Katherine Boehret

Palm’s Centro Tries to Steal Pearl’s Glimmer

A number of my friends, ranging in age from mid-20s to early 30s, are in no rush to abandon their basic cellphones for smart phones like BlackBerrys or Treos. It’s not for lack of technological skill; these people are constantly text messaging and emailing, and spend a huge amount of time online every day. But they’d rather not carry a large, geeky-looking device. Nor do they want to pay a lot for this device and its monthly plan. Some of them even assume that smart phones work only with corporate email accounts.

The Palm Centro

The two companies most often associated with corporate-issued devices, Research In Motion Ltd. and Palm Inc. are anxious to convert people like my friends. This week I tested Palm’s new attempt: the Centro (www.palm.com/centro). It looks like a hip, miniature version of the more expensive Palm Treo, with most of the same functions and only costs $99 after rebates and a two-year contract. The Centro comes in onyx and ruby, though the latter won’t be sold until next month.

Overall, I liked the Centro. It has plenty of pluses, including a touch screen, easy email set-up for personal accounts like Gmail and Hotmail, built-in instant messaging for three programs, a camera for still shots or video and expandable memory. It’s available now and runs on Sprint’s fast 3G network, costing at least $15 monthly for data on top of your voice plan. Like the Treo, it has a tiny stylus for detailed screen selecting and an on/off ringer switch.

RIM should be credited with introducing one of the first hip, mini smart phones to the demographic of 25-to-30-year-olds without smart phones. About a year ago, it brought out the $200 BlackBerry Pearl 8100, which is narrower than traditional BlackBerrys and is easy to mistake for a stylish cellphone. It uses a condensed keyboard with two letters per key that works using auto-correcting SureType technology, and has a glowing trackball for navigation.

For Palm’s Centro to compete with the Pearl, it, too, needed to be thinner left to right. But instead of doubling up letters per key and using SureType like the Pearl, the Centro has a shrunken version of Palm’s full keyboard; letter keys are squeezed so close together that large-fingered users will likely have trouble. I found the Pearl’s keyboard easier to use because its keys are flatter and larger compared with the Centro keys, which caused me to mistype messages. But the Centro’s tiny keyboard could be a real step up for people who still use their cellphone’s numbered keypad to type text messages.

The Centro’s touch screen saves time and makes navigation easier. The BlackBerry Pearl doesn’t have a touch screen, forcing users to do a lot of scrolling with the navigational trackball.

A success with the Centro would be much needed good news for Palm, which hasn’t had an easy go of it lately. While RIM has been cranking out more stylish BlackBerrys, Palm’s solid Treo hasn’t changed all that drastically in the past couple of years. Even loyal Treo users are starting to complain about Palm’s old operating system crashing. Of course, the popularity of Apple Inc.’s iPhone only rubs salt in the wounds of this once unstoppable company.

RIM will bring out a new Pearl, the 8130, next month to step up its game. This Pearl will be the same physically, but will have some internal changes, including the ability to work on the CDMA network, built-in GPS and upgraded software.

I tested a stylish ruby Centro and also got my hands on an early version of the BlackBerry Pearl 8130 from Verizon Wireless. Lined up side by side, the Palm Centro looks like a chubby version of the Pearl. The Pearl looks and feels sleeker and sharper than the Centro, due in part to the Centro’s rounded edges and tiny, bubble-shaped keys.

The Pearl is just a hair smaller in all directions — width, height and depth. The Centro is almost a full ounce heavier than the Pearl, but each weighs only 4.2 and 3.4 ounces, respectively. The Centro’s 320×320 resolution screen looks brighter than the Pearl’s 240×260 screen.

I focused on the Centro, setting up two personal email accounts on it in just a few minutes. I started out typing very slowly on the keyboard, which has keys made of a slightly sticky material. The more familiar I became with it, the faster I could go, but I’m still not completely comfortable using the keyboard.

I quickly navigated through the Centro’s menus using Palm’s familiar operating system. The touch screen saved me from arrowing around to select an icon or menu; I just tapped the screen using my finger or the stylus. First-time smart-phone users will appreciate this aspect.

I made calls on the Centro, pressing the phone shortcut key to get started. The keyboard’s number keys work just as they do on a Treo, but I preferred using the larger virtual buttons on the touch screen. The Centro felt like a normal cellphone in my hand and against my ear, especially compared with the clunky, rectangular Treos and BlackBerrys. The tiny Centro fit into the smallest purse I own.

An icon on the home screen marked “IM” linked me directly into a screen where I could log in to and use three instant-messaging programs simultaneously: AOL’s AIM, Yahoo Messenger and Windows Live Messenger. I jumped between IM sessions using the left and right navigation key buttons. But a faster way to do this was just by touching the screen to select a program. I also tapped the screen to select names of friends before IMing them. Again, the touch screen saved time and took out the guesswork of which key to press to navigate.

I played preloaded music on the Centro and BlackBerry Pearl; both have built-in speakers that sound remarkably good for such little devices.

Battery life on the Centro is estimated at 3.5 hours of talk time and up to 12.5 days of standby time. The Pearl 8130’s talk time is expected to fetch 3.8 hours before quitting, but its standby battery is expected to last only nine days. I didn’t perform rigorous battery tests, but found that my BlackBerry Pearl needed to be charged before my Palm Centro after a weekend of using them for roughly the same amount of time.

The BlackBerry Pearl 8130 comes with only RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger program. Both the Pearl and Centro have 64 megabytes of internal memory and the ability to expand that using microSD cards.

If you’re considering the leap from a cellphone to a smart phone but don’t want the bigger, geekier look of one of these helpful devices, the Palm Centro is a good option. Its keyboard will take some getting used to, but its touch screen will win you over by providing a simpler way to navigate — especially for smart-phone novices.

-Edited By Walter S. Mossberg

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