Palm Pixi Plus
9th Jun 2010 | 12:33
Can the Pixi out-do the Pre with less tech?
Palm Pixi Plus: Overview, design and feel
The Palm Pixi Plus – the Pre's dinky sidekick – makes its UK debut and is the latest smartphone to offer a scaled down, affordable alternative to a premium handset.
The new and improved Pixi follows the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 and HTC HD Mini into the arena, all of which boast most of the main features without the cumbersome size and cost. Can this be the handset to help web OS reach the masses?
The original Pixi was a US-only release, so we'll treat this as a brand new handset. Not that we have to go into too much detail, the improvements can be summed up in one word: Wi-Fi.
The Pixi earns its Plus by adding 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, but aside from that it's exactly the same handset.
However, the important thing is that the web OS operating system we loved on the Palm Pre remains in place, which makes the phone far more than just a poor man's version of the Pre, but a credible second-tier player for those seeking to perhaps get on the smartphone ladder for the first time.
The screen is a good bit smaller, a 2.63-inch capacitive multitouch screen, compared to the Pre's 3.1-inches, and that sits above the touch-sensitive gesture area integral to the infinite usability of the phone's operating system.
The phone has a very natural feel in the hand. It's super-thin at just 10.8mm, and extremely light, too, at 93 grams. It has a rubberised casing on the back, which makes the slight-and-light handset easier to grip.
There's also a 2-megapixel camera (scaled down from 3-megapixel snapper on the Pre Plus) with an LED flash nestled handily above, and two speakers in the top corners of the casing.
The right-hand edge of the handset houses the volume controls and the lock switch while the top has the power switch and 3.5mm jack, all of which are rubberised too. There's no camera button – the touchscreen takes care of that.
The micro USB charging port lives behind a rubber flap, which is infuriatingly hard to move without the aid of nails. Thankfully the razor-like rim from the Pre has been dispensed of, which is likely to cut mobile related injuries in half.
On the inside things are a little better, using a newer 600MHz Qualcomm processor (although not as powerful as the Cortex A8 used on the Pre Plus), which helps it to whip along with aplomb through most tasks.
It's also got only half the RAM at 256 and half the storage at 8GB compared to 16GB on the Pre.
The screen itself has the rather unusual resolution of 320 x 400 making it a little square, which isn't ideal with for watching video or surfing the web.
It isn't as colourful and vibrant as the Pre Plus, which really leapt out at us, but we'll get into that in more detail later.
In the box, we've got a micro USB charging cable and AC adapter add-on, as well as some half-decent headphones and a really ill-fitting pouch, but the box isn't packed with unnecessary junk, and any software you need can be downloaded on your PC.
Palm Pixi Plus: Interface
The Pixi Plus boasts the latest version of Palm web OS, v1.4.1, which doesn't feature any significant changes. The biggest came earlier, with v.1.4 adding video capture to proceedings. However, big changes aren't needed to this OS, it's very well conceived, hugely intuitive and really easy to use.
The interface is perhaps second only to HTC's Sense UI, used on phones like the HTC Desire, in terms of functionality and ease of use. It's fantastic to see it employed again here in full force instead of a scaled back version, short of features and functionality.
Palm's web OS is different to every other operating system out there. It doesn't rely on a series of widgets, housed on customisable Home screens, but on an application 'card' system, which assists in making it a very effective multitasking device.
If you have an application open, a live card is shown on the application screen. The more you have open, the more you're able to scan through. Tapping on the card, or performing a downward drag on the the gesture area, makes the app full-screen, allowing you to work within it. Another downward drag minimises it.
You can open as many cards as you like and flick through them on the Home screen. However, the more applications you have open, the greater toll it takes on battery and processing speed.
Any more than five and you're looking at a of slowdown, potentially.
Moving between the apps was very fast on the Pre Plus, but with the slightly less grunty processor and half the RAM on offer here, it doesn't quite have the same pep, but it's still fairly pacey.
Sometimes screens don't render properly when working within an application, and very occasionally the phone froze and reset itself when trying to launch an app.
Those who buy this phone won't be doing so necessarily for Desire-like speed, so we're happy to cut it some slack for trying to be the best it can be.
Dragging a card off the top of the screen closes the application (which gives out a reassuring 'whoosh!'), while swiping to the left on the gesture area takes you back a step within the application.
This works very well, especially as a back button when browsing, or working in multi-layered applications like the music player.
So the Home screen isn't really customisable aside from the Launch Bar at the bottom of the screen. You can drag that up from the gesture area to move between the four chosen applications and the menu launcher.
Then you can easily move between the icons like a wave, letting go when your choice is highlighted.
Another nice little touch is that the Palm Profile remembered our favourite apps after we switched SIMs between the Pre Plus and the Pixi Plus. It's sometimes the little things that make the difference and web OS is loaded with them.
The interface is very intelligent, and pretty soon you'll be whizzing through your favourite features with great ease, using the thumb to swipe up, down, left and right with great fluidity.
It all feels so natural and it's fantastic to see Palm employ the full version of the OS on this second-tier handset, without any limitations involved.
Another thing we liked about the Pre was the general search feature, which scans the phone for apps and contacts as soon as you start typing.
Once it realises that nothing of that description is housed within the handset, it serves up options to peruse Twitter, Google, Google Maps and Twitter. It's a nice feature to have and we used it more often than not.
Notifications of new emails, texts, Facebook activity and IMs appear in the bottom right corner of the screen, and are joined by a flashing light on the gesture area. That little strip of light also flashes when you swipe the gesture area, depending on which direction you swipe.
The notifications are non-instrusive, but they don't go away until you've acted upon them, or swept them to the right to get rid of them, which is kind of annoying if it's another "Joe Bloggs also commented on John Doe's status".
They can be turned off though. The Palm Synergy functionality is pretty neat too, synchronising all of your events from Facebook, Google and Outlook into a colour co-ordinated timetable.
Another little annoyance is having to press the power button to wake the phone up when the screen goes to sleep. We'd much prefer to just hit the keyboard. That's minor though.
Palm Pixi Plus:Contacts and calling
Populating your contacts book couldn't be more straightforward. Basically, just logging into your respective accounts does the job for you, without ever really troubling your SIM card.
When we logged into our existing Palm account, Facebook, Gmail, Hotmail accounts (it can also handle Exchange) to recover our contacts. In addition, all of our Facebook friends were added instantly if they've made email addresses and mobile numbers available, which gave us access to a lot of new numbers.
However, if you're one of those social networkers with everyone you've ever known on your Facebook, then this can be a little annoying. Nobody wants 800 names in their phone contacts book, but all you need to do to rectify that is remove the account.
Also If you've used an Android phone before and chosen to store your numbers on Google's servers, they'll become available too.
If names are duplicated then Palm Synergy will match them up, and it's easy to streamline duplicate contacts on the phone. Give yourself 20 minutes or so, and you'll have your address book exactly the way you want it.
It doesn't have the same depth as the Sense UI on phones like the HTC Legend, because it's not really a people-centric device.
Whereas Sense serves up easy access to your friends' Facebook pages, status updates and photos from within the contact card, as well as Flickr activity, web OS offers an unclickable 'F' icon, underneath the name.
Why not make that clickable? You also have no access to your message and email history with that person.
Pressing the 'Call' icon on the Quick Launch bar takes you the dialler screen, and despite the curious lack of an on-screen keypad, you can touch to dial.
Getting to contacts takes an extra step because you can't just start typing in to get suggested names, which is rather annoying.
Call quality is acceptable and comes through clearly on the loudspeaker. There's a nice option that asks you if you want to redial if the call drops out. Again, it's the little things…
Palm Pixi Plus:Messaging and email
We were worried about the keyboard on the Pixi Plus – very worried. The keys are tiny, with very little space between them, especially after our experience on the Pre Plus, which has a much-larger, but still practically unusable keypad.
But somehow it just works on the Pixi Plus. We've reviewed both this and the new Palm Pre Plus in recent weeks and definitely made less mistakes on the Pixi Plus. The keys are very clickable and, even though it can feel like you're hitting half a dozen keys at once, more often than not, you've got the right one.
On the Pre Plus we found ourselves having to use the edge of our fingernails, but the fingertip generally suffices here.
You still need to be careful to be accurate, but the more we used the device, the easier it got. Perhaps it's having the flat surface to work on, rather than the Pre's curved design.
At the end of the day, it's still not brilliant, but surprisingly good. On the Pre, typing out long emails was a massive chore, but here it's not too bad. Of course, we'd like a touchscreen keyboard, but with the small screen, it doesn't seem as practical, or as desperately required as it is on the Palm Pre Plus.
The autocorrect and dictionary functionality needs some work, though. More often than not, the phone only added in the odd apostrophe, so at least it's gramatically vigilant, if not kind enough to check your spelling.
As with on the Palm Pre, Palm Synergy allows all of your emails, texts and IMs with the same person to be stored under a single thread, which was one of the key features Palm crowed about at launch.
It is excellent, and conversations are handily colour-coded, but more often than not there can be several conversations going on about different things over different mediums, so it can be quite hard to keep up with.
The email interface allows you to integrate as many different email accounts as you like into one inbox. We added Gmail and Hotmail and although they existed as separate accounts everything still came into the same place.
Push email is on board, although you can pick up email once a day if you like. We would love to see threaded emails rather than conversations, though.
For that read Skype, Windows Live Messenger and an official Twitter app. We'd also like the ability to send Facebook messages from within a contact.
Palm Pixi Plus: Camera
One of the areas where Palm has scaled down the Pixi is the camera, which is 2-megapixel instead of the 3-megapixel sensor on the Pre. The Pre's camera, despite a threadbare choice of settings, was surprisingly good in ample light and had an effective LED flash.
Images here are nowhere near as clear, appearing a little fuzzy and failing to capture the same vibrant colours. Here the LED flash leads to serious overexposure. The camera also suffers from a jumpy viewfinder and a slightly slow mechanism.
When you add that to the fact that the application itself takes a little longer to open than it should, those unmissable moments become very missable.
There were no camera settings of note on the Pre, so it stands to reason that they're hardly going to upgrade it for the budget device. Just like the Pre, there's no zoom, no white balance and no exposure settings.
It does come with a 'we have no settings but came up with a cool-sounding feature to disguise the fact' feature called Extended Depth of Field (EDoF) that apparently compensates for the lack of a touch-to-focus, but it doesn't quite match the same depth of field that the Pre's camera can achieve.
This isn't going to be a photographer's device, but is still capable. Taking those MySpace-style self portraits is nigh on impossible with the on-screen capture button. Trust us, we've tried.
Accessing the photo roll from the shooting screen is easy, but photos do take a good while to fully render.
The other big improvement comes with the video capture announced in software update 1.4, but the video camera struggles somewhat here in the same way as the stills camera, compared to the Pre Plus.
A big tick in the Pixi Plus' box are the video share options, which allow footage to be added to YouTube and Facebook extremely easily thanks to a pop-out menu in the corner's screen. The YouTube uploads are extremely fast when using 3G mobile broadband on the O2 network.
Once complete, you'll be notified on the Home screen and asked if you'd like to watch or send the link to a friend. It's an excellent interface.
Another nice bonus is that the Pixi Plus borrows the clip editing functionality from the iPhone 3GS, so it's easy to rid the video of those jerky first and last few frames, just by dragging the in and out points to where you'd like the video to be trimmed to before uploading.
However, on the smaller screen it's a little harder to be accurate. You're going to be shooting in MPEG 4 at VGA resolution, 640 x 480, which is perfect for 4:3 YouTube clips.
LOTS OF LIGHT:The Palm Pixi Plus is capable of some clear, detailed pictures
FUZZY:Close-ups struggle to maintain detail, but the background is strong
MIXED BAG:Colours aren't as vibrant as on the Pre Plus
HIGH LIGHTS:The lens struggles to capture the bright and sunny afternoon
BRIGHT COLOURS: Flowers look really colorful in the right light
DISTANCE:Distant backgrounds struggle to come through
TOO BRIGHT:The flash tends to overexpose in most instances
Video is average from the Palm Pixi Plus - it doesn't shoot in 16:9 nor at a very high resolution (only VGA). It purports to record at 30fps, but as you can see in low light this tends to drop a little bit.
It's certainly not in the same league as the likes of the iPhone 4, but it's an OK cameraphone option nonetheless.
Palm Pixi Plus: Media
With just a 2.6-inch screen to work with, watching videos is never going to be a particularly immersive experience, so we didn't expect too much. The 320 x 400 screen makes it a little difficult, too.
Watching movies full-screen cuts off too much of the picture, and watching them in their native 21:9 widescreen format means less than half the screen is filled by the video. 1080p movie trailers look reasonable good on the device, and the footage is clear and crisp, but you really have to strain to see any detail.
Speakers sound relatively good, but very, very quiet. The video player itself is nicely designed and simple, but you'll often find that simply touching the screen during play means it'll skip though the video. Annoying.
The YouTube application, using the same player, is great, though, with fast loading times on 3G and Wi-Fi.
In terms of music, like everything on web OS, it's nicely designed, easy to use and logical. It has a Cover Flow-like system allowing you to easily choose your favourite tracks.
Also, you can minimise the application and still control the music, thanks to the mini-player housed in the bottom-right corner.
Adding music is easy, just drag and drop from your computer, and it will play MP3 and AAC files, but web OS is really lacking a music download portal, because the promised Amazon MP3 app still hasn't arrived in the UK.
You can download directly from the site however, but that's a massive hassle. Again the speakers are a little too quiet, but the bundled-in headphones are better than they look.
You will need some decent cans, however, to get the best out of this device.
Palm Pixi Plus: Internet and Connectivity
We liked the browsing experience on the Palm Pre Plus, but the screen size here hinders our enjoyment a little. The problem is that the full page is shown on the screen, rather than just the top half.
In most cases text is too small to read without pinching to zoom, but thankfully that works really well, with images and text rendering fairly quickly. Probably not quickly enough for it to be considered a completely fluid experience.
A double-tap on the screen also zooms into a semi-readable size.
We're grateful to have such a good multi-touch screen on a device of this pricepoint. It really is without fault. It's super-responsive and extremely accurate – without hesitation we'd say it was the best available on a mid-range phone by an absolute mile.
The browser is pretty decent still. The touchscreen is forgiving enough to know what you're aiming for most of the time. It's also very handy to have several web windows open as application cards.
It's relatively simple to access bookmarks and history from the tab in the top-left corner of the screen, but that's tiny and easy to miss. There's no Flash, so online video is out, for the most part.
The browser is quite intuitive though. Simply start typing within the application and the URL bar comes up, offering page suggestions or Google and Wiki searches.
As we mentioned earlier in the review, the gesture area allows us to easily move backwards and forwards within web pages by swiping to the left to go back and swiping to the right to go forward.
In terms of connectivity, we have all the usual gubbins here and the same specifications as the Palm Pre Plus. Wi-Fi 802.11b/g, 7.2Mbps HSDPA, GPRS, Edge and aGPS, as well as Bluetooth 2.1+EDR. Everything you'd expect from a modern smartphone, really.
Like on the Pre, we struggled to find other devices using Bluetooth. Wi-Fi maintained signal once and the O2 3G was reliable, even when we were out in the sticks.
Palm Pixi Plus: Battery life and maps
The battery is exactly the same as that of the Palm Pre Plus which is a nice bonus. It's very slim and able to fit easily within the Pixi Plus' size zero figure. The battery life itself is as you'd expect. Palm promises five-and-a-half hours talktime, but in this day and age, talktime doesn't really come into it.
After five hours solid browsing, calling, emailing and YouTubing, the battery was down to about 30 per cent. That was with the screen on full brightness, but with the diminished vibrancy, we felt we needed it on full whack. There are obvious ways to save battery.
Multitasking is a bit of drain, so it's best not to have too many open at the same time as it slows the processor too. Push email also takes its toll. You'll definitely need to charge this every evening to stop you running out of juice by lunchtime if you're a really hardcore user.
Battery level can be checked at any time by clicking on the battery icon in the top right corner of the screen, which also controls Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
You can also buy a Touchstone-friendly back cover for the Pixi Plus, which allows you to use the wireless charging dock especially developed for this and the Pre.
The charging dock is around £40 though, which is quite harsh. And why couldn't Palm just make the back cover Touchstone-ready, like it has on the new Palm Pre Plus?
The Google Maps application is excellent, with a great interface. Once you're in there, graphical and satellite maps render very quickly, and it locates you quickly thanks to the aGPS.
Searching for directions, and indeed following them, is also a breeze. The app offers on-screen, written instructions to go with the maps. On Android phones you can only look at one or the other, so this is a big help when wandering the streets trying to find your way around.
Again, the screen gives us a small canvas to work on, but again the double-tap and pinch to zoom functionality saves the day. We'd rather that double-tapping twice took you in closer rather than zooming back out again, but that's a minor quibble.
It's a good thing the Google Maps app is so good, because there's certainly no sign of turn-by-turn navigation being deployed on anything other than Android any time soon and, of course, the App Catalog is unsurprisingly bereft of something like TomTom or Co-Pilot.
Palm Pixi Plus: Applications
It's a crying shame that Palm's App Catalog has been completely unable to engage developers in the way that iPhone and Android has, because web OS really deserves a full range of dynamic applications.
It really is one of the only things preventing Palm from going nose-to-nose with those two behemoths of the smartphone world.
Right now there are over 1000 apps, which is an improvement on the 18 the device launched with, but still nowhere near enough.
The interface is nice enough, especially to those who're still using the Android 1.5 version of the Market, and everything is easy to find.
We enjoyed using the Facebook app on the Palm Pixi Plus. It's laid out in a much more logical way than on rival devices, especially the poor Facebook for Android app.
It's easy to access your news feed, profile or photos from the pull down tab and cycling through pictures is a synch.
It's a shame Palm weren't able to integrate Facebook chat into the messages app to sit alongside AIM and Google Talk.
There's no official Twitter app to speak of, and the unofficial Tweed application is £2.19, which seems way too expensive considering every other platform offers a Twitter app for nothing. We really miss not having Skype too.
Palm is going to have to work harder to get developers back in the game, but that's only going to happen if the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus are more successful than their forebears.
Palm Pixi Plus: Verdict
All things considered, the Palm Pixi Plus is the best second-tier, affordable smartphone on the market.
It takes everything that's good about its more illustrious sibling and squeezes into a tighter package, even improving in some areas, and it's more than a match for phones like the HTC Smart.
The keyboard is more reliable and somehow easier to master than the Palm Pre Plus', despite the further diminished size. Without the cheese-cutting rim, it's also a more comfortable device to take charge of.
Palm's web OS is present in all its glory, and only the slightly less powerful chip prevents it from boasting exactly the same experience.
If you're a newcomer to the smartphone arena after years of toiling away on the Nokia or Sony Ericsson phones, then web OS is the perfect introduction. It's straightforward, easy to use and intuitive.
The device has limitations, but these are wholly acceptable. It's impossible to complain about a slightly slower experience (and sometimes it is very slow) or the smaller camera lens, or the smaller screen, when you have such a well-functioning device at a much lower premium than the big brother.
Usually these budget devices leave us craving for the real thing, but the we were wholly satisfied with continued use of the Pixi Plus. Having just reviewed the Pre Plus, we didn't miss it at all.
Of course, the Pre Plus wasn't perfect either. The chronic lack of apps undermines what how brilliantly original web OS is, and there seems to be an inherent problem in pushing these devices to the masses.
O2 failed to gain any traction with the original Palm Pre, despite having exclusivity. It has the same deal again with the tweaked Palm range so let's hope they can do better this time around.