Treo Killer?

It took a very long time for Palm and Sprint to get around to sending me a review unit of the Palm Centro, which isn't too surprising since eWEEK's target audience doesn't necessarily cross over well with Palm's intended younger (and hipper) audience for its new smart phone. But after

It took a very long time for Palm and Sprint to get around to sending me a review unit of the Palm Centro, which isn't too surprising since eWEEK's target audience doesn't necessarily cross over well with Palm's intended younger (and hipper) audience for its new smart phone. But after a couple weeks of using the Centro, I think perhaps that the people who are going to really snap it up are existing Treo users wanting something cheaper and smaller to replace their aging current devices.

Palm is trying to ramp up the social benefits of the Centro, emphasizing the connectedness and fun the device provides. But really, the Centro is a recently divorced middle-aged man, who suddenly gets motivated to join a gym and lose 25 pounds really fast. Then he hits the bars, looking for the American Beauty.)

This is because - with the Centro - Palm has taken the increasingly aged Palm OS-based Treo platform, slimmed it down, slapped a significantly lower price tag on it and started hyping up the "cool" factor to attract some youth to the device. But other than the price (starting at $399, but it goes down to $99 with two-year contract and rebates) and the size (4.22 by 2.11 by 0.73 inches, and 4.2 ounces), Palm hasn't changed a thing -- save for the marketing.

The Centro runs the same version of the Palm OS (5.4.9) that came on the Treo 755p, the Treo 700p and the Treo 680p before that. Palm has already given up on this version of the Palm OS, working toward Linux for the next iteration of consumer devices, while publicly stating that Windows Mobile is the future as far as business-class smart phones are concerned. One can only hope that the Centro will be the last hurrah for v5.4.9.

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Palm's marketing of the Centro is hilarious. The campaign takes the same collection of tools and applications (list in PDF) used to extend the work day for several years now, and turned them around. These same applications are now all social tools to help you make that party, keep that date and, of course, make new connections -- in your social life. Check out Tiffany Maleshefski's amusing screed about Palm's new marketing strategy.

Now, I'm not in Palm's intended target demographic for the Centro anymore, so I'm making a few guesses as to what I think would be important to the right audience.

- Bluetooth 2.0 for some wireless, stereo sound? Nope, the Centro only supports Bluetooth 1.2.

- A great still and video camera with integrated software so users can easily post online? The camera is a pretty basic, with 1.3 megapixels and a 2x digital zoom. Both still shots and video are adequate, but nothing special. I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by the pickup on the built-in microphone, however, with which I usably recorded several conversations with people standing 15-20 feet away in a moderately quiet room.

- Built-in social applications? Barely anything, which is actually a bit of a surprise. Even the BlackBerry has a Facebook application right now -- but with the Centro, everything will need to go through the browser. I guess the integration with Google Maps is pretty nice, but Palm introduced that over the summer with the 755p. The least Palm could do now is give us a built-in Flickr upload tool...

- Flexible and fast Web browser? The Blazer browser is really showing its age right now, and will in no way compare to what you get with the iPhone or even newer Windows Mobile 6-based smart phones. Palm has done some decent work getting video from sites like YouTube to work with the Centro's built-in media player. But with the Centro's small screen (2.2 inch diagonal, with 320 by 320 pixels) and the stripped-down approach to mobile browsing employed by Blazer, Web pages are boring and missing much of their multimedia appeal. For instance, Flickr just looks like a bunch of links -- no thumbnails or anything.

- Fast Internet? I will say that with Sprint's EvDO network as the network connection, downloads are pretty fast. Of course, following a time-honored tradition, the Centro does not include a Wi-Fi radio for even faster hotspot or home network connections.

- Text and IM? OK, those are there if you can roll with the very small and cramped keyboard. To accommodate the Centro's slimmed-down stylings, Palm has replaced the traditional hard-molded, spaced keys of the Treo with tightly crammed but more gummy- and rubbery-feeling keys. I've read plenty of other reviews that have been pretty critical of the new keyboard (calling it cheap, cramped, etc.), but I admit it -- I like it better than the Treo's keyboard. Yes, the board is too cramped for my big thumbs, but I felt that way about the Treo as well. But the softer keys of the Centro make it easier for me to type with my thumbnails, as they offer better traction (whereas I tended to slide off the keys of the Treo when typing with my nails.) I could very well be in the minority here, so take that opinion with a grain of salt.

Despite all that, I kind of like the device, certainly more than I have liked the last few Treo iterations. And after two weeks of showing it to people during my test period, the ones who have had the most enthusiastic response to it haven't been my younger, more socially active (and demographically relevant) friends, but current Treo users who are looking for their next device. They (ok, there were only five of them, but still) all liked the size, and loved the price. And they already are comfortable with the applications and wouldn't have to migrate away from the Palm desktop.

But I guess there's little future in Palm preaching to that choir.

The Centro launched in mid-October, with only a 90-day period of Sprint exclusivity. I imagine we will soon see the Centro appear with other carriers sometime in Q1 2008.

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