It wasn't so long ago that the iPhone 3G (8GB) was the only good touchscreen smart phone under $100. But in recent weeks other options have arrived that are worth getting excited about, especially if you're not on AT&T. Verizon Wireless now offers the Android-powered HTC Droid Eris for $99.99, and the Palm Pixi is available through Sprint for the same price. A more affordable cousin to the $149 Pre, the Pixi runs the same slick webOS but ditches the slider design in favor of a very slim slab with an exposed keyboard that's better than the Pre's. This device is noticeably slower than the Pre and lacks Wi-Fi--and Palm's app store remains relatively vacant--but the Pixi is still a pretty well-rounded smart phone for the price.
Not since the Motorola Razr have we been impressed with just how much technology a phone maker has crammed into such a thin and light design. Measuring 4.4 x 2.2 x 0.4 inches, the Pixi is taller but much more svelte than the bulbous Pre (3.9 x 2.3 x 0.7 inches); the Pixi even cuts a smaller profile than the iPhone 3GS (4.5 x 2.4 x 0.5 inches). More surprising is just how feather-light this smart phone is, weighing in at just 3.3 ounces. Compared to the Pre and iPhone 3GS (both 4.8 ounces), you'll barely notice the Pixi is in your pocket.
And yet the Pixi feels pretty solid in your hand. We especially like the rubberized back cover. The front of the device is dominated by the display and lots of black gloss, which has a modern aesthetic but picked up fingerprint smudges quickly. The right side of the phone has a ringer switch, two distinct volume buttons, and a microUSB charging port, while the left side is completely clean. A small power button is on the top left side of the Pixi, and a 3.5mm headphone jack is to the right.
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Two speakers flank the 2-megapixel camera lens and flash on the back. To personalize your Pixi, Palm is offering five back covers designed by various artists. These options include everything from Skull to Hummingbird.
Display and Keyboard
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The good news is that the Pixi's 2.6-inch capacitive display supports multitouch gestures, including pinching to zoom in on Web pages and photos. We also found it to be fairly responsive and accurate. However, while you're not giving up that much in the way of resolution versus the Pre's 3.1-inch screen (400 x 320 pixels vs. 480 x 320), some will be turned off by the Pixi's smaller size.
For example, when surfing the Web on the Pre we can usually make out the text when we flip the phone to landscape mode, but on the Pixi we had to zoom in first to start reading. We also noticed that the Pixi's display was dimmer than the Pre's, though not enough to sour the experience.
Typing on the Pixi, on the other hand, feels much more BlackBerry-like than the Pre. Because this phone has a candy bar instead of a slider design, Palm was able to create a layout with raised keys. We were quickly tapping out everything from e-mail replies to Web addresses within the first few minutes of using the device.
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Like the Pre, the Pixi runs Palm's webOS, which features the intuitive Activity Card interface for switching between apps with ease. Instead of the Pre's physical center button, the Pixi uses a glowing horizontal dash for minimizing open programs. From there you can easily switch to another program with a flick to the left or right, or discard it by flicking your finger upward on the screen.
To the right of this dash you use a left swipe gesture to back out of menus (say, from an e-mail message to your inbox). As with the Pre, gesturing slowly upwards from this area to the screen brings up the Quick Launch menu, which you can customize with shortcuts. When you see an alert for a new e-mail or calendar entry, for example, the webOS' elegant notification system lets you tap on it or swipe it away. All of these gestures are pretty easy to use once you get the hang of them, but first-time smart phone owners will definitely benefit from the built-in video tutorial.
webOS 1.3.1 Features
The Pixi ships with the latest iteration of webOS: version 1.3.1. The main enhancements include the integration of Yahoo contacts and calendar, as well as Yahoo Messenger. Other highlights include improved e-mail formatting, Google Apps support for Gmail, improved performance when swiping through pictures, and the addition of Pandora as a music source in the music app. You can also instantly lock the screen when you press the power button, and choose to reboot the phone when you press that button.
Specs and Performance
The Pixi is powered by Qualcomm's MSM7627 chipset, which has two ARM cores integrated into a single chip. This is what helps makes the phone so thin; Palm also claims that this single-chip architecture allows the Pixi to get longer battery life than the Pre, even though it uses the same battery. One core of the MSM7627 is a 600-MHz applications processor. Even though the Pre's Cortex A8 processor runs at the clock same speed, the Pre's guts are considerably faster, partially because of its beefier PowerVR SGX graphics.
The difference in speed and responsiveness between the Pixi and Pre was pretty stark. For example, on the Pre it took 13 seconds to load the App Catalog, and on the Pixi it took 18 seconds. We also found the Pixi to be more sluggish when scrolling through Web pages, especially while e-mail alerts were coming in. On one occasion it took 20 seconds for the Pixi just to load the text of an e-mail.
In other applications the Pixi and Pre ran neck and neck, but for the most part we felt like we were waiting for things to happen on Palm's latest device. This lag may not be a big deal for first-time smart phone owners, but expect other new devices in the same price range (such as the upcoming BlackBerry Curve 8530 from Sprint) to be snappier.
We like that the Pixi comes with 8GB of built-in memory. Just keep in mind that this smart phone lacks an expansion slot.
Contacts and Calendars
Palm's Synergy technology allows you to sync your contacts from multiple sources. The latest version of webOS (1.3.1) supports Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft Exchange, and Yahoo; once you've entered your account info for each of these services, the Pixi is smart enough to start downloading calendar entries and e-mails related to these accounts.
If you have multiple calendars, you can choose to view them separately or in a layered view. We also like how simple it is toggle on and off different calendar layers within Google (great for when you want to see project-related entries or those from coworkers who share their calendars).
E-mail and Messaging
We're not a fan of how long it takes the Pixi to load messages, especially if you're accessing your inbox by tapping on a notification. When going this route it took between 10 and 15 seconds to see e-mails fully load. From within the inbox, most messages took between 4 and 7 seconds to load, which is still slow. What we do appreciate is how the Pixi's webOS makes it simple to choose how you want to start or continue a conversation, whether it's via e-mail, instant messaging, or SMS. We also like the Pixi's good attachment support, thanks to the included Doc View and PDF View apps. You can also easily search your inbox just by starting to type a search query.
Web and Universal Search
The Pixi's WebKit-based browser renders pages much better than BlackBerrys, but not very quickly. While it took the Pre 14 seconds to load a good portion of the NYTimes.com home page and 28 seconds to finish, the Pixi took 18 seconds to display a good deal of text and about 38 seconds to finish the same page. As noted above, the Pixi's relatively small display makes text difficult to read unless you zoom in. You can pinch to zoom or double tap, and both methods worked pretty smoothly.
The Pixi's Universal Search function is quite handy. Although it doesn't work for your e-mail or calendar (you have to be in those apps to search them) you can just start typing away from the main screen to search for contacts or phone apps, as well as Google, Google Maps, Twitter, and Wikipedia.
Camera and Multimedia
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It doesn't get more bare-bones than the Pixi's 2-MP camera. You can't tweak any settings, the LED flash just kicks in automatically, and you can't record video. Nevertheless, we did like how the still pictures looked, both indoors and out. A photo of a few taxis in Times Square looked rich and colorful, and the Pixi exhibited very little shutter delay. You can upload photos straight to Facebook from the Photo Roll app (but not Flickr).
Palm touts the Pixi's ability to sync with iTunes, but you can only do it through version 9.0 of the software. Apple has been continually updating iTunes to disable compatibility with webOS devices, and we don't see this changing anytime soon. You're better off using the Pre as a USB drive and dragging and dropping files.
We had no problems downloading the latest Green Day album from the Amazon MP3 app over the Pixi's 3G connection, and "Song of the Century" sounded clear and loud through the Pixi's speakers. We also like how you can control music playback using the notification/dashboard area when you're using other apps. However, the music player itself took 9 seconds to load.
For now, your video options include YouTube and Sprint TV; playback was smooth on the former, but videos were slow to load. An NFL Network stream looked pretty good, and audio was in sync with the video, but we saw some blockiness. It will be interesting to see how well the Pixi handles Flash content once the 10.1 version of the player becomes available for webOS next year.
If there's one area where Palm and its webOS platform continue to bring up the rear, it's apps. Granted, the App Catalog is still in beta, but the selection has been laughably skimpy ever since the Pre launched in June. Palm says the count is now upwards of 300, compared to more than 10,000 for Android and 100,000-plus for the iPhone. The company is trying to close the gap somewhat by creating its own apps, like the preinstalled Facebook, but that program is very limited; it only lets you update your news feed and check out the posts of others.
What we do like is the intelligence of some of these apps. For example, if you use Fandango to purchase movie tickets, you can add the showing times right into your calendar from the app. And the Pandora app lets you skip songs when you're using other programs. Nevertheless, webOS won't be in the game until Palm officially opens its developer program in December.
Maps and GPS
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The bundled Google Maps is good for local search, and pinpointed our Manhattan location quickly, but if you want turn-by-turn spoken navigation you'll want to use Sprint Navigation (powered by TeleNav). It took about 30 seconds for the Pixi to calculate our route from Times Square to Central New Jersey, and we liked that the female voice didn't sound robotic. It was also quick to reroute when we went off track.
Call Quality and Battery Life
The Pixi offered above-average call quality when we dialed a landline. We noticed only a bit of fuzziness on our end of the line, and we appreciated that the Facebook photos of contacts automatically popped up when receiving and making calls.
With light to moderate usage (syncing e-mail in the background, occasionally surfing the Web) the Pixi lasted close to a full workday on a charge. However, with moderate to heavy usage (downloading MP3s via Amazon, Google Maps, Sprint TV, YouTube, and Web use) the Pixi was down to 20 percent of its battery life after less than 4 hours of use. Still, that's better than the more power-hungry Pre.
In some ways we wish the Palm Pre were more like the Pixi. The latter slimmer and lighter, and the keyboard is always at the ready (no need to slide). However, at times the Pixi's slower processor has trouble keeping up with the multitasking-friendly webOS. Overall, we prefer the Pre because for just $50 more you get a bigger, brighter screen, faster performance, and Wi-Fi. We also think some Sprint customers will prefer the BlackBerry Curve 8530 because of its faster performance and integrated Wi-Fi, despite RIM's lackluster Web browser. But if you like the idea of owning a near-weightless smart phone with both a responsive touchscreen and full keyboard, the Pixi is a tempting choice.