Review posted Feb. 19, 2008 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Back in October 2007, we reviewed the Palm Centro, at that time exclusive to Sprint in the US. Now AT&T is offering the GSM version of Palm's most affordable PDA phone. Selling for $50 less than the Treo 680 on AT&T Wireless, the Centro is also smaller and lighter. The Centro is an introductory level PDA phone that runs Palm OS Garnet 5.4.9 (same as the 680) and it does most everything the 680 does, with a less expensive casing. PDA phones and smartphones (what's the difference: PDA phones have touch screens) used to sell for $500 but these days, prices have dropped, and even power-user models like the AT&T Tilt selling for considerably less. AT&T's smartphone lineup is so broad that the Centro's biggest competition comes from within AT&T's line: the Samsung BlackJack II, Pantech Duo and BlackBerry Pearl also sell for $99 with a 2 year contract. The BlackBerry Curve, Treo 680 and Motorola Q Global sell for $149. Palm and AT&T are betting that Palm OS fans and touch screen lovers will flock to the only $99 device with a touch screen. The hip, young look and small size are attractive to youthful first time smartphone buyers and the touch screen has become a hotter commodity since the introduction of the iPhone. And unlike Windows Mobile, the Centro, like all Palm OS devices, syncs to Mac OS out of the box.
The Centro, like the Treo 680 but unlike the Treo 750, has EDGE but no 3G for data. It weighs only 4.2 ounces and uses the same Marvel PXA 312MHz processor as the Treo 680 (the Treo 750 has a 300MHz Samsung processor). It has Bluetooth, a 320 x 320 pixel color touch screen, PTT and is a quad band GSM world phone. It's available in two colors: Glacier white with green accents and Obsidian black (available approximately mid-March).
Since the Sprint and AT&T Centro are nearly identical in many respects, this review re-uses some content from our original Centro review.
While the Sprint Centro filled a gap in Sprint's affordable smartphone and PDA phone lineup, it's less impressive among the AT&T competition, as we noted. Still, for $99 the Centro offers plenty of bang for the buck: you can add a wide selection of applications (there are thousands of freeware, shareware and commercial Palm OS applications on the market), browse the web with an HTML rather than WAP browser, send and receive email and compose them easily using the keyboard. The Centro's touch screen trumps Microsoft Windows Mobile smartphones with its touch screen and higher resolution display-- Windows Mobile smartphones like the BlackJack II have 320 x 240 displays compared to the Centro's 320 x 320 display.
Yes, Palm OS is getting old and tired for power users, but for entry level folks it still has a lot to offer, including ease of use, stability, 3rd party software selection. The Centro runs Palm OS 5.4.9 and has ~63.5 megs of flash memory for storage. The phone doubles as an MP3 and video player and accepts microSD cards up to 4 gigs in capacity (SDHC support) to store lots of tunes and video. As usual, Palm bundles the excellent Pocket Tunes for music playback, which offers music syncing with the desktop, playlists, skins, cover art and more. Speaking of syncing, all Palm OS devices including the Centro can sync to Windows and Mac OS.
The Centro dares to be different, and we give it points for that. Whether you like the design is largely a matter of taste, and we found ourselves appreciating its looks and feel in the hand, despite the cheesy plastic casing. It looks hip even though it cries out "budget phone"-- it won't be mistaken for a ritzy feature phone or HTC device. The smartphone feels solid and decently make nonetheless, and we surmise it could take a few bumps and hard knocks and keep on dialing.
The back (battery) cover is hard hard to remove, and a bit stiff to get back on. The SIM card slot is under the battery, and you must also remove the stylus to insert or remove it since the stylus runs above the left side of the SIM. The microSD card door is on the phone's left side and looks tantalizingly accessible, but alas it's not. The manual suggests removing the back cover before opening the microSD card slot (given the Centro's slippery back cover and tight fit, that's no fun either). Though the manual doesn't suggest removing the back cover to eject a card, we found the card hung up on the battery cover's edge, so we had to remove the cover to get the card out.
The keyboard's keys are tiny, and while they look unusable, we found it quite easy to type. Impressive work, Palm. A Treo it's not, but the keyboard is decent unless you have broad fingers. It's easier to type with fingernails (even short ones) rather than blunt fingertips, and the keys have a soft plastic texture that prevents finger slips. The keys are backlit in white with black letter masking, and the number keys are green (on the white model) but still light enough to emit backlight. The usual Palm OS find, menu and backlight (green FN key +p) keys are there. The phone dialer, home, email and calendar buttons surround the small oval d-pad. Opinions were divided on the d-pad; some loved it while others found it too small to operate easily.
The Centro feels great in the hand and is easy to operate one-handed, including the keyboard. Text message addicts will no doubt love the phone since it makes one-handed SMS-ing a breeze (again, as long as you don't have large fingers). Like the Treo, the device has call send and end buttons, but the call send button doesn't bring up the phone dialer screen. We still don't see the point in having two buttons, call send and phone dialer screen launcher, when one would do.
The incredibly loud and clear speaker is on the back of the Centro, and it worked well for calls and mono music playback. The phone has a 2.5mm stereo headset jack on the bottom, but no headset is included. The standard Palm connector lives on the bottom edge, along with the charging port. AT&T includes a world charger, but unlike the Sprint version, there's no adapter to use other 1 amp chargers with the Centro.
Phone and Data
The Centro is a quad band world phone (850/900/1800/1900MHz) with EDGE that works anywhere GSM service is available. It's sold locked to AT&T, which means you must use an AT&T SIM in the phone. Like the Sprint version, call quality is very good on the Centro, and reception is good. Call recipients complimented the Centro, saying it sounded landline good. Volume is high compared to Treo models and the phone is loud enough for somewhat noisy environments. The speakerphone is very loud and clear with no buzzing at moderately high volumes. The Centro works with Bluetooth headsets and we tested it with the Cardo S800 and the Jawbone. The Cardo got 12 feet of range and sound quality was better than normal for this headset. The Jawbone got 10 feet (a little low for the Jawbone) and both volume and sound quality were good.
The phone interferes with computer speakers more than average for a GSM 850MHz phone, and we found we had to keep the Centro at least 4 feet away from our desktop speakers when the Centro's voice or data connection was active lest we get that annoying loud buzz from the speakers.
The Centro comes with Voice Signal's excellent and accurate Voice Command 2.0 software which uses true speech recognition and doesn't require the recording of voice tags. We applaud Palm and AT&T for including voice dialing software in a budget-priced PDA phone, but we do wish it supported voice dialing over Bluetooth. The left side button below the volume up/down control is assigned to voice dialing, which is convenient.
For those who are into PTT (Push to Talk) on AT&T, the Centro supports PTT and you can have walkie-talkie 29 buddies. Perfect for those ever-popular teens and small workforces.
Top to bottom side view of the Centro, Treo and Motorola Q9 Global-- the Moto is much thinner, though bigger in every other dimension. The Treo is thicker than the Centro.
AT&T and Palm include an IM client that handles AIM, Yahoo and Windows Live Messenger. This apps uses both data and SMS, so a plan that includes data and a text message pack would be advisable if your a heavy IM-er. Since there's no 3G, there's no CV (Cellular Video), AT&T's streaming video service. There is an icon to download MobiTV, a pay-for service ($9.99/month) that doesn't require 3G and works fine over EDGE. There are also icons to get TeleNav which requires a separate GPS unit and a $9.99 monthly subscription fee; MusicID, a cool app that listens to songs and IDs them for you (also requires a monthly fee) and XM Radio Mobile ($8.99/month).
Left side with volume rocker and voice command button.
Right side with microSD card slot door and IR port.
For non-streaming media, Palm includes the Pics & Videos application which handles image and video playback. The app is great for viewing photos, but video support (beyond video taken with the camera) is best left to 3rd party applications like The Core Pocket Media Player. The Centro's 312MHz XScale processor is up to the job of playing video loaded onto a card, and we found it managed 350kbps files fine. The 2.25" (according to our ruler, measured diagonally) display is bright, sharp and at 320 x 320 pixel resolution, is suited to mobile video playback. We wouldn't call this a top display among PDA phones but it's very good for a $99 model.
The pre-installed DataViz Documents To Go 10 can read, edit and create Word, PowerPoint, Excel and text documents as well as read and PDF files. It does a very good job of preserving document formatting. Better in fact than the Mobile Office suite included with Windows Mobile devices.
Pocket Tunes Deluxe 4.0.4 by NormSoft, another staple of the Palm OS application lineup is an excellent MP3 player with a wide range of features including syncing with Windows Media Player on the desktop, skins, playlist support, album art, EQ and background playback with the screen off. The Centro supports SDHC microSD cards (cards greater than 2 gigs in capacity) so you can store a large music library on the PDA phone. We only wish that AT&T had included a stereo earbud headset so users could enjoy this excellent player in stereo out of the box.
Though only 1.3 megapixels, the camera did an excellent job with the image processing and we got very pleasing colors and a natural sharpness in well lit scenes. There's less noise in the AT&T version's photos than Sprint's for indoor shots, and indoor shots are acceptable. Photo resolutions are 1280 x 1024, 640 x 480 and 320 x 240. There are few settings available, and these are: effect, date stamp, shutter sound on/off and prompt sound and review period. You can save photos to a card and send them via MMS.
There are separate icons for camera and camcorder, though you can switch between the two modes once in the application. Video resolutions are 352 x 288 and 176 x 144, and you can record audio (or not), disable the shutter sound, use a limited palette of effects (normal, black & white, sepia) and save video to a card. Video colors are decent, but there's a great deal of motion blur and moderate noise. Once again, for a $99 PDA phone, we won't complain: the camera is decent and colorizes (outdoor shots only) in a pleasing fashion.
The AT&T Centro uses the same 1150 mAh replaceable Lithium Ion battery as the Sprint model. Battery life is similar to the EDGE-based Treo 680 on AT&T. The Centro lasted lasted 2 days on a charge with moderate use including email access, web browsing and watching 30 minutes of MobiTV each day. That's average for a PDA phone, though a little short given the lack of power hungry 3G.
The Centro isn't a revolutionary, cutting edge device. But in its own way, it's starting a quiet revolution: this is the first touch screen PDA or smartphone to sell for only $99 at introduction. And it covers all the basics well: good phone quality, web browsing, messaging and email (including push email) along with MP3 playback support (once you get a hold of a stereo headset). the usual Palm ease of use, strong PIM apps to keep you organized and a QWERTY keyboard that's sure to please former feature phone users who are tired of T9. And we're happy to see Documents To Go 10 included with support for reading, editing and creating Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. Power users will want to look at the Palm OS and Windows Mobile Treos or other competing power user smartphones, but for those who don't need everything but the kitchen sink, the Centro is worth a look.
Pro: Affordable, compact, sturdy. Screen isn't that bright but it's sharp and higher resolution than US Windows Mobile PDA and smartphones.
Con: No 3G for fast data. No stereo headset in the box tarnishes the out of the box music experience and no A2DP stereo Bluetooth headset support.
TFT color LCD. Screen size diagonally: ~2.25". Resolution:
320 x 320.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
XScale 312 MHz processor. 64 megs RAM and 128 megs built-in Flash memory with 63.5 megs
available for your use.
x 2.1 x 0.7 inches. Weight: 4.2 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad band world phone 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands. EDGE for data.
in speaker, mic and 32.5mm headset jack.
Bluetooth 1.2, supports headset, handsfree, Obex, DUN and HotSync profiles.
Software:Palm OS 5.4.9. Documents to Go 10 (read, edit and create MS Word, PowerPoint, Excel and text files), Voice Signal's Voice Command 2.0, AT&T Xpress Mail, Music ID (requires monthly fee), MobiTV 1.0.8h (requires monthly fee), XM Radio (requires monthly fee), Palm's Pics & Video, Pocket Tunes Deluxe 4, IM (AIM, Yahoo and Windows Live Messenger), Web (Blazer web browser) 4.5.8, VersaMail 4.01, TeleNav (requires monthly fee if used with a GPS), PTT (Push to Talk), voice memos, world clock, calculator, camera, camcorder and PIM applications (calendar, contacts, memos and tasks).
microSD card slot compatible with cards up to 4 gigs in capacity.