Palm Centro shows not all shrinkage is bad

The slot for the memory card provides the only real
hardware problem.



NEW YORK — Here’s one thing I can say for certain about the new Palm Centro smart phone: It comes with a Sudoku game.

For nearly a week, that was the only thing I could say about the Centro, because I spent most of my time with the phone playing that very addictive game.

Then, through a supreme act of will, I eventually tore myself away.

Palm Inc.’s flagship smart phone is the Treo, which has been pretty popular since it was introduced in 2002. But recently, competitors have edged in on its niche.

The Centro is Palm’s way of fighting back, by making a Treo that’s smaller, cuter and cheaper. It’s just $99 with a two-year Sprint contract (after a mail-in rebate), making it probably the cheapest smart phone yet.

Remarkably, the Centro makes few compromises despite the smaller size — there’s about a third of an inch less of it in every dimension compared with the Treo 700p, from last year. There’s no external antenna, making it very pocketable. Its corners are nice and rounded.

The Centro’s full-alphabet keyboard is tiny, but the keys are soft and raised high, making them easy to press with the nails.

Talk time is decent, despite a smaller battery. I measured it at 4 hours at maximum signal strength, beating the manufacturer’s figure of “up to 3.5 hours.”

The screen is small, at 2.2 inches diagonally, but very sharp, with the same 320-by-320-pixel resolution as the best of the Treos. That’s good for Sudoku.

The only real hardware problem is the memory-card slot. It’s partly obscured by the battery cover, making it very tough to insert and remove the card by the procedure recommended in the manual. Once I figured out that it’s best to remove the battery cover to access the slot, things went better, but this added step shouldn’t be necessary.

There’s also the issue of the stylus. The iPhone is designed to be operated with the fingers alone, and makes the stylus seem so ’90s. Regular Treos can be used quite well with the fingers alone, but the Centro’s smaller screen makes the stylus more essential. Unfortunately, the Centro’s stylus is a chintzy plastic thing, not metal like the Treo’s, and it’s easy to lose.

Treos are available either with Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Mobile operating system, or Palm OS. Neither gets a lot of love from consumers. I’ve used the Palm software for quite a while, and I prefer it over Windows because it’s easier to use, so I think Palm made a good choice in putting that on the Centro too.

Apart from ease of use, the other strong side of the Palm system is that there are thousands of applications that will run on it. The integration with the phone functions, and with Microsoft Outlook on the computer side, is well executed as well.

The included e-mail application is designed to work with Microsoft’s Exchange corporate server and popular Web e-mail services like Gmail. The Web browser is decent, and the Centro’s touch screen makes it much more useable than on nontouch smart phones, because you can tap links easily. It rides on Sprint Nextel Corp.’s third-generation broadband network, which makes for speedy browsing and downloads.

Palm’s weakest spot is in entertainment. Videos are very small on the screen. The included music-player software wastes precious screen real-estate and is clumsy to navigate. Along with the problematic card slot, which you’ll need to use if you plan to carry around more than about 10 songs, this makes it tough to recommend the Centro as a music player.

Overall, I can imagine worse uses for $99 than buying a Centro, particularly for someone who hasn’t had a smart phone before. The ability to do e-mail, browse the Web and synchronize calendars and contacts with Microsoft Outlook will certainly be appreciated.

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