Tech Review: Palm Pixi / WebOS
Before you all get freaked out, no, I’m not changing the format of my blog. But one can’t live and breathe politics or social issues 24 hours a day. Because I really enjoy my newest cellphone, and think the OS deserves some hype, I thought I’d take a break from the punditry to talk about the Palm Pixi.
For a little over a year now, I’ve been a very satisfied Sprint customer. The network works well where I am. The billing has been clear and consistent. The very few times I’ve needed to contact customer service, or go to a Sprint store, the service has been competent, friendly and professional.
I joined Sprint when I decided to finally venture into the world of smart phones. As a blogger on the go, and a rabid Internet user, an all in one handheld device just made sense. Unfortunately, the phone I originally chose (a BlackBerry Curve 8330) was riddled with issues. The trackball often become inoperable if even the tiniest speck of dust interfered with the sensors. Any social networking app at all was practically guaranteed to freeze the phone to the point where I had to remove the battery to reset it. The Gmail plugin often stopped communicating with the RIM IMAP servers, and I’d get an automated message telling me I had to log into the Blackberry website to reset my password.
These problems happened so often, I realized using my phone had become more of a maintenance chore than a tool. And, really, what’s the point of having a cellphone that makes it necessary for one to always be near a computer or a Sprint store, lest the slightest problem render it completely inoperable?
Consequently, when I was notified I was eligible for a free upgrade (if I’d agree to renew my 2-year contract), I jumped at the chance. Because I didn’t want to spend money on a more expensive phone, I chose Palm’s Pixi – the less powerful (and less expensive) sister device to the more touted Palm Pre.
By ordering the phone online, and with my “free” upgrade discount, I paid absolutely zero for the Pixi, including getting it shipped to me next day air on Sprint’s dime.
As soon as I knew I was changing not just phones, but platforms, I started looking into how best to get my data from one phone to another. On my BlackBerry, I’d installed a free security app that, among other things, backed up the standard data from my phone every day. Unfortunately, that app doesn’t have a WebOS (Palm Pixi’s operating system) version, so I couldn’t use that to restore data to my Pixi once I got it.
Sprint has a tool to back up basic data, but that tool didn’t work on my BlackBerry.
I’d almost concluded I was going to have to, once again, manually re-enter all my contacts in my new Pixi. A couple years ago, when I only used my phone to contact family and a couple of friends, this wasn’t an issue. But I’ve become much more social since then. There was no way I was going to type in over 200 phone numbers, email addresses, street addresses and names.
That’s when I discovered something very handy. The BlackBerry desktop integrates contact and calendar information with the Address Book and iCal applications on my Mac. Coincidentally, the Pixi is able to pull information from those same applications onto the phone.
Using a fairly simple two-step process, I was able to get all my necessary information from my BlackBerry to my computer, and from my computer to my Pixi.
I also wanted to make sure I’d be able to accomplish the same tasks on my Pixi as I did on my BlackBerry, which is where I ran into a few problems.
The BlackBerry is such a commonly used device that pretty much every application having a mobile version, had one designed for BlackBerry. Not so much with the Palm.
I did find there were Twitter apps, a Facebook app and all the standard telecommunications features, but they weren’t “official” versions, like on the BlackBerry. One thing I that really worried me: WordPress.com didn’t seem to have a WebOS app at all, meaning I wouldn’t be able to access my blog via my phone, other than through the browser. Mobile web pages are fine for some things, but having an application designed for your specific screen – provided it’s designed well – is really a time and aggravation saver.
Fortunately, doing some serious digging in the Palm app store, I was able to find a third party app that integrated with WordPress.com. It’s not as good as the official version for BlackBerry, but it will suffice.
There’s nothing as sad as a tech junkie waiting desperately for FedEx or UPS to deliver his latest toy. Fortunately, entirely thanks to Sprint, I had to wait less than 36 hours from the time I clicked the “order” button on Sprint’s website to the time I was breathlessly ripping open the box to unwrap my new Pixi.
I turned the phone on, fiddled around with it a bit, and found my first disappointment. The Pixi has no WiFi capabilities, although I was lead to believe differently. If you want to use WiFi, you need to get a Pixi Plus (not available to Sprint customers at this time) or a Pre.
There is an inelegant hardware hack to correct this problem, but it’s potentially expensive and definitely voids your warranty. I’ve chosen to rely on Sprint’s 3G network for the time being, seeing as how I can’t afford to replace the phone at full cost.
Also, the Pixi is my first touchscreen device. I was a little dubious, as I remember calibration problems with early Palm PDAs. And, yeah, pointing and tapping on the Pixi takes a little getting used to. I have stubby fingers, and the screen seems a little off. It didn’t take much getting used to the screen, though. The gestures used to accomplish almost all tasks are very easy to remember and common sense-based, once you spend about five minutes to learn them.
The Pixi comes with a full (but very small, even compared to the Curve) physical keyboard. When I first saw it, I thought there would be no way my fat digits would be able to send a text or type an email message. Now, I’m writing lengthy emails using my phone regularly. Because special characters aren’t standardized on phone keypads, I’m still having to hunt for the pound sign or the ampersand.
One thing I didn’t know was that the Pixi is orientation sensitive. Meaning, much like the more popular iPhone, when you turn the phone on its side, the screen changes orientation. It’s worthy of noting that not all applications take advantage of this feature.
When I first started playing around with the Pixi, I thought whatever inner gyroscope controls screen orientation was broken, as I had a hard time getting the screen to flip back to a portrait view from landscape. I went online and discovered the phone was actually quite sensitive. When you want to change the orientation, you often have to hold the phone upright, then rotate it on its axis. If there’s a slant to the phone, it often doesn’t recognize the change in orientation.
I thought this would be a major hassle, but it took me about five times to get used to it before holding the phone properly become second nature.
Some people complained that the Pixi’s storage was insufficient at 8 GB. After only 1 GB on my Curve, I find there’s plenty of storage space for photos, video clips and music.
Which brings me to my next point.
I’m a big Mac fanatic. The only reason I didn’t go with the iPhone is that they are way too expensive, and totally tied into AT&T, which has a horrible pricing system for its data plans. Plus, I hate AT&T. So, when I learned the Pixi could be used as a media player, and that it had enough storage to do it sufficiently for my mobile needs, I immediately tried getting iTunes to recognize it as a device.
When one plugs the Pixi into the USB port of a computer, one is given three choices: Media Sync, USB Drive or Just Charge.
When one connects the device using Media Sync, it predictably loads digital cam applications. And, surprisingly, it launched iTunes. Unfortunately, iTunes didn’t actually recognize the Pixi.
Doing a little hunting, I was able to find an OS X application called “Double Twist” that interfaces with iTunes and recognizes the Pixi as an MP3 player.
The neatest feature of Double Twist is that I can create a playlist specifically for my Pixi. By setting up the software to sync only this playlist, I can easily add or delete songs from my phone’s USB drive. The obvious drawback is that Double Twist is not iTunes, so I can’t transfer songs to my phone that I purchased from the iTunes store as I’m too cheap to pay the extra $.25 for unlocked files.
So, for under $2.00, I was able to set up my Pixi to have all the functionality of my BlackBerry, and then some. (The WordPress app, called “Poster,” cost $1.99.)
There are two things that struck me about Palm’s WebOS (currently version 1.4.5): It is very fast. It is very minimal.
The main screen has nothing more than a background. At the bottom is the “Quick Launch” area, holding up to five items, including an icon for the “Launcher,” a black arrow that you can use to load the icons for all the apps installed on your phone.
It can hold up to five items, and comes pre-programmed with the most likely choices. I keep mine at four, for reasons I will explain later.
There are lots of standard applications already loaded on the phone. An email client that allows for multiple email accounts (you can view them all at once, or separately), a contacts application, the phone dialer, some system tools and – for Sprint customers – all the Sprint applications you’ve come to know and love, like the excellent Sprint Navigation GPS app.
Easily, the best part of the OS is “Synergy,” an integrated system by which you can find all the information on your phone, or on the Internet for that matter, simply by starting to type from the main screen. I don’t need to load my contacts to search for a phone number. I just start typing “Mom,” and WebOS loads the contact information stored under the name “Mom.”
If I wanted to search Google for “Seattle Restaurants,” I don’t have to open my Web browser, navigate to Google and search. I simply start typing from the main screen. Once WebOS realizes I don’t have anything called “Seattle Restaurants” stored on the phone, it displays some search options, including Google. I simply tap the one I want, and the Pixi loads the browser and navigates to the search results.
I can’t tell you how brilliant this is! At first, I found myself navigating to my contacts app, or email app, then typing in a name or email address. Or loading the phone dialer, then searching for a contact. Once I got used to the fact I could simply start typing and get all the information I wanted, it has saved me tons of time.
The email, contact and various other apps integrate with your various accounts. For example, my contacts app syncs with my Facebook, Google and Yahoo accounts, pulling in information into one place. Also, since some of the information may be duplicated, the contacts app allows one to easily join various contacts, if it doesn’t already know they’re the same (for instance, based on phone number or email address.)
The bad news is that the synchronization needs to be done separately for some apps. I had to synchronize my Google accounts for both the mail and calendar apps, even though they were the same account. Also, the sync is one way. This makes sense, though. One couldn’t – for example – update someone else’s Facebook information. Oddly, one can’t delete a Yahoo messenger contact from the Pixi. One has to log into Yahoo, delete the contact there, and then re-sync the app.
There is also a strange lack of functionality. For example, synchronizing my contact information from my Facebook account pulled in the birthdays of my Facebook friends who chose to share that information. But that information does not appear in my calendar app, making it almost useless.
Still, it takes very little setup to have one’s contacts all in one place, categorized and listed how one wants, and ready for use. From the contacts app, one can send an email, make a phone call or send an SMS message with one tap of the screen.
When one wants to start an application, one simply taps its icon from the Quick Launch area. If its not on the Quick Launch taskbar, tapping the arrow icon, or making a gesture on the screen, will open the Launcher, where all the apps on the phone are displayed.
This means accessing one’s applications is as easy as pie. Unfortunately, the basic configuration of WebOS doesn’t allow one to group applications according to logical function. One is given three screens to hold all the icons for applications, meaning one could potentially have 100+ icons on one screen.
Fortunately, there are workarounds, which I will explain later.
The only way I’ve found to move an icon from one Launcher screen to another is to drag it to an empty spot on the Quick Launch task bar (remember how I said I only keep four icons there?), then switch screens and drag it back off the taskbar again.
Another great thing about WebOS is the way it displays open applications. I don’t know about other phones, but the BlackBerry was horrific in this respect. One was never quite certain whether an application was open or not. Sometimes, using the end button quit an application. Sometimes, it merely hid the application from view.
With WebOS, you have Card View. If you’re a Mac or iTunes user, you are already familiar with the concept by the way you can display albums of songs or images using thumbnails. One navigates left or right to go to the next or previous selection.
Card View works much the same way. One can navigate between open apps by gesturing left or right on the screen. If one wants to work with an app, one simply taps on it in Card View, and it is maximized and ready for use. Want to close an app? Simply use a gesture to move it off the top of the screen, and it shuts down.
One can have as many apps (Cards) open as the system memory will allow. Simply tap the special gesture area to enter Card View, navigate to the proper app, tap it and work.
Unfortunately, some apps (like social networking apps) use lots of resources. If you have too many of these apps open at once, you’ll get the dreaded “Too Many Cards” error, indicating your phone is out of memory. The solution is simple: just swipe a card off the top of the screen. If the error message persists, close a couple more open cards.
Workarounds, Plugins and Beta Apps:
The bad news for WebOS users is this: the OS is very bare bones. Because WebOS isn’t as popular as the iPhone or BlackBerry OS, there aren’t as many applications available. Also, to keep the system “light,” there is a lot of functionality one might expect that the system developers left out. For example, the Launcher not allowing one to categorize apps by function in different screens.
One needn’t be a hacker or “l337” coder to take advantage of these things, but it’s not as easy as tapping the screen and installing an app, either. For example, the first thing I did was to install plugins allowing me to organize my Launcher more to my liking. This took approximate 20 minutes of one-time downloads and a little fiddling following simple directions to put the phone into “developer mode.”
To some, this may seem daunting, but Palm has great community development, support and forums. Following some basic steps – that do require you to sync up with your computer and download some specialized software – one is easily able to install the “homebrew” Preware application, giving one one-tap access to some basic system enhancements.
I found all this information on the official Palm forums, indicating it happens with Palm’s blessing. If you decide to buy a WebOS-based device, and are wary of making these system changes yourself, there is almost certainly a tech savvy friend you can ask for assistance. Once you have some basic modifications set up, making changes to those mods is as easy as tapping the screen. It’s just the initial setup that requires some extra fiddling.
Like most smart phone, the Pixi alerts you when you have a new voicemail, email message, calendar event or, depending on what you have installed, Facebook or Twitter message.
The default setting is to play a sound, and display an icon at the bottom of the screen.
By tapping on the alert icon, a more detailed message appears.
You can choose to tap this description, which will take you to the application, with the message loaded. Or, you can swipe the alert off your screen. Swiping the alert does not delete the message, it simply removes the notification.
Basic Phone Features:
The Pixi comes loaded with all the standards. One can customize ring tones one a per contact basis. One can even add pictures from the hard drive for a contact. This comes in very handy if you like you having a picture of the person to whom you are speaking.
On the other hand, system developers cut out a lot of frills to keep the OS light and easy on memory. There is only one alert sound, for example (although the Calendar does have its own unique tone for events.) The camera has no zoom settings. The browser functions well viewing both mobile and “full” versions of web pages, but has only very limited settings, and no support for plugins, such as Adobe Flash. You can either turn cookies on or off. You can’t set them on a per-site basis.
Some of this is, quite frankly, frustrating. When viewing a full version of a web page, one can “pinch” out or in to enlarge or reduce the screen, but then one has to scroll from side to side to read text at an acceptable level. Switching the screen to landscape view by rotating the phone makes this a bit easier, but one hopes the next version of the OS improves on this functionality somewhat.
Still, I’ve used my phone for all sorts of things quite successfully. For example, when I moved into my new apartment, I made a “walk through” video, complete with sound, pointing out the state of repair of the new place (which, incidentally, was great.) The camera is only 2 megapixels, but it easily outperforms my 4 megapixel camera I used to take the screen shots for this article. (By the way, I apologize for the fuzziness. My camera does horribly indoors. Maybe a new camera will be my next tech review.)
There are some other features which are quite well done. For example, not only can I set a custom ring tone for a contact, I can set customer behavior. If my sister calls, I can choose to send her to voicemail without my phone ever ringing, or I can even choose to directly hang up on her.
Con: launching an application doesn’t mean that app will tell you there are updates for it. Pro: there is an update app that, when launched, will alert you if you have any app or system updates. If you have “homebrew” (beta or alpha) apps installed, you have to check one other place, but it’s just as simple.
With the BlackBerry, checking for updates could be really tedious. With the Pixi, I check once per day by opening one app and waiting for it to tell me what updates are available. If there are updates, I tap once again, get a list of all my apps, and tap one more time to update them all simultaneously. None of this one app at a time BS.
The Pixi, while offering a great set of features and available apps, does have its downsides. For instance, my phone inexplicably shut off and restarted once. Fortunately, I wasn’t using it at the time. Also, while frozen apps are much easier to deal with than on my Curve (I can simply go to Card View and swipe them off the screen), there are some bugs in basic functionality.
For example: the email app doesn’t handle nested replies very well. I frequently exchange emails with one friend in particular. Rather than starting new emails every time, we just click the “reply” button, then start typing. At a certain point, the email app just freezes when trying to load an email with too many responses, and there is no way short of highlighting and deleting quoted text to choose not to include previous emails in the response. One can close and reload the email app quite easily, but that message can’t be opened. One has to go to a computer to read the message in question.
Some major players have completely ignored the Palm and WebOS. For example, I plan on getting an Amazon Kindle eBook reader at some point. There is Kindle for Windows, Kindle for the Mac, and a version of Kindle for the more popular cellphones, including many of the newer BlackBerries. There is even Kindle of the Windows Phone, and that’s been out for, what, five minutes? There is no Kindle reader for WebOS. And, unless the popularity of this platform increases dramatically, there is likely never to be one.
There is also no “official” version of Facebook or Twitter apps, though I’ve found a great third party app for Twitter called “Bad Kitty.” It is hands down the best Twitter app I’ve used on any platform. The Facebook app, unfortunately, stinks on ice.
The Pixi is a little underpowered, and I often have to close apps to correct the “Too Many Cards” error. Also, like many smart phones, system alerts sometimes just … stop working. Typically, the phone makes a noise if you get a new email or tweet (depending on your settings.) Sometimes though, nada. Usually, the “nada” is when I’m using my phone. I’m still a little unsure when something I’m doing precludes getting phone calls or text message alerts.
If you choose to hook your phone to your computer using “Media Sync” or “USB drive” mode, the phone is inoperable for calls, SMS or data usage.
The battery life leaves something to be desired. With my BlackBerry, I could use Twitter and Facebook for hours on end. This was really convenient when I took bus trips across the state to visit friends. The Pixi needs to be recharged more often, though it isn’t completely unreasonable. If you’re not constantly playing with your phone, a charge will last all day.
There are some peculiarities Palm has yet to address. For example, plugging in headphones will route system sounds through them, rather than through the speaker. But the Pixi doesn’t always recognize when headphones have been unplugged. This can be infuriating, as one doesn’t always know if this has happened until it is too late. I’ve found one of my sets of headphones unplugs with full recognition, and another doesn’t.
Unless you want the absolute high end in phones, the Pixi will serve you well. I think 8 GB is plenty of storage. I have over 200 songs, about 30 eBooks, several video clips and around 20 images stored on the hard drive, with still about 5 GB of free space.
The WebOS is truly the best cellphone OS I have ever encountered. Once you get used to the basic functions, you can really do anything you need to do quickly and competently. Remembering system functions is easy, as they make good common sense.
Also, using Phone settings, you can tap to update your network or roaming settings without having to call your provider. As I just moved, I can’t tell you how awesome this is. I was having data transfer problems, but two taps to my screen and the settings were updated.
There aren’t as many apps as for iPhone, Droid or BlackBerry, but there are still quite a few available. Some are crap – like the Vuvuzela app. Some are invaluable. For example, there is a King County Metro app, which uses your phone’s GPS to tell you the nearest bus stop, including what buses stop there and when the next one will arrive. (This app is only available for King County. There is one similar for some place in Europe.)
If you are a code hacker, you can download the SDK, a very lightweight IDE, and an emulator, and write your own apps and plugins for your phone using languages with which you are probably already familiar. There is a robust and active development community, and you can even package and distribute your apps, potentially even making a little money from your hard work.
The system software isn’t updated very often, but there is a major release on the horizon, slated most likely for sometime in December. While new devices are already shipping with this OS, the Pixi is guaranteed to be compatible.
Despite my shoddy screen caps (taken with a digital camera having nothing to do with Palm, HP or the Pixi, and for which I apologize), the screen is very crisp. It is small, but easy to read. And, because one can enlarge many apps using the “pinch out” gesture, reading problems are often easily overcome.
On a scale from 1 to 10, I’d give the Palm Pixi a 9 to 9.5 for satisfaction. Sure, I’d like to see a wider variety of “official” apps made available for it (one of the reasons I’m writing this article), but I’m happy with what is offered. While extra bells and whistles would be nice, Palm has concentrated on doing core functionality extremely well.
I would compare the Palm phones very favorably against the iPhone, the Droid or any BlackBerry I have seen. All phones have their strengths and weaknesses, but the feature set of the Pixi is very robust and will suit the needs of most users. If you’re looking for a little more power, get Palm’s Pre or the newer Pre 2.
While the WebOS isn’t the most popular OS out there, Palm’s recent purchase by HP will hopefully guarantee a long future for a truly great OS.
If you’re bored with your Curve, or aren’t looking at changing providers, look into a Palm phone. Give it a try. I think you’ll be impressed