UPDATED First Look: Palm Pixi, a Smaller, Less Capable Pre

UPDATED with battery specs

The Palm Pre has gotten a little brother, the Pixi. And as is often the case with younger siblings, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Pixi, available Nov. 15 from Sprint, feels at least a little bit inferior.

In design, the Pixi looks like a slicker and more modern version of the Palm Centro, the last phone to run the old Palm OS software. It’s very nearly the same length and width as the Centro, but significantly thinner and lighter. It’s a quarter-inch (6 mm) thinner and 1.5 oz. (43 g) lighter than the Pre. It runs the same Palm webOS and the same applications as the Pre.

The big question is, unless getting a very small phone is your highest priority, why you would want a Pixi rather than a Pre. The Pixi costs $100 after a $50 instant rebate and a.$100 mail-in rebate. The Pre costs $149. Amortized over the required two-year contract, with the cheapest offering being Sprint’s $70 a month unlimited data, 450 voice minute Everything Data plan, the Pixi works a out to $74.15 a month and the Pre to $76.25. Not much to choose from there in budgetary terms.

And you do give up a lot to gain compactness. The 2.6-in. screen feels diminutive by contemporary smartphone standards compared to the 3.1-in. display on the Pre or the huge 3.7-in. screen on the new Motorola Droid. The touch-sensitive gesture area below the screen, which is critical to the webOS user interface, is also significantly smaller and, as a result, somewhat harder to use.

The keyboard on the candy-bar style Pixi looks like its small size would make it difficult to use but I found that not to be the case, even with my big hands. The keys are nicely rounded, well-separated, and have a slightly tacky surface that gives a positive feel. But I found that most of the time, I was pressing the little keys with a fingernail rather than my fingertip. On the plus side, the Pixi lacks the elongated and unbalanced feel the Pre has when the keyboard is slid open.

The Pixi also mostly loses the advantages of being able to use the screen in the vertical (portrait) or horizontal (landscape) position. In general, webOS only works in the vertical position. You can turn the Pixi 90 degrees to get a wider screen when reading Web pages, but if you have to enter any information—a Web address or login name--you’ll want to turn it back because there’s no on-screen keyboard and typing on the rotated keyboard is more than a little awkward.

There’s no Wi-Fi. How big a disadvantage that is depends on you experiences with Sprint’s 3G EV-DO network. Where you have good coverage, the Sprint network can be very fast. But especially inside of buildings, where the network can get weak or disappear entirely, Wi-Fi is a very welcome alternative.

Battery life is also likely to be problematic. The 1150 mA battery is rated at 5 hours talk time and 350 hours standby. But I think it will be a stretch to get through a day of heavy email use and Web browsing, especially if you have apps running in the background. You may want both a spare battery and the optional Touchstone wireless charger kit ($80); opening the rubber door that covers the Pixi’s micro-USB charging port is a pain.

The bottom line is that Pixi is an attractive addition to the new Palm line. But in the end you give up too much to get a smaller package and a $50 savings. If you want to go Palm and webOS, the Pre offers much better value.

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