Palm Pixi Review: Not for everyone, but it fits a niche

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Palm and Sprint have taken a very different approach to the launch of the Pixi than they did with its slightly older and slightly brawnier brother, the Palm Pre. In the days leading up to the Pre, both parties were on full attack mode; keynotes were held, massive tradeshow booths were built, full page newspaper ads were run, and countdowns ticked away. With the Pixi? They’ve got a commercial.

Compared to Palm’s last run, the marketing campaign surrounding the Pixi is decidedly more average – and after spending a few days with the phone, I’d say they made the right decision there.

The Body:

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The most obvious difference between the Pre and the Pixi is, of course, its form factor. Where as Palm decided to stray from their norm a bit with a sliding QWERTY keyboard design with the Pre, they’ve gone back to a design they know oh-so-well for the Pixi. An homage to the Palm Centro that came nearly two years prior, the Pixi is a non-sliding QWERTY candybar phone. As someone who generally doesn’t like such form factors, I say with a bit of joy: the Palm Pixi is pretty damn gorgeous.

To be completely honest, I initially didn’t like the design. In photos, it seems like a massive chunk of the face is one big empty black space, primarily because there’s a 1/2″ black void between the screen and the keyboard. While visually dull, this area isn’t useless – it’s a touch sensitive gesture region. Like the Pre, the Pixi uses off-screen gestures for “Back”, “Forward”, and to switch between applications. Once this relationship was established, my brain was more forgiving of the seemingly dominant bezel, and I actually became rather fond of the looks.

The phone feels superb in the hand; it’s surprisingly light, but not in a way that detracts from the build quality.

Though I’m a fan of the looks, the overall design isn’t without its faults. The battery is user replaceable, but it’s not something you’ll want to do often. Unless I’m missing something, the battery cover (which is the entire back plate) is frustratingly difficult to remove. Additionally — and just like the Pre — the cover over the microUSB slot (which you’ll need to open each time you charge it) is a bit of a mess. On the Pre, it was a flimsy piece of plastic which seemed like an afterthought. With the Pixi, a magnetic piece on the inside of the flip-out cover, intended to keep it from flopping open over time, causes it to snap shut if you even consider letting go. This grows incredibly tiresome when you’re trying to plug it in before you hop in bed. Both of these faults are trivial in the big picture; for the most part, the Pixi’s hardware design is quite commendable.

The Keyboard:

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There were two almost unanimous complaints amongst reviewers of the Palm Pre: the keys were too small, and it felt cramped. So what did Palm do with the Pixi? They went and made the damn thing smaller. Yet somehow it’s much, much improved.

Much of the Pixi’s shrinkage comes from the fact that the keys are aligned in straight rows, rather than a curved series. While this does nothing to help the cramped feeling — your thumbs will still crash together on any letters less than three keys apart — they’ve also changed the overall button shape: they’re skinnier than they are tall and seemingly a bit “deeper”, which somehow makes them MUCH more usable. I went into the keyboard test expecting typos galore, and walked away with near-perfect accuracy. The keys also feel much better than those of its predecessor, emitting a nice, pleasing “CLICK!” rather than the dead squish of the Pre’s. It’s by no means my favorite keyboard ever, but it’s certainly worthy of the space it takes up.

The Operating System:

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With a weaker processor and less RAM, the Pixi is a bit less powerful than the Pre – and unfortunately, it shows. We understand that Palm had to cut back the specs to afford (and justify) the price difference ($99 vs. $149, though both are available cheaper through third-party Sprint resellers), but it came at the expense of the user experience. The Pixi user interface lags – often. Apps often take 5-10 seconds to open, actions occasionally take long enough that I wrongly thought I’d missed the button, and animations stutter just about every other time one occurs.

With chunky framerates and load times aside, I still absolutely love the webOS interface. The overall design is my favorite of all the current-generation smartphone platforms. It pulls off a polished feel without resorting to absolute minimalism as the iPhone does, and handles notifications and switching between applications in a way more elegant and effective than Android. Palm is the only one of the lot to find the perfect combination of form and function.

The App Catalog:

When I wrote the Smartphone Showdown between the iPhone 3GS and the Moto DROID, I was able to chalk up the difference in number of apps (100,000 vs 10,000 respectively) as a bunch of nonsense – when you get up into the many-thousands-of-apps region, quantity becomes a bit of a joke. Alas, such things can not be overlooked here.

At the time of writing, the webOS App Catalog has 372 applications after launching way back in June. Palm is openly admitting that the App Catalog is still in beta and thus numbers are limited – but unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that they’re in a competition, here. There is growth here — about 105 apps per month for the last 3 months — but it simply doesn’t compare. Many types of apps are absent – and amongst the apps that do make an appearance, there’s a major lack of competition. Call me crazy, but I’m a big fan of competition in this space.

WiFi (or the lack thereof):

This one’s a bit of a short topic, but it needs to be said: the Pixi lacks WiFi, and that is absolutely, positively ludicrous. I do not care if the carrier could provide full 3G service to a phone wrapped in a lead box and buried 10 feet underground – making a smartphone without WiFi is like making a camera without a flash. When you don’t need it, whatever – but when you do need it, you really need it. And, considering that the Pixi renders pages over Sprint’s 3G network considerably slower than I would have guessed, you’ll need it.

It’s great that you got a smartphone phone down to an on-contract price of $99, Palm and Sprint – but so did HTC/Verizon, and they didn’t have to lop out the WiFi.

Camera:
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The 2 megapixel is a bit better than average, but not outstanding. As with nearly every camera phone ever made, the flash is pretty bad on both ends of the spectrum. It makes no difference at any distance over 7 or 8 feet, but completely washes out all pictures under 3. The camera UI is a bit limited, but it’s pretty dang speedy. You can snap a picture around one and a half seconds after another.

There is no video recording.

We’ll put up a few camera quality samples over the weekend, so check back if you’re interested.

Battery Life:

With moderate-to-heavy use of the Pixi, I’m seeing about 6.5 hours of battery life before things start flashing. This battery seems on par (if not slightly better than) the Pre and about average for what we’ve been seeing with smartphones as of late overall.

Screen

After using big ol’ 3-4″ touchscreen handsets for the past few years, I honestly expected to be more annoyed with the small screen than I was. Yes, it’s small – but that’s inherent with this form factor. Fortunately, Palm has put enough work into smoothing corners and text that the 2.63″ 320 x 400 screen never really seemed troublesome.

(As an aside, huge high five to whoever it was on the user experience team that though of rounding the corners of the entire OS. It allows the OS to fade into the black hardware face in a way that is simply stunning, especially when screen elements are sliding around and resizing.)

Call Quality/Speakers:

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This is always my least favorite subject to write about, as there are far too many varying factors. In my completely unscientific testing, the Pixi’s call quality is markedly average. It’s better than the muddled junk that comes out of the iPhone, but not nearly as clean or crisp as the DROID. Both the ear piece and the speakerphone could do well with being a bit louder.

Touchstone:

I’d never gotten the opportunity to try out Palms wireless, conductive charging solution, the Touchstone, for any reasonable amount of time – but Palm sent one along with the Pixi, so I figured I’d touch on it.

The Touchstone is a very cool idea. Once you get over the “Ooh, neat!” factor of not having to plug in past the meddlesome microUSB plug and the fact that you just paid $40 for a charger hits you over the head, it’s significantly less cool.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s built incredibly well and the physical design is very thoughtful, with touches like an ultra-sticky surface on the base to keep it from sliding – but it’s really, really silly. Though it plugs into the wall charger via USB, it doesn’t do any data transferring (nor will it even charge the phone) when plugged into a PC-bound USB port.

At the very least, it’s a missed opportunity. Palm could have used this to their advantage by adding some software elements exclusively shown whilst docking on a Touchstone, such as a stock ticker or a weather screen. Instead, it just reminds you that it’s charging – just as it would if you’d plugged it in, except it cost you 40 bucks.

Messaging/Facebook:

It might seem like I’m being hard on the Pixi – and I’ll admit that I am. The thing is, the Pixi wasn’t built for me. Palm is very open about the fact that this phone is built for a very specific audience: people who care a lot about messaging, and also want a phone slightly more advanced than whatever feature phone they’re likely upgrading from. The Pixi does messaging – and it does it well.

webOS’s default messaging app can handle Google Talk, AIM, SMS, and MMS, and, as of build 1.3.1 (which is available on Pixi on day 1 and is coming to Pre “soon”), Yahoo. It handles these protocols better than any other smartphone OS I use regularly, with every aspect of instant communication tied directly into the core of the operating system. Once you’ve linked all your buddies screen names to their contact cards (which can be a bit tedious), all text-based communication is seamlessly combined. If you’re talking to a buddy on AIM and they sign off, continuing the conversation via SMS is instantaneous.

While it has the major networks covered, it’s missing a few protocols I’d like to see. Namely, it’s missing Jabber, ICQ (for the oldschool folk), Skype (text only would be fine), and Facebook Chat.
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That last bit is odd, considering that Palm has built a native Facebook application into OS 1.3.1; alas, that’s not the only shortcoming of said app. In fact, we’re hard-pressed to call it a Facebook app in comparison to Facebook apps on competing platforms – it’s really more of a Facebook widget that happens to be running full screen.

You get access to your news feed, with the ability to comment/like items, but that’s where functionality ends. No profile viewing, messaging, pages, events, or anything else that makes Facebook Facebook. You can view photo albums, but only if they appear in your news feed, which unfortunately just makes the whole app feel half-baked.

Conclusion:

If Palm’s goal here was to make a really killer smartphone for $99 bucks, they didn’t succeed. If their goal here was to make a really killer messaging phone that happened to have some smarts (and, according to them, it was), they pulled it off just fine.

Be sure to check out our Palm Pixi Unboxing Video.

What we like:

  • The build quality is outstanding. It’s one of very few candybar phones I enjoy holding.
  • Generally, webOS as an operating system is the pinnacle example of user experience. It is (usually) functional and gorgeous without sacrifice, and we’ve got hope Palm can de-suck the Pixi by fixing the lag issues.
  • The keyboard blows the Pre’s out of the water
  • Multi-touch in the browser
  • Sprint Navigation is included in the price of data, and it’s pretty solid. It’s essentially the same powered-by-Telenav navigation app you’ll find on other phones.
  • The design of the webOS IM/messaging system is fantastic

What we don’t:

  • No Wifi
  • Lag. Lots and lots of lag, throughout the entire OS. Hopefully they can fix this with an update, because it’s incredibly distracting.
  • The new Facebook application is lacking, as is the Youtube client.
  • The App Catalog is far too limited
  • The battery cover is way too difficult to pull off, and the cover over the microUSB data/charging port makes me want to smash.
  • No video recording

Who should buy it: Anyone coming from an LG Envy, Samsung Alias, or other such messaging-oriented feature phone who wants a bit more functionality without diving into a more expensive and more complex smartphone. Sprint’s got some of the cheapest pricing when it comes to plans – this $99 smartphone is $500-$1100 cheaper than a $99 smartphone on AT&T or Verizon in the 24-month long run. If I had a early/mid-teenage sibling or kid, I could give them this without feeling like I was giving them junk that they’ll hate in 6 months.

Who shouldn’t buy it: Anyone looking for a fully capable smartphone. I love this operating system to pieces, but the lag, the lack of applications, and the absence of WiFi keeps me from ever recommending this phone to anyone who needs it for much more than texting, casual browsing, and growing into a full-fledged smartphone.

Disclosure: Like nearly all phones we review, this unit was provided on loan by Palm for review.

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