A Week With the Pixi | webOS Nation
 
 

A Week With the Pixi

by Robert Werlinger Mon, 29 Mar 2010 9:13 am EDT

The Pixi. Palm's second webOS based phone launched on Sprint back in September with relatively little fanfare, and while there's plenty of great information (including our very own in-depth review) covering the phone, there's only one way to truly assess a device - and that's to get it in your hands for at least a week, if not more.

For the first time since I began writing for PreCentral back in September, I was able to do just that, and go hands-on with the Pixi for a little over 7 days. I had the phone right on the cusp of the webOS 1.4 update, which made the overall experience much more interesting (and enlightening!), significantly changing my outlook on the device midway through my evaluation.

How was a week with the Pixi from a Pre owner's perspective? Read on to find out.

Software and the user experience

Migrating from the Pre to the Pixi was a painless experience, and I think Palm has finished ironing out most of the issues users had been experiencing in this area. After getting the phone activated on my account and signing into my Palm Profile, my contacts, calendars and some of my settings were downloaded from various cloud services in about the same amount of time it takes on the Pre. Curiously, none of the programs I had previously installed on my Pre were automatically installed on the Pixi – I had to go back into the App Catalog and manually choose what to put back on the phone. 3D games still aren’t available for Pixi, but that wasn't a huge issue for me since I'm not much of a phone gamer.

At first, I only loaded up the essentials – Tweed, Facebook, a few streaming audio apps – and initially ran the Pixi without any homebrew or modifications to get a better feel for how most people would be using the phone. I honestly didn't mind the default configuration, but it was only a couple of days before Preware was installed and a few key UI elements, such as the amount of apps shown in the launcher grid, were modified to my liking. Preware, by the way, works great on the Pixi.

I was fortunate enough to have the phone just before the webOS 1.4 update hit, and I was able to observe the drastic improvements in performance between the two versions of the OS. With webOS 1.3.5, I often found the overall user experience to be frustrating - I’d experience annoying hangs in programs, the dreaded “too many cards” issue and even the occasional UI crash. I was less than impressed, and after about a week I had concluded that there was no way I could use the thing as my primary phone, and I questioned how anyone else could put up with that level of performance. I was ready to switch back to my Pre and send the Pixi back on its way. Then webOS 1.4 hit.

After updating, the user experience improved by an order of magnitude. Most of the performance issues I had been experiencing were significantly improved upon or had disappeared completely – I no longer had the browser hang during loading at random intervals, and the UI crashes disappeared completely. For the most part, so long as I didn’t have too many cards open, the overall experience was very similar to what the Pre offers. Google Maps and Sprint Nav worked like a champ. Simultaneous activities like browsing the web, listening to grooveshark and checking twitter was fluid. It was a revelatory experience – this is how Palm meant the phone to be.

Hardware

When showing the phone to people I'd often ask, “this thing is an engineering marvel, no? I mean, look at it!” The usual response was a patronizing nod, since most of my friends don’t share my enthusiasm about these kinds of things, but I digress – I’m impressed. Take the battery cover off the phone , and you’ll be astonished that Palm’s engineering team was able to pack so much into that tiny slab. Remember: the Pixi can fit inside the iPhone dimensions wise. The thing feels great in the hand, it disappears in the pocket, and it never feels fragile. With that said, and as much as I enjoy the Pixi's form factor, I actually prefer how the smooth "river stone" shaped Pre fits in my hand.

The keyboard is generally regarded as being good, but I’d say that it’s one of the better portrait QWERTY keyboards I’ve used - If you can type reasonably well on the Pre or any QWERTY BlackBerry, you’ll fly on the Pixi. I was able to slam out emails and texts with surprising efficiency

The screen was always very responsive (multi-touch gestures worked great), crisp enough, and bright enough, but it was a little too small for my taste. This is probably the one thing, aside from the overall lack of horsepower, that would keep me from considering this phone as my primary. I spend a lot of time browsing the web on my phone, and I don’t think I'd ever want to use anything smaller than the Pre’s already smallish 3.1” screen.

I thought that I would see better battery life given the Pixi's more power efficient processor and smaller screen, but I found it to be about on par with the Pre - not great, and with the last update, not terrible either.

What's not to like hardware-wise? If you don't own a touchstone charger, you'll quickly become frustrated with the battery door. If you thought the Pre's plastic flap was annoying, the Pixi's is integrated with the rubberized plastic back cover and utilizes a magnet to keep it attached to the phone. That magnet, generally against your will, will cause the door to snap shut. Frustrating! And after prolonged use, I can see the magnet (attached to the door with adhesive) being pried loose. My advice to perspective Pixi owners? Just buy the Touchstone charging kit.

I had the Sprint version of the Pixi, and I’m still baffled by their decision to omit WiFi. Sure, most of the device’s target market probably won’t really care, but I think that the omission of this feature is still detrimental to the user experience. Since the EVDO connection has a limit placed on its download speed, I gave up on downloading the 1.4 update OTA and just ran the webOS Doctor to update the phone.

Palm’s Strategy

Using the Pixi has solidified my views on Palm's strategy in the entry-level smartphone space.

Compare the Pixi, a full multi-touch phone with a physical portrait-style hardware keyboard to what else is on the market at the sub $99 price point. On the Android front you have phones like the Cliq, the Eris, and the Backflip. Large, rather unwieldy devices with less than stellar keyboards and a comparatively steeper learning curve for smartphone novices. On the RIM front you have the Curve and the upcoming refresh to the Pearl, and while RIM is making great inroads to making its rather corporate user experience more consumer friendly, it’s nowhere near as elegant as webOS. And while BlackBerrys are considered the undisputed king of the hardware keyboard, I'd say that the Pixi easily rivals that of RIM’s offerings, with the exception of maybe the Bold.

I'll politely disagree with Engadget's recent survival guide for Palm and say that the Pixi is an important piece of Palm's strategy going forward. The Pixi is, in my view, one of the best "beginner" smartphones on the market, period.

Wrap up

I come away from my week with the Pixi impressed. Impressed not just by the device itself, but by the staggering performance improvements Palm's OTA updates can bring. If the company continues on it's "web schedule" of operating system updates, these devices are going to be very potent come years end.

The Pixi isn’t a power users’ phone by any stretch, but unless you spend a lot of time browsing the Web or playing 3D games on your phone, it really should satisfy most. I even know someone who recently switched from the Pre (a user since its launch on Sprint) to the Pixi. The catalyst for her switch was Sprint's policy of allowing its customers to switch devices after a certain number of warranty replacements (hint hint) who actually prefers the form factor, screen size and all.

And now that the Pixi is finally settling into the price point it needs to be at to be really effective (with prices varying from free to $70), Palm is finally set to start capturing the market RIM has been thriving on and Android is vying for in the consumer segment.

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