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Palm cuts prices with Pixi smartphone, may not clarify its prospects

Yesterday, Palm shipped the second device to run the webOS operating system it debuted this summer. Its new Pixi smartphone offers many of the same features as its Pre at a lower cost -- but in the six months since that gadget shipped, Palm's competitive position has eroded.

palm_pixi.jpg

Like the Pre, the Pixi combines a miniaturized physical keyboard with a sharp touchscreen that responds to iPhone-esque gestures -- spread two fingers apart to zoom into a Web page or map, pinch two together to zoom out. Its Web browser, like the software on its older brother, the iPhone and devices running on Google's Android software (all sharing the same open-source code framework), easily displays full-sized Web pages.

But the Pixi is a good deal thinner, at 0.43 inches, and cheaper, at $199.99 before a $100 mail-in rebate from its exclusive carrier Sprint, than most of its competitors. (Walmart's Web site briefly listed it for just $30 but now asks $49.99 for the device.) Despite the more compact dimensions, Palm touts the same five-hour talk time for the Pixi as for the Pre; my initial use of a loaner Pixi suggests that figure is true.

That cheaper price brings some tradeoffs, though. The Pixi doesn't have the Pre's WiFi wireless networking, includes a lower-resolution camera and features a significantly smaller screen. That 2.63-inch display may fall below some users' threshold for readability and makes it tricky to hit such smaller onscreen buttons as the little menu shortcut in the top left corner.

The biggest issue with both the Pixi and the Pre, however, is their software. Palm's webOS does multi-tasking better than any other smartphone software I've seen -- it displays open programs as a series of cards on the screen, then lets you close any one of them by flicking it up off the screen. But what could be its second-best feature, the "Synergy" option of linking contacts and calendars to the records of such social-networking sites as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, continues to suffer from an underdone implementation: You can't have only a subset of your Facebook contacts show up in a Pixi or Pre's address book. The Pixi also showed some serious slowdowns, especially with its calendar application.

Palm touts the Pre's built-in iTunes compatibility -- "use the Palm media sync feature to transfer your DRM-free iTunes music, videos and photos to your Pre" -- but makes no such promise for the Pixi. It shouldn't: Apple keeps updating iTunes to defeat the Pre and Pixi's attempts to impersonate an iPod. So while a laptop running the 9.0.1 version of iTunes synchronized music and photos to the Pixi, machines running the current 9.0.2 release ignored the phone.

Finally, there's the issue of third-party software. While the iPhone's App Store stocks more than 100,000 titles and Android's Android Market carries about 12,000, the Pre and Pixi's App Catalog only offers some 300. That number includes a few high-profile iPhone apps that have yet to show up on Android, such as Yelp, but in other cases -- for instance, the nearly useless Facebook app -- a company's webOS program is far inferior to its mobile-Web site. This is not the selection I expected to see by now when I complimented the Pre here and in my column in June. Palm says it will officially launch the App Catalog next month, but the lagging developer support so far already has some early Pre adopters questioning the viability of their purchase.

It is possible that in the under-$50 market the Pixi seems aimed at, collecting add-on applications isn't the most important thing -- out-of-the-box utility and simplicity are. In that case, the Pixi may do fine -- just as many people never bother installing more than a handful of programs on far more expensive desktops and laptops. What's your take on this? Are you more interested in a cheaper smartphone that handles the Web well enough to stop iPhone users from snickering at you, or will you pay extra to have the wider choice of aftermarket programs?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 16, 2009; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets  
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Comments

Even though Palm's hardware is solid and the 'webOS does multi-tasking better than any other smartphone'; lagging developer support so far already has some early Pre adopters questioning the viability of their purchase.


How ironic, it was these same circumstances that led to Microsoft taking over and dominating the PC market from Apple during the late 70's early 80's

Posted by: Baccuss | November 17, 2009 7:14 AM | Report abuse

This past weekend I went to upgrade my phone, not intending to get a pixi but liked the demo enough to buy it. Unfortunately, the sales rep tried to set up my profile on the phone with Palm...but their website access was down! Another rep also had trouble setting up their customer. No fix was found and I wouldn't be able to use the phone. Ended up selecting a different brand of phone to purchase. If Palm can't be reliable, the phone isn't worth it.

Posted by: bibliomel1 | November 17, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

From my experiences with the software bugs in the AT&T version of the Palm Centro and Palm's incredibly bad customer service and their lack of desire to address and correct those bugs, I'd stay away from all of their products. Apple has excellent customer service. Blackberry makes good devices.

Posted by: neil64 | November 17, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

I like the fancier smartphones. I can see the cheap smartphones as good for someone who may be more inclined to break or lose it.

Posted by: jethro1 | November 17, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

I bought the Pixi last Thursday. So far my experience is very good. It's my first smartphone and I am still learning how to use all of the features, but after some awkwardness I'm getting used to it, without reading any manuals. The keyboard is better than the Pre's with raised buttons. I wish it had Wifi as the internet access is slow most of the time. And as mentioned above small buttons in the internet are hard to hit. The facebook app seems pretty bad, but I will try accessing it through the web now. Not sure I care about the issues with iTunes, using Pandera is great and the monthly charges are much less than an iPhone would cost me with Sprint's $99 all you can eat plan. I like it a lot so far.

Posted by: patrickgama7 | November 18, 2009 12:02 AM | Report abuse

Three follow-ups to my review:

1) Late Monday afternoon, I wound up having to restart the Pixi when it appeared to stop responding to touchscreen input. Not good.

2) Amazon just slashed its price for the Pixi to just $24.99, with the Pre going for $79.99.

3) The WSJ's Katherine Boehret reviewed the Pixi yesterday and was less than impressed by its performance.

Any other questions?

OK, I'll ask one of my own, because I wonder if people notice these things: Can you identify the screen wallpaper in the Pixi photo above? I took that photo myself, which should be your hint that it's a D.C.-area subject.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | November 19, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

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