Palm Pixi Review 74
The Palm Pixi is a tiny smartphone with enough features and elegance to woo even the most die-hard feature phone user, but current Pre owners will want to stick with what they have.
The $99 Palm Pixi will be unleashed upon the world this Sunday and after using one full-time for two days, I can say it's a great smartphone for anybody who hasn't made the jump past feature phones. The Pixi comes in a tiny, almost bite-able form-factor that's immediately appealing -- all the more so because inside that little frame is the elegance and power of webOS.
For current smartphone owners, however, there are a few compromises that, all combined, lead me to suggest that most those interested in webOS should still opt for the more powerful Pre.
Read on for our full review!
What is the Pixi?
Let's start by laying out what the Pixi is -- and what it is not. For many of you reading this, the following paragraph has nothing you don't already know. Let's get some of the basics out of the way first.
The Pixi is Palm's latest webOS smartphone, available exclusively on Sprint for now. It is a followup to the original Palm Pre in some senses, although it's not strictly a successor, more like a little brother or sister. The Pixi has a 'candybar' form factor, which means that it is a simple slab with a full QWERTY keyboard sitting underneath a screen. Because it runs webOS, it can run multiple applications in 'cards' at the same time, pull in multiple Google, Yahoo, Exchange, LinkedIn, and Yahoo accounts with Synergy - getting all of your email, calendars, and contacts in a single place. You can do web browsing, IM, email, YouTube, SMS, MMS, Facebook, turn-by-turn GPS Navigation, take pictures (with a flash) and more. It has a small (320x400) capacitive touchscreen that you can use with your fingers instead of a stylus. You can play your music and videos on it and listen via the built-in, standard 3.5mm headset jack. In short, it's a full-featured smartphone that can do most things full-featured smartphones can do these days, but in a package that's more affordable and with an OS that's easy to learn and use.
If you're unfamiliar with webOS and want to learn more, we have covered it quite extensively in both our Palm Pre Guide and Palm Pre Review. All the basics are there, from Synergy to Universal Search to Multitasking and why it matters.
Here's what Pixi is not: it's not a hardcore power-user's smartphone. It lacks certain features that power users demand, including a very fast processor, WiFi, and a large screen. We'll get back to those three compromises later in the review, but the bottom line is that if you're already a Pre owner or are looking for a lot of power in your smartphone, you'll be making a few compromises in order to get into this form factor.
That form factor is something I need to dwell on a bit, because the Pixi is small, it's tiny, it's thin. Until you hold it in your hand it's difficult to get across, but ounce for ounce and inch for inch, I'm not sure I've ever seen as elegant and powerful a phone in a size this small. Here's a brief video where I try to get that across:
Hardware and Design
The Pixi clocks in at a svelte (seriously, I'm going to run out of adjectives for 'small' soon) 2.17" x 4.37" x 0.43". It's the thinnest phone Palm has ever made and they say it's 10% thinner than the iPhone, but that's comparing it to the iPhone's thickest point. The Pixi does have some slight rounding on the back, making it feel great in the hand.
Actually, what makes the Pixi feel great in the hand is how narrow it is - 2.17 inches. It's narrower than the Pre and much narrower than the iPhone or Droid, in fact it's narrower than just about any smartphone out there barring the Centro or the Pearl. A Pixie is a small sprite and the Pixi fits that bill. People: it's really small.
Palm has combined the diminutive form factor with a relatively minimalist design. The front of the phone is a flat sheet of black plastic with only the QWERTY keyboard for buttons at the bottom. The majority of the phone is taken up by the capacitive touchscreen, above which you'll find the speaker, Sprint logo, and if you look closely, two barely visible sensors for light and proximity. The microphone is also scurried away on the front of the phone, a tiny hole to the left of the OPT key.
The left and bottom of the phone are blank, just sloping curves. The right side has volume buttons and Palm's signature ringer switch, which allows you to set the phone to vibrate quickly. On my review-unit the ringer switch seems a little fiddly - flexing or pressing near it seems to move the switch just a little bit and temporarily toggles vibrate mode. I've spoken to several other people with Pixi phones and nobody else reports that issue, so mine could be an isolated case. Also on the right side is the microUSB charging port underneath a flap. The flap is a little annoying but it does give the Pixi cleaner lines. It's certainly better than the USB door on the Pre - the Pixi's flap has a tiny magnet on it to ensure it sticks closed.
On the top you have a 3.5 mm headset jack and a power button. You'll be reaching for that power button every time you want to interact with the phone since the keyboard can't activate the screen, so find a position in your hand where you can reach for it easily. Luckily, as you're no doubt tired of reading by now, the Pixi is small.
On the back you have a centered 2 megapixel camera and a flash flanked by two speaker grills. The two speaker grills do give the Pixi some nice symmetry, but in practice only one of them kicks out any appreciable sound. Also on the back is a tiny hole where you can attach a lanyard. The included battery cover is not Touchstone-charger compatible and is smooth black with the Palm logo centered on it.
As I mentioned, the Pixi has a flat, plastic front and it's pretty aggressive at picking up fingerprints and face grease. It doesn't seem too bad about scratching -- but I haven't taken my keys to the thing (yet!). The rest of the device, thankfully, has a matted, 'soft-touch' finish. In fact, the rest of the device is a single piece, the battery cover, that can be a bear to remove so you can replace it with a touchstone battery cover or artist-series cover. Here's an unboxing video where I demonstrate how to deal with it: (Update: The battery cover instructions below are wrong, you want to start on the left side of the Pixi. Here's an updated How To video.)
The fact that Palm went ahead and got rid of all ancillary buttons on the face also feels more elegant than the Pre. There's just keyboard and gestures. In the place of a lighted center button is the gesture area between the keyboard and the screen where you can make your back swipes, up-swipes for card view, or just tap the center to replicate the behavior of the Pre's center button.
One bit of elegance on the front of the device - the keyboard letters are white but the alternate letters are now gray instead of orange - it makes for a much better look for this device. Unless you go and get yourself an artist-series battery cover, the only color on the entire device is the red indicator on the silent switch. Of course, we now have the problem of the official "Orange" button on the Pre being gray on the Pixi. I for one vote that we just start calling the thing 'Opt,' which is what I wanted to call it all along. Yes, it's this sort of nit-picky thing we at PreCentral.net take pride in bringing to your attention.
If you can't tell: I'm in love with the Pixi's form factor. It's itty-bitty-awesome. I've always preferred "front-facing-QWERTY-keyboard" phones ever since the Treo 600 (compare that to the Pixi!), so the Pixi fits that need. There's no sliding mechanism to futz with, which makes the Pixi feel more solid overall than the Pre.
Those 'artist-series' back covers I've referenced are a new thing for Palm. They are limited-run (5000 each) battery covers for the Pixi with unique artwork on them, each signed and numbered. They are available for pre-order now for $49.99, shipping in early December. For that price, you'll be relieved to hear that they are Touchstone compatible. The Touchstone, if you didn't know, is an innovative "inductive charger" that can charge the Pixi using magnets merely by setting the phone down on it.
Making a phone this small comes with tradeoffs and compromises. Chief amongst those for most users will be the physical keyboard: it's also tiny, measuring 1.75" across by 0.9" tall in a square shape. That's slightly smaller than the Pre's keyboard, for those of you keeping track. Palm's been making tiny little keyboards since the Centro, though, and they've learned quite a bit over the years about how to design them. I have plenty of experience with these keyboards and perhaps that skews my perception a bit, but after just an hour or so I am able to fly on the keyboard. Once you find a way to hit the keys that's comfortable for you, that small size is actually a boon because there's less space for your thumbs to travel (one reason I dislike landscape keyboards is they slow me down.)
The keys are very slightly 'rubbery.' If you're a Palm fanatic, the scale of hardness goes thusly, starting with the hardest: Classic Treo, Treo Pro, Pixi, Pre (the Pixi and Pre are very close, though), Centro. Non-Palm-fanatics just need to know that they're firm enough to feel solid under your thumb but have enough 'rubberiness' to them that you can hit them with a fingernail without slipping.
The keys have a gratifying 'click' to them and seem to 'travel' more than they do on the Pre. This is no doubt due to the fact that it's easier to fit a keyboard on a flat slab than it is inside a slider. The keys are slightly squarer and flatter than what you'll find the Pre, too.
I'll sum it up like this: yes, it's small, but you can adjust and eventually it will be second-nature. Definitely give the keyboard a shot before you buy it, but give it an honest shot. I think only the most large, calloused thumbs wouldn't be able to find a groove with it.
I won't be going over everything in webOS here, but just putting forth a few notes. Again, if you're new to webOS, our Palm Pre Guide is the place to start. I'm covering all the new features in webOS 1.3.1 in a separate article.
As Derek mentioned in his blog post this morning, the Pixi ships with webOS 1.2.9 but is upgradable to webOS 1.3.1 right away over the air (just check your updates app). Pre users have to wait "shortly thereafter," according to Palm. Let's hope that the wait is short indeed. My review unit was running a special build of webOS 1.3.1 that Palm made available to us ahead of the over-the-air update for all Pixi phones.
Overall the setup experience on the Pixi is slightly less than ideal: before you can really and truly get going you need to update the OS over the air, hook up all your Synergy accounts, and then wait through a period of significant OS lagginess as the devices pulls down and processes all that information from the cloud over your EVDO connection. Once it's all done, it's grand, but out-of-the-box most users are going to want to get straight to playing with the device instead of waiting for Synergy to finish doing its thing.
In case you don't want to click over to the full 1.3.1 article, here are the most important new features:
- Yahoo has been added to Synergy: Email, Contacts, Calendar, and IM
- Copy, forward, or delete individual text messages and IMs
- PIN length can now be arbitrarily long and you can set the PIN timeout to any length of time up to a half hour
- Placeholder images for Flash in the web browser, YouTube videos launch the YouTube app
- The Music Player now has a time 'scrubber' that pops up when you hold down the FF or RW button.
- The 'underpinnings' for the Facebook app are here, which is a way of saying Pre users won't get it until they get 1.3.1.
The most notable non-feature in webOS 1.3.1: it doesn't sync directly with iTunes 9.0.2.
Performance and Speed
It's difficult to say whether speed is improved or not on webOS 1.3.1 since I'm comparing it to the Pre, which has a faster processor. I am tempted to say that 1.3.1 is faster in places. The Phone app in particular is much faster for me, there are definitely improvements there. I do find things are fast enough as long as you keep the number of open cards under 5. Overall it's a usable experience and better than I expected given that the Pixi's processor is known to be slower than the Pre's. The main thing is to remember to close cards that you're not using.
I have, of course, experienced some noticeable lag and can tell the difference in speed between the Pixi and the Pre. The Pixi seems to slow down inexplicably and then catch itself and speed up again in a way that's mysterious to me. With the Pre, I can pretty much always attribute a slowdown to a known quantity like having too many cards open or running a particularly resource-hungry app. With the Pixi it's harder to pin down sometimes. I wouldn't turn anybody away from the Pixi because of its speed and performance -- except for Pre users, see below.
I am aware that the Pixi's chipset includes a graphics processing unit (a chip dedicated just for graphics instead of a general processor) and that webOS doesn't yet fully utilize GPUs to their fullest. So I hold out hope that we could see some fairly significant speed improvements on the Pixi in the not-too-distant future. For what it's worth, I loaded up Perfect Bounce on both the Pixi and the Pre and the game's performance seemed identical on both devices.
The Pixi is exclusive to Sprint for the time being and I think that's a real pity. That said, it does need to be said that you can save a significant amount of money over Verizon or T-Mobile over the life of a two year contract. I've griped before that at $99 with a $100 mail-in rebate, the 'out-the-door' $199 price for the Pixi is much too high for the target demographic for this phone. If Sprint and Palm can get the total cost of ownership message across, that worry is significantly mitigated.
Like the Pre before it, the Pixi requires an Everything Data plan. Now that Sprint has their cheap Any Mobile Any Time plans, concerns over plan pricing on Sprint aren't as big of a factor for me. As I mentioned, they cost significantly less than the competition.
Call Quality, Sound Quality
Call quality on the Pixi is quite good in my testing so far - clear and loud without much distortion at maximum volume. Overall the Pixi seems to pick up Sprint signal as well as any other Sprint phone I've used.
The speakerphone, on the other hand, isn't anything to get enthused about. It's loud enough for me and sounds like a cell phone's speaker. It's slightly quieter than the Pre's speaker, but does the job.
The Pixi has a 2 megapixel camera with a flash and it's a disappointment. It doesn't compare well with the Palm Pre's camera (which has more advanced image processing) or the iPhone 3GS's camera. Like the Pre, the Pixi cannot record video.
A picture says a thousand words, right? Here are three, taken at the same time with the Pixi, Pre, and iPhone 3GS.
I'm not good at talking about images, but here goes: the Pixi's image seems unnecessarily pixelated and, what's worse, significantly overexposed to my eyes. While these photos were taken on a cloudy day and I therefore think both the Pre and iPhone 3GS's images could stand to have a little more brightness, their images could easily be fixed up with some simple photo editing software. I can forgive the Pixi having a slightly lower-quality image overall, it does have fewer megapixels, but even a camera with a low megapixel count should be able to do better. The Pixi's picture is (literally) a washout.
It'll do for quick shots, but I wish it were better.
I've gone this far without listing the specs for the Pixi by design. It's not that I want to bury the fact that they're not very impressive, it's more that they aren't really the point of the phone. We're a gadget blog, though, so the standard smartphone metrics matter to us and likely they matter to you, the vast majority of our dear readers. So here they be, with some commentary:
Sprint EVDO Rev A
If you're in an area with good Sprint signal, it's stupendous. If you're not, the lack of WiFi is going to hurt more than usual. I should note that the Pixi, like all Sprint phones, cannot do simultaneous voice and data. I refer you to the WiFi rant below.
Display: 2.63" Capacitive Touch Screen, 320x400
A lot to say about this screen. First up, it has 80 fewer rows of pixels than the Pre's 320x480 screen. This means that a large handful of 3rd party apps are incompatible with the Pixi until they're updated. It also means that you just plain have less real-estate for viewing web pages, reading emails, and so on. In practice it's not all that bad, to be honest, but as a Pre user it's noticeable.
The fact that the screen is only 2.63" inches diagonally means that you'll need to hit your targets a little more accurately with your finger. Thankfully it seems clear that Palm was prepared for this from the get-go on the webOS, all the buttons and other UI elements are plenty large on the Pixi. Text is also sufficiently large even for my rapidly failing eyes.
Finally, the screen on the Pixi is in serious need of a brightness boost. It only appears to be about half as bright as the Pre's screen. This is surely a battery saving measure, heck, it might be a heat measure given how much is crammed into such a small space. It's not a deal-breaker for me, I can still see the screen fine at medium brightness, but compared to the Pre the colors look a little washed out. (Note that the difference is not as extreme as the picture above makes it out to be, it's an effect from the camera)
The Pixi does indeed have GPS and also tower-assisted location. In my testing it picks up both about as fast as the Pre does, which is to say pretty quick. Sprint Navigation is included too, so you get voice-assisted turn-by-turn directions out of the box. Score.
Bluetooth: 2.1 + EDR + A2DP
Bluetooth performance is better than average on the Pixi, both in terms of range and sound quality. As I mention in the webOS 1.3.1 article, Palm has also fixed some bugs with A2DP and it should work with a wider array of devices -- like my car stereo, finally.
Sensors: Light, Proximity, Accelerometer
All three are here. The screen auto-adjusts brightness based on ambient conditions. The screen turns off when you put the Pixi to your face. The screen rotates in some apps (but not, sadly, email) when you turn the Pixi on its side.
Memory: 8 gigs
Palm is of course mum on RAM, if you're wondering about what's there for running apps. Storage-wise, it's nice to see that the rumors of the Pixi only having 4 gigs of internal storage turned out to be wrong.
Ports: MicroUSB, 3.5mm Headset Jack
They're there, they're standard. It's a relief to not have to complain about non-standard ports on Palm devices anymore. USB disk mode works well, Media Sync with iTunes 9.0.2 does not work at all.
Chipset: Qualcomm MSM7627
Palm claims that the Pixi is the first smartphone to use this exact class of chipset from Qualcomm. It's apparently clocked at 600Mhz, but honestly what matters is performance. As I mentioned in the speed section above, it could be better and there's hope that it can be someday if Palm can start using the GPU on the chipset.
I'm not sure where else to mention this, but the Pixi does get warm when charging on the Touchstone, enough to make you take note. I haven't experienced it getting too hot in normal use.
As Palm fans, we lived through the long time in the desert with the original PalmOS, which was incapable of working well with more than one radio for data at a time. Then, as now, there are a few reasons usually put forth for not including WiFi:
- 3G speeds are so great now, you don't really need WiFi
- For the target market for this device, WiFi isn't a necessity
- WiFi costs too much for this device, need to keep the cost down
Initially, with the Pixi, I heard its $100 price point, I looked at how gosh darn tiny the thing was, and then I accepted those three points as valid. A part of me still does: I will be recommending the Pixi to some of my friends and family despite the lack of WiFi.
I'll just say it: leaving WiFi out of the Pixi was a serious blunder. The first really big blunder I've seen Palm make since their resurgence. Every smartphone is a exercise in compromise - the Pixi more so than most because of its small size, but excluding WiFi was one compromise too far.
The Pixi uses the exact same battery at the Pre. Palm specs it as lasting for 350 hours of standby time, 50 more than the Pre. That's due to the slightly less power-hungry processor and possibly the dimmer screen. Of course, no webOS user gets those kinds of numbers, which assume no data is coming in or out during that time.
I've only had the Pixi in my hands for about two days, but my gut feeling so far is that the Pixi gets slightly better battery life than the Pre. I'm confident in saying that it should get an average user through an average day of light email, light web browsing, and a few calls. Heavy data users or callers will want to pack a spare battery, just as they do with the Pre.
Who should get the Pixi?
The Pixi is Palm's best attempt yet to broaden their base of smartphone users by picking up former feature-phone users. Its competition isn't meant to be so much the iPhone 3GS, the Droid, or even the Pre - though in reality, of course, they are a healthy part of the competition. Palm wants to position it more as a killer of the 'near-smartphones' out there, your Samsung Instincts and LG Rumors and whatnot. By that metric, the Pixi absolutely wins.
The Pixi is a good phone for anybody looking to step up to a their first smartphone without breaking the bank. As a phone for SMS, IM, some Facebook, and web browsing, it's great and stands well above any non-smartphone or 'near-smartphone.' Centro owners: You are going to love this phone.
Should Pre owners switch to the Pixi?
Ok, ok, if you're completely over the moon for the form factor, I wouldn't blame you for switching from the Pre to the Pixi. To my mind, however, there are three important compromises in the Pixi that combine to keep me from recommending it to any Pre owner who doesn't wear skinny jeans every day. I've mentioned this in our podcast several times, but it's time I put it down in writing. These compromises are:
- Lack of WiFi
- Slower processor
- Smaller screen
If you remove any one of those three compromises, I might myself seriously consider switching from the Pre to the Pixi for its size and the fact that it has the form factor I like best on smartphones. Taken together, though, they add up to an easy decision for me.
My snarky answer for "Who should get a Pixi" is this: somebody who wants a great smartphone on Sprint but doesn't have the extra fifty bucks to spring for a Pre. $99 after mail-in rebate is a mere $50 less than the Pre on Sprint. For all the reasons I've enumerated above, the Pre is a superior phone when compared to the Pixi. The Pixi's main differentiating feature is its tiny size and the convenience of having the QWERTY keyboard immediately accessible, but let's face it, the Pre is awfully small itself.
Now that I've worked all of the gripes out of my system, it's time to come back to the main thing. The Pixi is a marvel of a little smartphone. It's tiny, fun, and does more than a lot of phones at its price. That price is just very close to the ever-lowering cost of high-end smartphones.
If the Pre didn't woo Palm Centro owners, the Pixi has a much better shot. The only question is whether or not it will achieve its real goal: winning new users who have never used a smartphone. I think it has a shot.