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Aug 07 2008

The Palm Centro Alternative

New phone offers low-cost option with strong e-mail support for business users.

The all-new Palm Centro smart device is a great way to transition from a traditional cell phone to a touch-screen smartphone. Or, for those who already have a touch-screen smartphone device such as the Palm Treo, the Centro offers a slimmed-down version that sacrifices very little.

End-User Advantages

At 4.2x2.1x0.73 inches and just 4.2 ounces, the Palm Centro compares more closely with non-touch-screen smartphones such as Samsung’s BlackJack than with its traditional Palm touch-screen predecessors. Although you lose about a quarter-inch per side in screen size, you more than make up for that in resolution: The Centro sports 320x320 pixels, while the Treo line is 240x240.

That increased resolution offers a smoother, more readable screen, even at a distance. I found surfing the web and reading e-mail on the Centro to be easier on the eyes than on the old Palm smartphones, including the Treo 750. Although both devices have a 16-bit color depth, the contrast and hues on the Centro just seem easier on the eyes. However, don’t expect too many improvements in the web browser: The Centro uses the Palm Blazer browser, which hasn’t been updated in years.

You can really feel the size difference, both in weight and width. The quarter-inch difference in width makes it easier to hold, especially if you have small hands, and the reduced weight is particularly noticeable when it’s in your pocket. I could always feel the Treo’s tug when I carried it, but Centro almost made it into the washing machine when I forgot to take it out of my pants pocket. 

Palm has also improved the feel of the navigation console.  The central button’s transition to the outlying oval used for navigation just feels more natural and smooth to the thumb. The qwerty keyboard has been condensed somewhat to fit the smaller form factor, and the keys are now more like bubbles than actual keys. I do quite a bit of typing on my devices, and I didn’t feel this to be an impediment, though I made more mistakes than usual with my oversize fingers.

Why the Palm Centro Works for IT

The Centro features the Palm OS Garnet v5.4.9 operating system. Although I’m primarily a Windows Mobile user, I did not find the transition to the Palm OS difficult. In many ways, I see why a number of my friends swear by it. The new version of VersaMail includes support for direct-push over-the-air synchronization with mail servers such as Microsoft Exchange Server 2003–2007 for contacts, calendar and e-mail.

The Centro supports multiple carriers, including Sprint, AT&T and Verizon. That makes it more likely that users who want this phone will fit into your corporate cell-phone plan if you have one — or, they’ll be happy they can stay on the family network.

The Centro also includes DataViz’s Documents To Go v10. This application has full support for reading, editing and creating native Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. I gave that a spin with a couple of complex files, and it did a pretty fair job at conversion. Couple that with the higher resolution, and these documents look even better than before.

The battery life proved up to spec with its 3.5-hour talk time and 300 hours of standby. I use my smartphone constantly for e-mail but rarely for phone calls, and I can go three to four days between charges, which seems pretty standard if not better than most of the smart devices I’ve reviewed.


While some would consider this an advantage, the Centro is on the Palm OS, which seems to be sliding a bit in my experience in corporate networks. That said, as a traditional Windows Mobile user, I found my Palm OS experience to be quite enjoyable. I may be one of the newest converts — we’ll see. But if you have diehard Windows Mobile users in your organization, getting them to switch will be as hard as … well, getting Palm OS lovers to drop their OS for Windows Mobile.

For some reason, I also had problems with the VersaMail sync. Most of the time the direct push worked seamlessly, but on occasion I received an error asking me to manually sync to my Outlook EAS profile. As I never sync via USB, it could be the phone was unhappy about that. In addition, VersaMail used to give you a status update about what it was doing; now it just spins a little cursor in the corner. I suppose it’s less intrusive this way, but as an IT guy, I like to know where it’s getting hung up if it’s slow.

I also found the touch-screen more difficult to use with my large fingers. Often I had to use the stylus to press on-screen buttons. However, I quickly learned how to avoid the touch screen issue by navigating with the central button. In my experience, most folks who have a touch-screen smartphone do not actually touch the screen very often, simply because it’s more convenient to leave your fingers and thumb where they are, on the navigation button and the keyboard.

CDW Price: $322.99  

Dr. Jeffrey Sheen is the lead enterprise analyst for Grange Mutual Casualty Group of Columbus, Ohio.

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