At the 2009 CES, Palm unveiled a working prototype of their Pre smartphone, a touchscreen device that promises to rival the iPhone. And while others have made similar claims before, the Pre’s promised features – including copy-and-paste, a decent camera with flash, and a unique, visual approach to multitaskin – in many ways surpass the iPhones, while still being wrapped up in an elegant device with a simple interface.
It’s still too early to tell how the Palm Pre will do, or if Palm will be able to attract the attention of enough developers when everyone’s making money off of the iTunes App Store. This hasn’t stopped numerous writers from speculating as to the Pre’s future success, though, including yours truly. And with so much hype about Palm’s upcoming Pre smartphone, people may be holding back on purchasing a new smartphone, and waiting to see what the Pre will be like when it finally enters the market.
There’s already a Palm smartphone on the market, though. It’s called the Palm Centro, and it’s small, cheap, attractive, and available through multiple carriers. But in order to get a smartphone, you have to sign up for a contract, probably including a data plan, which may preclude you from buying another until your contract runs out. (I use words like “may” and “probably” because terms seemed to vary between carriers, locations, and even times that I checked.) Is it worth it to make such a committment before the Palm Pre comes out? Let’s take a look at the Palm Centro, and find out.
The Palm Centro is almost the quintessential smartphone. It combines a number of basic features into one sleek package, and while it doesn’t do any one thing very well, it can do a ton of different things. It doesn’t have a flash for its grainy, 1.3 megapixel webcam, and it doesn’t have wi-fi either. But unlike the Blackberry Pearl, another smartphone in the same price range as the Centro, it has a full qwerty keyboard. Made up of tiny, close-packed rubber chiclets, the Centro’s keyboard is surprisingly usable despite its small size.
Its touchscreen, however, may leave something to be desired. While it’s very high-resolution, it’s also very tiny, requiring you to use a stylus to tap things on-screen. Even Palm fans, who are used to using a stylus, may be dismayed by the flimsiness of the plastic one included with the Centro. Or by the raised rim around the edge of the screen, which makes it hard to select blocks of text.
The Palm Centro’s hardware exhibits a number of other quirks. Its microphone jack is smaller than the industry standard, requiring you to buy a separate headset or adapter in order to use it. Its “5-way navigator,” or directional pad, has the “select” button inside it, which means that I often find myself accidentally hitting one of the arrows to change the selection when I’m trying to press okay — such as to answer an incoming call. And its battery cover, the bane of all Centro users, takes a bit of a trick to get it off and on … such as when I want to insert or remove a MicroSD card, or remove the battery to reset it after another crash. It also flexes while I am typing, which gives the device a cheap feel.
The Palm Centro’s software is very simple. Designed by a neuroscientist to be the ideal way to use a computer, its interface has survived more or less unchanged since 1996, when the original Palm Pilot was released. On the downside, except for gaining color and high-res support, it’s been more or less unchanged since 1996. You can actually set the color scheme to a green-and-black “nostalgia” mode, which I thought would have been neat if the colored icons and selections hadn’t given it away.
I personally like PalmOS, and if you don’t there are a number of third-party programs available to make the Centro’s interface look shinier, or more like the iPhone’s. But even I have to admit that its utility is diminishing. And Palm seems to know this … the AT&T Centro I got has a completely separate interface built on top of PalmOS, a more phonelike one with its own, revamped contacts list and a list of favorite programs. Even the “Home” button is no longer called “Home,” but “Apps,” as though it begrudged them to admit that the old PalmOS still existed.
PalmOS was designed for a world where a handheld device couldn’t go on the Internet, or make phone calls. Its schtick was letting businessmen carry their appointments and contact information with them, by synchronizing with Outlook on their desktop PC. But outside of the business world, not as many people use Outlook, and the “Palm Desktop” software doesn’t cut it anymore as a place to put all your personal data. Not in a world where people can use Leopard’s Mail app, Lightning + Thunderbird, or Google Calendar to keep track of appointments. And what good is it to be able to take notes when you can’t synchronize them with BasKet, Evernote or Google Docs?
Waning third-party software support
Once the Palm Pilot’s “killer app,” the Palm Centro’s personal information management is now lackluster. I find myself only using the included PIM software to set an alarm for waking up each day, and to jot down quick notes that I won’t need access to long-term. Mostly, what I use on my Palm Centro is third-party software; whether bundled with the device, such as Pocket Tunes and Documents to Go, or purchased separately, like the iSilo Reader and Platypus.
PalmOS has long been one of the most fertile grounds for third-party software development. Long before the iTunes App Store there were places like Palmgear.com, where you could not only browse through thousands of apps but even download free demos. It seemed like everyone was writing Palm software, and indie publishers like Astraware got their big break developing PalmOS apps.
That was around the turn of the century, though. Nowadays everyone’s largely moved on to the iPhone. And with Palm having announced their new phone months in advance, it seems likely that what PalmOS software development remains will dry out pretty quickly. What’s more, the PalmOS software that exists is often expensive; PalmOS devices have historically been used by businessmen and professionals, and companies like iSilo could afford to charge exorbitant prices for the software they needed. Even games can cost up to $15 from Astraware’s online store.
I was able to get a Palm Centro without a data plan, and for me it’s been worth it. That’s because the Centro, thanks to its primitive, outdated software, is a poor Internet device. It’ll let you check Facebook and IM your friends, but it’s not very good for much else.
As a replacement for a cameraphone, an MP3 player and even a handheld game console, it’s not a bad little device if you aren’t picky. I like how it looks, and I love how the keyboard feels, even if the back of the unit flexes a little. But it’s not worth paying $40-$70 a month to access the Internet on it; not without a real browser, like on the iPhone or the T-Mobile G1.
If you’re waiting for a real, Internet-enabled smartphone, with a real browser and real software, then either check out one of those smartphones or wait for the Pre. But if you can’t afford that, and you can somehow pick up a Centro without signing away half your wages for it, then give it a shot! The Palm Centro may just be the smartphone that you’ve been looking for. Just remember to budget for extras, like third-party apps … and headphones you can actually use.