Palm really caused a stir when they released the Palm Pre. Said by some to be the only phone in the iPhone’s league, it offers features the iPhone doesn’t … like its Synergy multi-sync, hardware keyboard, and “card”-based multitasking. Palm’s been making phones for a long time now, though, and they didn’t start with the Pre. The Palm Centro has been in stores since 2007, and it’s still stocked by most major carriers. You can buy it in a variety of colors, and even buy GSM unlocked Centros from the Palm store. And even though it was released just a couple of years ago, it can run thousands of apps, all designed to run on Palm OS devices like the earlier Treo smartphones and Palm Pilot organizers. Is the Palm Centro a worthy competitor to the iPhone (and/or Palm Pre)? Not a chance. It’s cheaply made, and it suffers from a number of shortcomings. Still, it’s a lot cheaper than either, and it has a couple of features that the iPhone doesn’t. Let’s take a look at the Palm Centro’s shortcomings relative to the iPhone, before we go on and look at its strengths.
The Palm Centro’s weaknesses versus the iPhone
First and most noticeable is the Palm Centro’s hardware. Instead of the iPhone’s sleek metal and glass, the Palm Centro is plastic and, well, apparently more plastic. The screen has something solid underneath, but on top is a plasticy layer that yields about a millimeter to the tip of your stylus. Did I say stylus? The Palm Centro comes with a stylus, and you have to use it, because the Palm Centro’s screen doesn’t respond to your fingertip the way that the iPhone does; it only responds to firm pressure. And the Palm Centro’s included stylus is tiny and thin, and so cheap and plasticy that it bends easily. I’m almost afraid that I’ll break the thing. You can buy better, metal ones of course, but those are an added expense.
You could technically use your fingernail instead, but you won’t want to. The Palm Centro’s screen is tiny, fewer than two inches across diagonally, and some of the targets are really small. Even with the Palm Centro’s included stylus, you’ll have a hard time scrolling menus and selecting text sometimes, because the screen’s also recessed a tiny bit into the unit itself. And while the Palm Centro has a pretty high-resolution screen, it’s so tiny that you’ll have to hold it close to see anything on it.
You can technically watch YouTube movies and TV shows on the Palm Centro (if you have a data plan), but that’s about all the web browsing that you’ll be doing. It can do AIM, MSN, Yahoo and Facebook, but aside from that the included web browser is clunky and primitive. On top of that, the Palm Centro is prone to locking up, and when it does you’ll have to take off the back of the unit and take out the battery for a second before replacing it. Worse, you have to take off the battery cover in order to get to the MicroSD card slot, too … and you’ll need to buy a MicroSD card for your Palm Centro, because the amount of built-in memory it has can’t hold much more than a single album of MP3s.
There is no App Store. Well, there is, but you have to download it from the Internet and put it on your Palm Centro yourself, and it has a lot fewer titles than the iPhone’s besides. The Palm Centro doesn’t sync with iTunes except on the Mac, and then you need added software for that. Finally, it has no accelerometer (Wiimote-like tilt control) … so if you want to play video games on it, you’ll have to use either the touchscreen or some of the tiny buttons on the Palm Centro’s face. And a lot of older Palm games were designed for Palm units that had different buttons, so you may find gameplay a bit awkward sometimes.
The Palm Centro’s strengths versus the iPhone
Now for the good news. A lot of the things I just mentioned can actually be seen as strengths, if you look at them in the right way.
The “cheap, plasticy” case, for instance, comes in a variety of different colors. Some of these are exclusive to different carriers, but that’s actually another strength; the Palm Centro is available for multiple major carriers. The iPhone you can only get on AT T;, as of the time of this writing.
You have to remove the battery cover to get to the MicroSD card, and you basically have to buy a MicroSD card for your Palm Centro. On the bright side, though, the Palm Centro can use MicroSD cards, giving it removable memory storage. You can buy multiple cards if you like, to use as backup or as different music / ebook / app libraries. And if you buy cards that come with adapters, you can use the cards’ adapters to quickly and easily transfer data between your computer (with an SD card reader) and your Palm Centro. Finally, unlike on the iPhone you can also replace the battery yourself, giving your Palm Centro much longer effective battery life than normal. There’s a bit of a trick to getting the battery cover off, but I covered that in an article that you can read by clicking here.
The Palm Centro’s touchscreen may not be as good as the iPhone’s, but it does have a hardware keyboard. And while the merits of hardware keyboards versus on-screen keyboards — especially the iPhone’s — are debatable, hardware keyboards are a lot more familiar to people who are used to using them (like on a Blackberry or other device). Which means that if you’re used to using one, you won’t have to spend weeks adjusting to an onscreen keyboard if you buy a Palm Centro instead of an iPhone. I think the Palm Centro’s hardware keyboard is the best smartphone keyboard out there, and I’ve personally written multiple articles on it … but your mileage may vary, especially if you have tiny hands.
The Palm Centro may not sync with iTunes on a PC, but it does come with “Palm Desktop” software that lets you synchronize your notes and contacts with your PC or Mac. Its Outlook sync is a little buggy, but there may be an app to help with that; and if you use a Mac you can sync a ton of Mac applications with your Palm Centro using The Missing Sync. This $40 Mac app will sync your iTunes library with the Palm Centro’s PocketTunes music player, your iPhoto libraries with its photo viewer, and a bunch more things besides. It’s also available in a “Business Edition” which includes professional tech support.
Finally, like I said before, there are thousands of apps available to install on Palm Centros, including a ton of free apps (or free demos). And while you can’t get them all through Palm’s online store, you can check out sites like http://www.freewarepalm.com/ and http://www.palmopensource.com/ for free Palm Centro apps, and sites like http://www.palmgear.com/ for commercial or shareware Palm Centro apps. You have to install them yourself by syncing with your computer, but you can download free demos to try out an app before you buy it. Finally, you can buy Palm games from places like http://www.astraware.com/palm/, which has a ton of games and game demos for your Palm Centro … including PC/Mac hits like Bejeweled, and even iPhone favorites like Platypus and GTS World Racing, all of them available for your Palm Centro. Click here to see why I prefer to buy Palm Centro games from Astraware!
The Palm Centro is likely the last Palm OS device anyone will make. Palm’s moved on to their new “Web OS” with the Palm Pre, and third-party support from companies like Sony has dried up. That means that if you buy a Palm Centro now, you may not be able to upgrade … when you buy a new phone, you won’t be able to port most of your apps and things over. Instead, you’ll have to buy all-new ones.
On the plus side, Styletap (at http://www.styletap.com/ ) makes a Palm OS “emulator,” which will let you run Palm Centro apps on a Windows Mobile or Symbian smartphone … and if you’re switching to either of those platforms, you may be able to download new copies of your Astraware games thanks to their guarantee. Besides that, there will probably be better software available in the future … so aside from old favorite games, you may not really need your old apps (unless you bought a ton of “protected” books for a book reader that doesn’t work on anything else).
The final upside to the Palm Centro versus the iPhone is that it’s cheap. I mean even cheaper than the $99 iPhone 3G. It’s not worth buying a data plan for — the web browsing that you could do on one will be limited. But if you can get one without a data plan, or even buy it unlocked, it may become your next mobile companion. It’s not as shiny, easy or intuitive as the iPhone, but if you’re willing to put up with its quirks it’ll get the job done. It may even replace your old iPod, camera and voice recorder. And did I mention it’s cheap?
Whatever mobile device you use, have fun with it! And let me know what you think, in the comments.