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Palm Centro for AT&T

Tue Feb 19, 2008 - 8:21 AM EST - By Dieter Bohn

Look and Feel

Centro

The Palm Centro for AT&T (henceforth, in this review, the "Centro," for convenience's sake) is a wonder of a little phone. It packs all the power of traditional PalmOS Treos into a tiny, holdable package that's remarkably easy to use. With all the complaining about the PalmOS getting long in the tooth (myself among that throng), it's easy to forget: the PalmOS is both surprisingly powerful and easy to use.

When Palm recently revealed some sales data indicating that 75% of their buyers were new to the smartphone market, I fully believed it. If you've never owned a smartphone, the Centro is an easy decision to make. Without adding too much bulk or complexity to the device you carry in your pocket or purse, you can open yourself up to a new world of communication without needing to become a smartphone nerd like myself.

...Regular TreoCentral readers may be wondering: this seems like an awfully rosy picture to paint for a device that is, truly, almost nothing more than a Treo 680 repackaged into a compelling new form factor (although the Centro does have a better camera at 1.3 megapixels). This is true -- if you're a Treo 680 owner and are wondering "should I upgrade," my answer is simple: "Yes, but only if you want a smaller form factor." Regular readers may want to revisit the conclusion of our original Sprint Centro review, where I covered some of the ins and outs of the "upgrade decision."

There is, in fact, little to say to Treo fans about the Centro that hasn't already been said in that Sprint Centro review. So instead I'm going to write this review for the Centro's audience -- those brand new smartphone users who have never heard of "Garnet" and don't care much whether or not their smartphone has modern memory management.

If you've never owned a smartphone before: read on and find out why the Centro is a great option for you. If you are a longtime Treo fan like myself, I recommend you read on anyway: we could all stand to remind ourselves why the PalmOS is still a great option for smartphone fans.

Centro Centro

Hardware

The Centro is a "Candy bar QWERTY" phone, and it is, in fact, almost one of a kind in that regard. Most phones with a full QWERTY keyboard are relatively wide (like the Samsung BlackJack, BlackBerry Curve, or a Palm Treo), whereas the Centro clocks in at just 2.1" wide. That's almost precisely the width of a Motorola RAZR. It's also about the same width as the BlackBerry Pearl, but again, where the Pearl has a "SureType" keyboard, the Centro has a full QWERTY Keyboard. We'll get back to that keyboard in a second, but let's round out the rest of the dimensions.

Centro Centro

The Centro is 4.2" tall and .7" thick. That's a bit thicker than most feature phone users may be used to, but it's significantly thinner than a Treo. Just as importantly, though the Centro has an "aggressive" curve on its backside -- the effect of which is to make it feel incredibly good when held in your hand. It feels very natural.

The real reason for that extra thickness is that the Centro also sports a full 320x320 pixel touchscreen. It's recessed slightly (for protection) and sometimes requires the plastic stylus to interact with. Often it doesn't, though, and you can tap directly on the "OK" button or what-have-you without having to cycle around the screen with a 5-way keyboard. The screen isn't nearly as good as the iPhone (more on the iPhone in just a bit), but it's better than most feature phones and even higher resolution than most Windows Mobile phones.

On AT&T, the Centro is a pearly white color with silver and green accents. Many sites have seen the green buttons in leaked images and thought they looked odd, but in person I find them fine. I personally like white as a choice of color -- there's a cuteness to the Centro that fits well with it.

All in all, the thing to remember about the Centro is that it feels *tiny* for a smartphone. Here are some comparison shots (to an iPhone, a Palm Treo 680, a Motorola Q9h, and a BlackBerry Pearl), although until you hold one in your hand you won't really get the "smallness" of it.

Centro
Centro Centro Centro

Around the device

On the upper left of the front of the device is a small LED light. This light, unlike with previous Treos and unlike many smartphones, does not constantly blink when you're in service. It does blink red if you're out of service and also indicate charging status [Corrected since first published, the LED doesn't seem to show new message status without 3rd party software- thanks deibelsan!]

The front of the Centro is taken up mostly by the 320 x 320 pixel touchscreen. It's a bright, beautiful screen that holds up very well indoors and reasonably well in sunlight. Because its area is slightly smaller than Treos yet it also has the same number of pixels, they're packed very tightly together, making images and text look crisp and clean. My only gripe is that the base font on PalmOS isn't all I'd like it to be (and yes, there's a 3rd party application to fix that!).

Besides the QWERTY keyboard, the Centro features a main set of buttons, most of which are customizable. There's the Send and End buttons for starting and ending phone calls, the End button does double duty as a way to turn the phone on and off by holding it down. Next to these are the phone button to go to the Phone Application (much more on that in a moment), the Home button to go to the main application launcher, a calendar button, and an email button. The phone, calendar, and email buttons can also be assigned to secondary functions by pressing the Option key on the keyboard.

There's also the "5-way" pad, which gives you up, down, left, right, and select. The PalmOS has actually been very well optimized so that you can perform more operations with this 5-way pad or by using the touchscreen. The effect of this is that you can almost always use the Centro one-handed and don't need to bring out the stylus to interact with it as often as you might on another smartphone like a Windows Mobile device.

On the left side you have your volume up and down buttons as well as a side button that can be mapped to any application with a long press. AT&T would like you to map it to their Push To Talk service, but if you don't know anybody who uses the service (I don't), you can map it to another function. Unless you have enabled PTT, in which case the side button becomes "locked" to that app.

On the top is the ringer switch, one of the great innovations that Palm introduced with the Treo. You simply slide it over to switch to vibrate mode and instantly silence all sound on the device -- a real lifesaver for meetings. On the right side is an infrared port -- not many people use this port anymore but it's there if you want to beam your contact information or share a program with another Centro user.

Centro Centro

On the bottom of the device is the data connector and the power connector. Both are "non-standard" in the sense that they use Palm-specific connectors -- this is disappointing but also fairly common with phones. Next to these ports is a 2.5mm headset jack. A 2.5mm jack is convenient for use with a wired headset for phone calls, but it's also a royal pain for listening to music. You'll either need to use a special pair of headphones with a 2.5mm plug or use an adapter to convert it to a regular, 3.5mm headset jack. The microphone is also located down here, of course, as is an anchor for attaching a lanyard.

On the rear of the phone is the stylus, battery door, camera, self-portrait mirror, and the speaker for the Centro. The speaker is used for the ringer, for speakerphone, and also for playing music if the mood strikes you. It's plenty loud, but not the loudest I've heard on a smartphone. The silver ridge on the back of the AT&T Centro is actually the only spot on the entire exterior of the phone that differs from the Sprint version. Palm has added a very subtle curve / ridge to the bottom of that silver section. That ridge is nice because it means when the Centro is lying flat on the desk, the speaker isn't completely flush with the desk but just barely raised -- preventing it from being muffled.

Centro Centro



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