It's hard to believe that Palm is already pushing its second webOS device, the Pixi, out the door. It seems like just a few weeks ago that we were eagerly awaiting the release of the Pre, a phone that was considered to be the last gasp for the badly ailing company, and now it's poised to add an entirely new handset to the mix. The Pixi -- a sleek, tiny device -- seems clearly aimed at the only market Palm has recently enjoyed unfettered success with: the Centro demographic. From the looks of things, the Pixi is positioned to step into the role of the "cheap and cute" smartphone once firmly controlled by the company's previous (and now discontinued) Palm OS offering. Of course, the landscape in 2009 is very different from the landscape of 2007, with fierce competition -- both from outside as well as the company's own sister product. Can the Pixi find a place in the smartphone race, or does it do too little to distance itself from the pack? We've got the answers inside, so read on to find out!
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Palm Pixi review hands-on


Hardware


Like the Pre, the Pixi is an incredibly sexy piece of hardware. Whether your prefer larger devices or not, you'd be hard pressed to deny the sheer attractiveness of this phone. The general size and shape certainly calls forth memories of the Centro, but while the previous version was chunky and playful, the Pixi comes off more like its distant cousin... from the year 3000. The plastic device is light, but doesn't feel cheap at all, and Palm has smartly chosen the materials; the front is done in a piano black, high-gloss coat, while the standard back is soft-touch material. The candybar phone has rounded edges much like the Pre, though the width of the Pixi tapers slightly towards the bottom, giving it a sculpted, continuous feel. Unlike the Pre, the Pixi ditches the physical center button for a thin, LED slit which works just as the button does, though sometimes it's a bit odd not having a physical target. Speaking of thin, did we mention what a sliver this thing is? It measures just 0.43-inches thick -- that's thinner than the iPhone (for those keeping count).

As you probably know, you can also pick up Palm's "artist series" of interchangable backs, three of which will be available for pre-order (but not purchase -- they'll be available early December) on the day the Pixi launches. The $49.99, limited edition, Touchstone compatible backs are being released in small batches, and will be replaced with new designs once the initial pieces sell out. A nice touch if you're psyched on customizing your phone, though the first offerings aren't incredibly varied.

The front of the phone is outfitted with a 2.63-inch capacitive touchscreen, and a tiny, full QWERTY keyboard with four neatly arranged rows of Tic-Tac keys. Up top you'll find the power / sleep button (which we found a bit awkward and difficult to push in) and 3.5mm headphone jack, along the right side is a volume rocker and elegantly concealed MicroUSB port, while on the backside you've got the camera lens, small flash, and two speaker vents (though there's only one speaker here). Overall, it's major step up from the Centro, and we'd argue that the Pixi is actually more attractive than the Pre -- certainly the plastic doesn't feel quite as hollow, and decisions about button placement and how to get at the MicroUSB have been noticeably improved. We tip our hats to Palm's industrial design team: they're now two for two.

Internals

The Pixi differs somewhat from the Pre on the inside. Instead of that speedy, OMAP3 CPU the Pre uses, Palm cut down on size and battery drain by using the Qualcomm MSM7627 processor clocked to 600Mhz. We think there are some noticeable differences between the two phones when it comes to performance; the Pixi certainly seemed to struggle at times when pushing pixels around (more on that in the software section). Also onboard is 8GB of ROM / user storage, and an alleged 256MB of RAM. The phone sports EV-DO Rev. A for voice and data, and -- as famously noted -- no WiFi. You'll also find a 2 megapixel camera with LED flash here (a step down from the Pre), as well as an accelerometer, proximity sensor, and ambient light sensor. In all, it's a fine little package, but the slower processor, no memory expansion options, and lack of WiFi certainly are an issue if you're going to go hardcore with this thing.

Display


As we said, the Pixi has a miniature, 2.63-inch capacitive touchscreen with a resolution of 320 x 400 (80 less than its big brother). One of the huge advantages of webOS is that the UI can physically scale itself to fit screens of varying resolutions, so while the display is tiny on the Pixi, the OS does an admirable job of squeezing into place. Still, that tight screen real estate is definitely noticeable, and though we felt it's certainly usable, this is one of the rare cases where we actually found ourselves squinting at some of the onscreen text. In particular, when you're zoomed out on cards, seeing your content is a bit of a challenge. In terms of color and clarity, the performance was more than passable, though overall we did feel the brightness was slightly lacking on the model we tested. There is a bit-depth difference between the Pixi and the Pre (18 bit versus 24), and while we don't really see anything amiss, there supposedly can be issues with apps hard-coded for the higher depth.

Keyboard


Look, we're just going to say it: the Pixi's keyboard is totally awesome. Admittedly, we weren't expecting fireworks when we first laid eyes on this tiny QWERTY, but the experience of using it day to day has been nothing short of a revelation. You would think that the tight spacing and tiny keys would make typing a difficult task, but Palm has cleverly given the Pixi keyboard snappy tactile feedback and a substantial height boost, making tapping away a serious pleasure. Weirdly, typing on the Pixi keyboard is kind of like using the iPhone keyboard -- they have a similar size, shape, and spacing -- but of course, you've got the advantage of physical keys with the Pixi. While we still wish Palm would step up its autocorrection in the software, we did find ourselves making less mistakes with the Pixi than we do with the Pre, which is saying something. Palm has always had knack for making quality keyboards, and the Pixi's micro size doesn't seem to have held the company back from doing it again. Thanks to this keyboard, we're more convinced than ever that a portrait QWERTY is the most efficient and natural arrangement for physical input.

Speaker / earpiece

The earpiece on the Pixi seemed to be about on par with the Pre -- we don't have many complaints in that department -- but the speaker is a slightly different story. Generally, we found the external speaker on the Pixi to be a bit quiet for daily use on conference calls and the like. It seemed like our audio quality was coming through fine, but the volume on the speaker output just wasn't that loud (we regularly found ourselves reaching for the volume rocker only to realize we'd hit our limit). The same is true for system notifications; thanks to the quieter speaker, we nearly missed a few messages. It's not a deal breaker, but we definitely could have dealt with a bit more volume on our hands-free calls.

Camera


We'll be honest in saying we're disappointed that Palm dropped the camera resolution down to 2 megapixels for the Pixi. Look, we know you want to separate the Pre and this device, but killing image quality isn't a great place to start. In general, the camera takes fine photos, though the flash can be incredibly harsh on some subjects (like white dogs, for instance). As with the Pre, the Pixi has almost no delay between snapping photos, so it's great if you're a busybody when it comes to capturing memories. Of course, also like the Pre you get almost no options for your images (save for flash on or off), and there's no video recording option here. Our verdict is that it's a decent camera for a $99 phone, but we like our gadgets to be a little aspirational.

Software


The first thing you should know about the Pixi and its accompanying operating system -- webOS 1.3.1 (also due on the Pre, though not when the Pixi launches) -- is that it's not terribly different from anything you've seen on the Pre. If you own a Pre (or have recently checked one out... or have read our lengthy review), the experience is largely the same, though there are some new additions that Palm is touting with the Pixi.

Most notable is the availability of Yahoo! accounts for the phone's Synergy profiles. As with Gmail, Yahoo! integration means you pull in the mail, calendar, and messaging content from your account (not fun if you've had a pile of spam messages waiting, like we did). Overall the process is painless, but one note: if you're pulling down a lot of data, the sync process over EV-DO is less than snappy... and you should probably get used to that with the Pixi. We're still not happy that Palm doesn't give you the ability to gatekeep those accounts and weed out the contacts you don't want or need, but Synergy seems to be doing a much better job with keeping everything in one place. Of note in the newer versions of webOS is the ability for Synergy to connect AIM accounts with Gmail or Yahoo! contacts -- functionality that wasn't originally part of the OS.


Palm has also added a Facebook app for the phone, though in terms of functionality, this one ranks fairly low. It's essentially your feed of friend's status updates -- a kind of alternate Twitter really -- where you can also post your status along with links or photos. In our experience it worked well, but we would have loved some deeper interaction beyond updates, like full profile views, for instance. We imagine that Palm will build on what they have here, but if you're walking into this expecting the full experience you get on Android or the iPhone, you'll be disappointed.

Obviously tweaks have been made to get webOS working on a totally different chip than the Pre's, and for the most part Palm seems to have gotten it right. We did, however, run into some frustrating performance issues that made using the phone not just tough, but downright annoying.

It does seem that some of the OS speed has been a causality in the transition to the less powerful CPU, and on a fairly regular basis we experienced freezes, extreme lag, and an unresponsive screen. We didn't have the phone crash out on us, but when transitioning between cards, loading content in web pages, and other basic tasks, the phone had plenty of hiccups. We get the sneaking suspicion that the EV-DO-only connection could be a culprit as well; when you combine a slower processor with a slower data connection, something has to give. We also noticed that email updates and other connected services seemed to be intimately linked with the phone's sleep states -- it didn't seem to be updating as frequently when sleeping, and the EV-DO connection was slow to reconnect for us when waking the device up.

We also saw problems with sleeping the phone and waking it up, with the device not really snapping to life the way you would expect, which then caused us to re-tap the button, which of course meant we put the phone back to sleep. It was an annoying process that felt -- again -- like the phone was being asked to more than it could really handle.


While these problems were fairly regular, moving through cards and apps seemed really speedy on the Pixi -- faster than our Pre in some instances -- and the screen also felt ultra responsive. In fact, scrolling through email and webpages felt more accurate to us on the Pixi, like the screen sensitivity has been cranked up while the kinetic bounces and scrolling have been toned way down.

We walked away from the experience of using the phone day to day somewhat bummed out by the lack of horsepower. While Palm wasn't breaking any world records with the speed of the Pre, it was a consistent, enjoyable experience. The same can't be said about the Pixi -- and we're hoping they can work through this with a software update.

Battery life

In our real-world tests, the battery life on the Pixi was good, but not great. We can't knock the phone too much, as it did seem to perform better than the Pre. Our feeling is that battery life on devices like the Pixi and CLIQ -- always-on, always connected -- is a nut that hasn't been fully cracked. We were able to eke out a day's use on the Pixi, but it was tight, and if we really went for it, a dinner time recharge was in order. We assume -- as with the Pre -- that we'll see some bigger aftermarket batteries for the Pixi, but for now, you'll want to keep your charger on hand and hope that a wall socket is nearby.

Wrap-up


Going into this review, we knew that the Pixi had some cards (no pun intended) already stacked against it. For starters, it's a Sprint device, which would be all well and good if Palm didn't have an extremely similar device on the same carrier for nearly the same price-point. Secondly... Palm has an extremely similar device on the same carrier for nearly the same price-point. We say "extremely similar," but what we really mean is "much faster and better equipped." You can't ignore the fact that not only does the Pre exist, but it has a larger screen with a higher resolution, WiFi capability, a larger keyboard (though not necessarily better in our opinion), a better camera, and a price tag which is dangerously close to the Pixi's. We mean a difference of $50. Now, we don't know about you, but if we were to compare these two side-by-side, the real deciding point wouldn't be that small amount of money (hell, if you're moving up to a data plan, $50 up front should be the least of your concerns). And that's not even taking into account the outside forces at work on potential buyers. A $99 smartphone might have seemed like a steal two years ago, but these days you can have one of the best Android devices on a larger network (the Droid Eris on Verizon), or an iPhone 3G on AT&T for the same price -- so 100 bucks doesn't seem like the crazy value it once was.

No, the real question you'd have to ask yourself when thinking about the Pixi would really be purely about design -- namely, which form factor you preferred. Now -- assuming you're dead set on Sprint as a carrier -- that would be a valid point if one of these phones was, say, a full touchscreen device with no physical keyboard. Then you'd have something. But the fact is that these phones are closely matched in both features and design -- save for those items we just mentioned -- and the Pre doesn't lose out in a single category (unless you consider "smallest" to be a major factor, and even then you don't have a lot ground to stand on). So, why buy the Pixi? Well we're not really sure. Is it for Centro upgraders? Perhaps, but again, the Pre does exist. Palm offers a better device on the same network for nearly the same price... and that's a fact we can't ignore. We think there's a lot of room for evolution in the world of webOS, both on Sprint and (hopefully) with other carriers, and we eagerly await a less lateral move.

Update: As some commenters have pointed out, the Pixi is showing up for $29.99 (after an instant discount) at Walmart online right now. Let's be very clear here -- one of our major issues with this phone was that it doesn't offer enough differentiation from the Pre, a point which is particularly important when there is only a $50 difference between the two. Without question, this phone for $30 is an incredible value and without compare in the world of smartphones. If that kind of price becomes the norm with this device, it would be hard not to recommend it to buyers.
Palm

Pixi (Sprint)

Pros

  • Great industrial design
  • Responsive keyboard for its size
  • webOS scales to the smaller screen

Cons

  • Slower CPU makes for sluggish behavior
  • No WiFi
  • Pre is a better phone at a similar price
Summary