Palm Centro breaks ex-iPhone user out of jail

It lacks the flash of Apple's pride and joy but is available without a contract

The iPhone bandwagon is now more like a cruise ship: AT&T reported Wednesday that 1.6 million people signed up for iPhone service in the first quarter. As an ex-iPhone user, I wish them luck, but I'm not going back anytime soon.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, being involuntarily separated from my iPhone practically gave me a Twitter Age version of the shakes.

Features such as Google Maps, a mahjong game, and most of all, the mobile Web itself had become addictions. How would I survive another movie line or 10-minute wait for the bus? How would I even know how long the bus wait would be? I feared being disconnected from the world.

Yet as great as the temptation was, I resisted buying another iPhone. Not even the speed boost from EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) to 3G managed to lure me. The idea of getting my favorite blogs, videos and social-networking sites sooner was overshadowed by the grim reality of waiting another two years for a new contract to run out.

At US$30 per month, the iPhone 3G data plan isn't really that expensive, especially since it comes with a subsidy on the price of the phone. But you can't buy it without a monthly voice plan, starting at $39.99. Then there are the taxes, plus the cost of any text messages, which was bundled in with the original iPhone. And in the end, it's not so much the monthly charge as the commitment to pay it for two years, or to pay another large sum just to stop paying the one you decided you didn't want.

That's why I've gone back to the future.

It turns out that for the same price as the 8GB iPhone 3G ($199), beleaguered Palm is selling its Centro with no commitment at all. Pick any carrier using GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), get their SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card, and slide it in.

There's no jailbreaking to do, because there's no jail for this Centro, nor for me. The phone has a four-band radio (850MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz and 1900MHz), so it will work in most countries. I got mine about two weeks AIP (After iPhone), put in the SIM card AT&T gave me for the duration of my contract, and decided to tough it out with no data plan at all. I've been quite happy with this setup.

Those who would point out that the Centro is not an iPhone would be indisputably correct. The Centro, introduced in 2007, is essentially a smaller version of the Treo, with a small, built-in QWERTY keypad and a 2.25-inch (57mm) screen. It's attractive enough, with gently rounded corners and fake brushed aluminum details, but not the kind of thing you'd sit and admire. There's no Wi-Fi or 3G, only EDGE. It runs the Palm operating system -- not the sexy, new WebOS that powers the upcoming Palm Pre, but the old OS that's due to be phased out.

Yet in some ways, I like the Centro better. The OS, though it's old, single-tasking, and not very up-to-date, is stable and familiar. I've used variants of PalmOS since about 1997, which is something you can't say about much of any handheld software. The Centro's keyboard, though small, is easier to use than the virtual one on the iPhone. The calendar lets me aim for a time and enter an event directly (as long as it starts on the hour) rather than spinning virtual wheels to get there. It fits better in my hand because it's narrower and deeper than the iPhone. The built-in polyphonic ringtones are nicer than anything that came with the iPhone.

There are also plenty of applications out there for PalmOS -- more than 100,000, according to Palm -- though they lack an easy-to-use channel like the App Store. I've already loaded eReader.com's elegant book reader, as well as some maps from DeLorme's Street Atlas USA. The DeLorme interface isn't as slick as Google's, but the maps work fine with a third-party Bluetooth GPS (Geographical Positioning System) unit to show me where I am. And the maps will stay with the phone even outside the carrier's coverage area.

Of course, online Google Maps is available for the Centro, and there's also a browser, though it doesn't hold a candle to the iPhone's Safari. But I'm recovering from my withdrawal symptoms (apart from minor palpitations when I have to hit the road without checking Google Traffic) and I barely miss the mobile Web. Most of the time, I've found the Web can wait.

I also don't use most of the minutes I pay $39.99 per month for, and though they roll over, I can't use the leftovers without shelling out for more each month. So when my AT&T contract runs out next year, I may go prepaid. If so, I'll be joining another growing group. As the economy has declined, prepaid plans have taken over more of the U.S. mobile market. While overall mobile subscriptions grew about 2.6 percent between August 2008 and February 2009, the number of prepaid users increased about 10 percent, according to M:Metrics.

The iPhone, with its tight-jeans-friendly slim case and colorful display, looks like fun because it is. But the Airstream-like unlocked Centro, while it's still available, represents something that may be even more exciting: freedom.

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Stephen Lawson

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