24th Nov 2009 | 16:20
The follow-up to the Palm Pre is lighter, easier to use and just as web-enabled
Palm Pixi: Overview
Brilliance develops over time. With the Palm Pixi, it took only five months.
Palm has not yet given official word on whether the Pixi will eventually launch in the UK, but it's only a matter of time. Early 2010 is the timeline we're looking at right now.
A slower processor, lack of Wi-Fi, and a lame 2-megapixel camera can't hide one clear fact about this smaller model: it's actually a better phone than the Palm Pre.
While some of the Pre features that are lacking in the Palm Pixi will surely obfuscate this model from the Blackberry and "app phone" crowd who prefer the more expensive Apple iPhone, the Pixi is a capable phone thanks to the improved webOS platform and several hardware tweaks that might get overlooked in the rush to pigeon-hole the Pixi as a consumer phone.
In reality, Wi-Fi (as the one glaring omission) is becoming less important as 3G access becomes prevalent. Sure, it's great to download monolithic files over Gmail when you're at home, connected to a router.
However, most public hotspots at airports and coffee shops are throttle-limited anyway, while 3G runs fast and steady – at least in major cities.
Otherwise, the Pixi has the features that business and more technical users require.
Palm is slowly building a good cadre of apps with about a dozen or so released each day around the time of this review. WebOS enhancements – such as Yahoo integration for mail, scheduling and IM, and the recently added Microsoft Exchange sync – are also welcome additions for the mobile pro.
We could throw darts at the Pixi's slower process, 8GB memory allocation and other shortcomings, but this is an entry-level smartphone with some serious smarts.
Palm Pixi: Features
One of the most important specs on the Palm Pixi, one that we noticed right away, is that it is extremely light at just 92.5 grams.
Compared to 'big brother' phones like the Droid, which weighs a back-breaking 169 grams and is one of the heaviest phones we've ever used, the Pixi lives up to its name.
It's also super-thin at 10.85mm in the candybar form factor, which means you can slip it easily into a shirt pocket.
Interesting, with this smaller size and weight, the Pixi feels in the hand more like a small MP3 player (for example, the original Zune) and is not that much larger or thicker than a credit card – or make that a stack of credit cards. In testing the phone, we discovered that the portability is a major asset.
The phone lacks the slide-out QWERTY keyboard of the Pre, but somehow Palm packed a full QWERTY keyboard onto the device just the same. It is one of those "why didn't they think of this before" moments, because the keyboard is actually easier to use.
The Pre had this annoying problem with the slide-out that made it cramped for fast typing, but we could type faster on the Pixi. Without the slide-out, there is also no fine-edge to slice your finger.
The Pixi has the same gesture region as the Pre – it is an area where you slide your finger up or to the side to control the OS. We prefer the iPhone touchscreen where you perform all actions – the gesture pad on the Pre and Pixi just feel like a design compromise and not a design feature.
The Pre does not have an external storage slot, so the phone only has a slick slider, volume controls, USB slot, 3.5mm headphone jack and power button. The phone has a hard rubber back cover that is removable and, overall, is a durable and sleek smartphone.
Price is a major plus for the Pixi. It costs just $100 in the US with a two-year contract (after rebates), and the basic voice and data plan from Sprint costs just $70 per month. What this pricing indicates is that the Pixi will a) get cheaper in the near future, just as the Pre did and b) the cost to manufacture the device is likely considerably less than the Pre, which means Palm will not need to hike up the margins quite as much.
Palm Pixi: Interface
The Palm Pixi works almost exactly like the Palm Pre in terms of the touch interface.
You swipe up to minimise an app and see which apps are open. You swipe to the left to go back a screen (say, to close a configuration screen) and swipe back and forth in a card interface to switch between apps.
It is extremely intuitive, but as we mentioned before, the webOS interface is not quite as intuitive as the iPhone because it uses this dual-design technique between the LCD screen and the gesture pad region.
Still, the webOS users we talked with during the course of reviewing the Pixi told us they prefer the ability to go back in any app without having to use a home screen button, which is the primary control mechanism on Android handsets.
SYNC: The Palm Pixi supports Yahoo contacts, mail and calendar integration
In other words, once you get the hang of the control functions on the Pixi, you will learn to like them more and more.
The Pixi screen is 2.63 inches and its 320 x 400 resolution is just about a finger-width smaller than the Pre. The screen uses 18-bit colour and looks clear and crisp enough, if a little less bright, than the Pre.
Also like the Pre, the Pixi senses orientation, so the screen flips automatically based on how you are holding the device.
There's also an ambient light sensor (for dimming the screen automatically) and a proximity sensor for disabling the screen when you place a call (although, in our tests, this sensor did not always work correctly, especially in outdoor use).
The phone has 8GB of memory, a GPS chip for navigation and supports several built-in Palm services for backing up your data over the 3G connection.
Now, the main detriment to the touch interface on the Pixi, compared to the Pre and other touch phones (especially the new Samsung Instinct HD), is that the processor is a tad slow for modern smartphone use.
It's a Qualcomm MSM7626, which runs at 600MHz for apps and has a separate CPU for 3G access and is theoretically just as fast as the TI OMAP 3430 processor in the Pre, also running at 600MHz.
Unfortunately, in practice, the Pixi feels like it is running on molasses at times. There is an annoying pause when you start some apps or switch between them. It's remotely possible this is a software glitch that will get ironed out, but the phone we tested – updated to the latest release – was sluggish a lot of the time.
ALERTS:Alerts appear in the bottom part of the screen, allowing you to keep working without too much interruption.
Another cause could be that the Pixi does not have as much RAM on-board as the Pre, although Palm does not officially reveal those details. For whatever the reason, touches and swipes felt delayed on the Pixi compared to the Pre and definitely were delayed in a side-by-side speed test with the iPhone 3GS.
By far the most useful feature on the Palm Pixi is the Synergy feature, which automatically combines mail, calendar and IM/text messages into one stream.
This is similar to what Gmail does with threaded conversation: it emphasises the contact over the service.
That means, if Bob Smith sends you an email through Yahoo one day and switches over to Gmail the next, your Pixi won't care – you will still get the message. In fact, all messages from every contact are threaded into one seamless view for easy reading and easy response.
What makes this ideal for the Pixi is that the device is just as "smart" or even smarter than other smartphones, even compared to the super-intelligent Droid.
There are only a few compromises. The Droid does a better job of delineating which service a contact used (say, Yahoo or Gmail) with colour-coding.
And, let's face it, FaceBook is not exactly a good contact manager and encourages friending with anyone who has Internet access, even if it is your long-lost brother-in-law just out of prison.
The Pixi does not seem to know the difference and threads FaceBook and contacts from every other service into one catch-all that is not always that easy to parse.
Still, the Pixi adds Yahoo contacts and catches up with the latest webOS release for Microsoft Exchange and LinkedIn contacts.
The Synergy service has great potential, but needs to learn a few lessons about optional settings to make it easier to customise which contacts you see, from which service and then determine easily which service a contact used.
One other important note about the webOS interface is that, on the Pixi as well as the Pre, the multi-tasking features extend beyond just running multiple apps. It is amazingly helpful to be using one app or talking on the phone and see the frequent pop-ups alerts about upcoming Google Calendar appointments, new emails or new text messages.
These alerts appear below the screen so you can keep focusing on the app at hand, or you can click an alert to quickly answer and email or read a text message. No other phone quite has the same fluid interface control for alerts.
Palm Pixi: Calls and messaging
The Palm Pixi mirrors the Pre in terms of voice calling options. The device has a good speakerphone that picked up another party on a test call with good clarity.
We used a Plantronics Discovery 975 Bluetooth headset and, over two days of dialing, never had any problems with the Pixi dropping calls or causing problems over Bluetooth.
We also used an Altec Lansing BackBeat 903, a stereo Bluetooth headset that supports A2DP and the Pixi worked perfectly for every call. In fact, call quality and the basic voicemail options are quite adequate on this phone.
The only glaring omission here is voice-activated dialing, but that's not a major complaint. There are plenty of headsets that support voice prompts for initiating a call, including several models by BlueAnt.
What is a major complaint is that, given the small-but-growing app selection for webOS, there are not that many options for voice calling beyond the basics.
Palm is off to a good start by including the P2 Google Voice app that lets you dial out with the phone using the Voice service, even though the app is a bit clunky.
The Pixi needs something to set it apart from the field for voice calls to match the Synergy functions that combine mail, schedule and IM – as is, the Pixi is a capable but not outstanding voice device.
GOOGLE VOICE:The built-in Google Voice app allows you to place calls using the 3G carrier service (not over Wi-Fi)
Unlike the Palm Pre when it launched, the Pixi can forward text messages (a webOS update has now added this feature to the Pre).
This may seem minor, but it is a good differentiator compared to other smartphones that seem to treat SMS as an outdated technology (which it is) that never behaves quite like email.
Forwarding is handy because it means, if you receive an important phone number or address as an SMS, you can quickly forward the message to another party and not monkey around with copy and paste or even writing down notations just to email or text them again.
FORWARD:A unique twist on the Pixi: you can forward text messages you receive on the device
The Pixi also supports media files as part of the messaging client, so you can start a new text message, click an option to take a photo, and then add the image to the text message and send it as an MMS message. Or, you can add an existing image from the camera roll to a text message.
It's worth noting here that the keypad on the Pixi improves on the Pre in many ways. The Pre keypad always felt cramped, the keys are too close and they had a spongy feel that never felt like you could power type a text message.
The Pixi still has slightly bulbous keys, but they are not quite as spongy and feel a bit harder and more like a real keyboard. This meant we could type faster on the Pixi than the Pre. Even the key layout is improved, with a white ALT key for accessing special characters and numeric keys that is just a hair easier to find and use in daily texting and emailing.
As with the Pre, the @ symbol is also easy to find right next to the spacebar and the delete and return keys are also ideally situated.
True, the Pixi could never compete with a real keypad like the slide-out on the Droid or just about any recent BlackBerry model, but the Pixi is also much lighter and thinner. It is an acceptable compromise: the keypad is small, but at least it is adequate for typing short messages and keeps the device small and light.
Palm Pixi: Internet and camera
We were impressed with the Webkit-powered browser on the Palm Pre and the Pixi follows this same mould.
Web pages do not necessarily load lightening-fast as they do on the iPhone or just about any Android-powered handset, but once they do load, the pages are formatted correctly.
Lack of updates
Once again, in the past 5-6 months, we would have expected Palm to add a few extras to the browser beyond what was offered with the Pre, perhaps some sort of new technology for working with Adobe Flash pages to one-up the iPhone (besides the woefully incompatible Flash Lite).
Most sites took several seconds to load over a 3G connection, an eternity compared to other smartphones.
We tested our colleague's website GamesRadar.com, and while the site eventually appeared and the text was formatted correctly, the load time was over five seconds, which is just too slow for a smartphone.
We're not sure what is happening on the phone that caused this delay, but it is likely trying to format the entire page rather than incrementally adding text and images.
INTERNET:Sites – once they finally appeared – looked great in terms of formatting
The 2-megapixel camera on the Pixi is a low point, not necessarily because of how the Pixi handles the photos (since you can add them easily to text messages, store them in a photo roll and attach them to emails), but just due to the low quality.
There are smartphones with 2 megapixels that work reasonable well in various lighting conditions (say, the iPhone 3G) and there are 2-megapixel cameraphones that outright fail to impress.
The Pixi is in the latter category. Shots looked gray and muddy, if not completely out of focus. There are no extra controls over white balance or zoom. In fact, all you can do is set whether there is an auto-flash based on lighting, no flash, or always-on flash.
We doubt anyone would buy the Pixi to use it as a real digital camera, but even as a back-up at a sporting event where you just want to capture a late period goal or your friends having too much fun at a party, the Pixi is just not up to the task.
In fact, the light weight and slim size work against this phone because it is hard to hold it steady long enough for a good shot.
In keeping with our theory (since Palm did not reveal the RAM allocation compared to the Pre) that the Pixi does not have enough memory to handle media apps as well as other smartphones, the camera app was sluggish and would outright stall at times, especially if we ever attempted to take a few photos one after the other.
Photos had a muddy, fuzzy look in most lighting conditions – unless we snapped photos in direct sunlight.
Palm Pixi: Media performance
As expected, the Palm Pixi supports the same media formats as the Pre, which includes most common formats such as MP3, AAC and WAV for music and MPEG-4 and H.264 for video.
Apple has seen to it that Palm phones no longer work with iTunes, but there's an easy fix to that problem: we just used the slightly-older iTunes 8 to sync music files, both from a Mac and a PC, and never had any problems.
The Pixi only has 8GB of storage, and in our tests we could only use about 7GB of that space – which is essentially about enough room for one movie (at 1.5GB) and a few hundred songs.
Your experience with the device might be different, especially if you rip songs at low fidelity – you may be able to load the device with a complete collection of MP3s. However, sound quality on the device does benefit from using higher quality bit-rates.
In our tests with 320Kbps songs by The Low Anthem, the Pixi sounded robust over Bluetooth using the Altec Lansing Backbeat headset we used – the sound quality matched any iPod we have ever used.
We also tested the headphone jack, which is positioned at the top of the handset for easy access, and the sound quality was also excellent.
Movie playback was another story. YouTube videos looked okay – they are low-resolution and stream directly off Google servers.
MOVIES:It took about 15 minutes to copy just one movie file to the device. Movie playback was hit and miss
Movies we added as MPEG files would occasionally stall during playback, again probably due to the Qualcomm processor not having enough processing power to keep the bits flying smoothly on the screen, or perhaps because there is not enough RAM on the device.
Even when we closed every other app and played a movie by itself, the Pixi had some trouble with a full MPEG movie we ripped using Handbrake on the Mac.
The Pixi does not support web services for movies such as Cinemanow or Movielink either. Transfer time to the device was horrendously slow – it took about 15 minutes to copy just one 325MB MPEG-4 movie, compared to about half that time to transfer it to an iPhone.
Palm Pixi: Battery life and misc features
Palm makes no extraordinary claims about battery life on the Pixi.
In our tests, the phone lasted about one day for normal usage that included listening to handful of MP3 files, placing a few calls, and checking the web and email occasionally.
We liked how easy it was to access airplane mode (you just press and hold the power button until you see the prompt) to turn off 3G access quickly and save power.
In those modes, the Pixi lasted more like two full days for occasional MP3 listening but not phone calls or Web browsing. The small size of the device means the battery takes a typical charge – essentially matching the power consumption of a Nokia or Motorola smartphone, but not the longer battery life of a BlackBerry.
MODE:The Pixi lasted about one day, but you can quickly put the phone into airplane mode to save battery power
We've mentioned many of the organisational features on the device – such as the ability to see multiple schedule items from several services (such as Yahoo and Google Cal) in one combined schedule.
You can also split out services to see their own schedule. Syncing calendars took some time – about three minutes for a loaded Google Calendar over a 3G connection – but that time was not surprising since Palm is upfront about the time it takes to download this data, parse it into Synergy and display the information.
Overall, the PIM functions on the Pixi match the capabilities of the Pre in every way and the device is even more suited to the hectic lifestyle of the business professional in that it is lighter and more portable than the Pre, so it can easily become part of your daily routine.
We also like the schedule alerts which pop up on the screen.
Holy smokes – we found one troubling problem with the Palm Pixi when we tried to connect it to a PC for the first time.
The USB cover, located on the right side of the device, is so hard to use that it is almost comical.
As you are holding the USB cable, you have to hold the cover back in order to insert the cable. The cover is so hard to grasp, that you might have to try several times just to insert the cable. Or, frankly, you might just decide just to rip off the cover.
Once connected, you can charge the device, use it for media syncing or enable the device as a USB drive. We tested the Pixi with both a Sony laptop and a MacBook and both platforms worked well for all three activities (as long as we used an older version of iTunes 8).
Another small gripe: the Palm Pixi does provide a GPS chip, so you can use the device with the included navigation app (in the US, it is from Sprint) to get directions from one place to another. However, Google maps does not offer navigation like it does on Android handsets, and the major GPS vendors - including Navigon and TomTom - have chosen to ignore the Palm webOS so far.
Palm Pixi: Verdict
The Palm Pixi would appear to fall into a black hole: it can't match the power of the iPhone, the keyboard of the BlackBerry, or the app selection of just about any major smartphone (including the many Android models).
It is not the fastest or smartest phone; it has a fairly slow browser and does not play Hollywood movies like the iPhone can; it also lacks Wi-Fi. So, is it doomed for failure? Not quite.
The device costs less than just about any of the smartphones we've mentioned in this review. It is the lightest and most portable of the major smartphones on the market, and we can't fan the flame of the webOS enough: it just shows how this "social integration" should work and even outshines a desktop browser in terms of combining message streams and calendar items in a way that just makes the device a joy to use.
Yes, the Palm Pixi is an impressive device that is thin and portable and app-friendly.
The spec we liked most on the Pixi is the weight: at a hair under 100 grams, it is light and thin enough to slip into a pocket.
The device supports all of the apps you can download from the Palm App Catalogue that work on the Pre. The Synergy technology that combines email streams from multiple services, adds contacts, and combines schedules now works with Yahoo in addition to Google, LinkedIn and Facebook.
The Pixi never really ran fast enough for the next-generation of powerful apps, and stalled on high-def movies
This model lacks Wi-Fi, which means – if you are in an office building and have nowhere near adequate 3G, you won't be grabbing your email at high speeds.
The camera is not only low-res at 2 megapixels, but lacks extra features for zooming or setting white balance (common features on Nokia smartphones).