wide x .7" deep. That's essentially .2" less in every dimension than the 755p. Just as importantly, though, the Centro is much more rounded than most smartphones. Cradled in your hand and held up to your ear the Centro doesn't feel like a smartphone at all - it feels like a candybar phone.


Around the Centro

Probably the closest smartphone to the Centro out there right now is the Blackberry Pearl. The Centro is practically identical in height and width, though it's also thicker. That's no doubt due to the touchscreen, but the curvature of the back of the Centro significantly alleviates that extra thickness. It's clearly superior in its feel to other "consumer-level" smartphones out there like the Motorola Q, the T-Mobile Dash, the Blackjack, and the Sidekick.


Centro vs. Pearl

Comparisons aside, I'm very happy with the build quality of the Centro itself. The primary buttons have a good tactile feel to them, with just the right amount of "clickyness" to let you know you hit the button without a sticky feel. There's absolutely no creak to the device - holding up to both squeezes and flexes without any give. The battery door uses an almost mysterious internal set of tabs to stay in place rather than a release button and is somewhat difficult to remove. It's even more difficult to put back on. A little practice and you'll have it down, though, as long as your fingers aren't too greasy. However, the relatively tiny battery inside (more on that below) may mean that some users will be struggling with the battery door from time to time.

The Centro comes in two colors - Red and Black (or "Onyx and Ruby" in Palm's terms). Both are "flecked" with silvery/sparkly bits but not so much that it hurts the professionality of the device. As for gripability - the candybar shape of the Centro will significantly help with drops. So will the spot to attach a lanyard to the Centro on the lower-right - it's about time we had that. The other curious thing about the Centro is its finish - it's not "soft touch" like the Treo 750 or a "matted" plastic like other Treos. Instead the Centro has an almost "glossy" finish which I initially thought would be a significant problem. However, in my testing so far I have yet to drop it. The best explanation I can come up with is photo finishing - you can run your finger across a matte-finished photo, but your finger will stick on a glossy-finished photo. This does mean that fingerprints show up just a tiny bit on the Centro, though they're easily wiped off.


Around the Centro

Although the Centro is fairly professional-looking, this device is definitely not meant to convey a "business" feel as much as the Treo does. I personally like the design element of the silver rail on the sides blending in to the main buttons and the camera and speaker on the back. I do not like the recessed screen, but Palm stated that people seem to care more about scratch risks than they do about flush screens. That's what screen protectors are for, people.

The Centro's screen is still a 320x320 touchscreen and it's slightly smaller than Treo screens. It's not too small, however, and is readable in both sunlight and darkness. The smaller size actually makes everything look very crisp and sharp. Thumbs up.

Other nice design touches: the LED in the upper left corner is small and subtle (though I know some that might be dismayed by a tiny LED, I prefer it); although you need to remove the battery door to access the microSD card slot, you do not have to remove the battery like on most of the competition; of course, we have a ringer switch.

Design foibles are few and many are old-hat to Treo users: the Treo connector instead of miniUSB, the 2.5 mm headset jack instead of 3.5. The stylus is entirely plastic and that's a disappointment, but thankfully the PalmOS doesn't require you to pull it out much. There is no reset hole, which means you will want to master removing that battery door.


Centro taken down

Keyboard

I've written before about the keyboard, twice now actually. Here's a video of how the typing can go on the keyboard that we previously posted at TreoCentral:

The keyboard is good, much better than you'd likely expect. This keyboard is made differently from previous Treo keyboards, Palm says that it is actually a single "printed sheet" of material instead of a few dozen separate plastic buttons. The result is that they are placed very closely together but also stick up a fair amount. Tactile feedback on the keys is great, they depress pretty far and there is a subtle click feel to them.


Close up on the Centro's keyboard, next to Treo 680 keyboard

The reason the keyboard works at all is that the keys are made out of a softer plastic than any keyboard I've seen. They're almost gel-like (or Jelly Shoe like, for those of you who remember the 80s). What this means is that your thumbs are much less likely to slip off a key, you're going to press the button that you aim at. I have been able to type nearly as quickly as I can on a Treo, certainly much more quickly than I can type on an iPhone and it's heads and shoulders above using T9 for text input.

I had a few women in our office with long fingernails give the keyboard a shot and their verdict was that it wasn't an issue. People with especially large thumbs may have some difficulties. The keyboard is probably the biggest "X-Factor" for a lot of potential buyers and my advice is to actually use it before you buy the phone.



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