Katherine Boehret

Palm Pixi Needs a Dusting of Speed

Since the debut of the Palm Pre in June, Palm has talked about the value of the device’s webOS operating system, which offers fast responsiveness, multitasking, universal search and smart synchronization. These features are accessed using delightful multitouch gestures like swiping with a fingertip. So it makes perfect sense that Palm would want to expand its family of products running this great mobile operating system.

This week, Palm (PALM) introduced a second device with webOS: the Palm Pixi (palm.com/pixi). This is a stripped-down version of the Pre and it costs $100 (after a $50 instant rebate and a $100 mail-in rebate and with a two-year service contract) compared with the $150 Pre. Walmart.com is currently selling the Pixi for even less—$50 (http://3.ly/oSE). Both the Pixi and the Pre run on Sprint’s (S) network.

I’ve been testing the Pixi and I’ve found that the physical differences from the Pre are acceptable variations that most people won’t mind and may not even detect. These include a smaller, lower-resolution screen, a two-megapixel camera rather than the Pre’s three-megapixel camera and stationary keyboard instead of one that slides out. The Pixi isn’t as pebble-shaped as the Pre, but its back cover is rounded to fit comfortably in a hand. And like the Pre, it has an eight-gigabyte storage capacity and it’s thin and light enough to forget in a jeans pocket or to comfortably hold up to your ear during phone calls.

The Pixi’s internal changes are much tougher to accept. It lacks Wi-Fi capability and so must rely solely on Sprint’s 3G network for its connection, which I found to be frustratingly slow at times. This littler phone also runs on a weaker processor than the Pre, a decision that Palm says helped cut costs and make the Pixi small. But this processor’s speed is slow enough to notice immediately and it robs webOS of its lightning-fast speed. The Pixi’s progress indicator—a spinning, white circle—appeared on my screen too often.

mossberg

The $100 Palm Pixi is like a mini version of the Pre. A $70 Touchstone accessory (right) magnetically holds the Pixi as it charges.

Like its super-smartphone competitors, including Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone, Research in Motion’s (RIMM) newer BlackBerrys and Google’s (GOOG) Android phones, the Palm Pixi taps into a virtual store from which users can download apps for the device. But Palm’s App Catalog currently holds fewer than 400 apps and roughly 80 of those aren’t yet configured for the Pixi. This means that people who buy the $100 Pixi can choose from just around 300 apps for download, compared with the 100,000 apps available for Apple’s $100 iPhone 3G.

Some apps come preloaded on the Pixi, like Facebook and NFL Mobile Live. I downloaded others, including Pandora radio, Tweed for Twitter and a game called Word Whirl Lite. I logged into my Pandora account and played songs from one of my personalized radio stations while reading through email. A tiny “P” icon at the bottom of the Pixi’s screen notified me that Pandora was running. Other notifiers, like new emails or instant messages, appear at the bottom as well.

If you aren’t familiar with webOS, it’s easy to learn. Functions are designed to be more people-centric rather than program-centric. For example, I can look at a name in Contacts and see how I’m linked to that person—like through Facebook or Google Talk. If I want to start an instant-messaging conversation with that person, I can do so right there rather than opening AIM or Google Talk first to find a person’s name and then initiate conversation. I logged onto the Pixi with a Google account and the device was smart enough to also synchronize data from my Google Talk, Google Calendar and Gmail contacts.

The Card View, a display of all the programs that are simultaneously running at any given time, can be exposed with a simple, upward finger swipe starting below the screen. To close a program, simply touch it with a finger and toss it upward, as if throwing it away. This is one of the most satisfying gestures in webOS. And it’s a good thing, too, because Pixi users will need to use it more often than they did with the Pre. Palm suggests running only seven programs at once for the best performance, rather than the 10 you can leave opened on the Pre.

But my Pixi stuttered with just five programs—sometimes fewer—opened. Simple tasks like opening an email or searching for an app in the App Catalog were painfully slow. I received an email containing one digital photo, and the process of opening just the email—not even the photo—took about 10 seconds. When I finally opened the email and its photo, I saved it to my Pixi and tapped on a menu option to upload it to Facebook. But five minutes later, the spinning progress indicator was still on my Pixi’s screen and I gave up. I tried again and the same thing happened. Finally, on the third try, my photo posted to Facebook.

As was the case for the Palm Pre, the Pixi can be charged by plugging into a normal AC adaptor or by resting it on the Touchstone, a $70 accessory that, with the help of a special back cover that snaps onto the Pixi, magnetically holds this device as it charges. A handful of stylish “Artist Series” back covers will sell on Palm.com for $50 each and will ship in early December.

The Pixi’s 2.6-inch screen has a 320×400 resolution, which is a step down from the Pre’s 3.1-inch, 320×480-resolution screen. Palm estimates the Pixi’s battery lasts for five hours of talk time, the same as the Pre, but for 350 hours of standby time—or 50 more hours than the Pre.

The Palm Pixi’s keyboard is tiny but sufficient. People who are used to BlackBerry or even iPhone keyboards might be irked that the Pixi keyboard doesn’t have built-in shortcuts like holding down a key to capitalize it or pressing the space bar twice to add a period to the end of a sentence.

Like its predecessor, the Pixi has a designated Gesture Area just beneath its screen where users can swipe a fingertip for quickly navigating through screens, like swiping right-to-left to go back a screen. Unlike the Pre, the Pixi doesn’t have a silver button below its screen that immediately takes users to Card View, but I didn’t miss this button.

Though the Palm Pixi is $50 less than the Palm Pre, its downgraded performance doesn’t make that dollar savings worth it.

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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