Cool form factor that gets noticed
• ‘Life’ mode mutes notifications by default
• Still a full-featured smartphone
Frustratingly slow at times
• No volume buttons
• Lousy battery life
• Camera is only passable
The Bottom Line
The Palm phone is a compelling approach to the problem of being overconnected, but in practice the number of situations where it’s the device you’d prefer is much smaller than you think.
The Palm phone is one of the hardest devices I’ve had to review.
Its premise — its whole raison d’être — is actually one of doing a poor job of what smartphones are supposed to be hypergood at: keeping you connected. The Palm, by contrast, is a device you turn to when you want to be plugged in less.
When I say Palm, it’s not actually, you know, Palm, the company that helped define the smartphone in the early 2000s with its Treo phones. The new Palm licenses the brand, but it’s actually a new company, founded by folks who wanted to create a device to help people take a step back from an always-on lifestyle. Given the amount of hand-wringing over the insidious side of technology over the past year, the Palm phone struck many, including me, as the gadget that perhaps best embodied the current tech zeitgeist.
Even in the current tech climate, though, who outside of a few technophobes wants to use a device that brazenly admits it’s smaller and less immersive than their primary phone?
Here’s where the second part of Palm’s sell comes in: It’s not supposed to be. The Palm is intended to be a companion device. In the same way a sports car is usually something only driven on weekends and to special events, the Palm is the phone you take only in certain situations, like, say, during a weekend in the woods or a day visiting relatives.
Yes, walking around with two phones is back. At least this time you can end-run the chaos and expense of having two lines: Verizon (which has exclusive rights to the Palm in the U.S.) will let you sync your number across your main phone and the Palm, ensuring you can get calls and messages on both devices.
That makes the Palm more like a cellular-connected smartwatch. It’s an apt comparison, since smartwatches like the Apple Watch, before they pushed hard into fitness, were initially billed as devices that help you spend less time on your phone.
The Palm is about the same cost as a smartwatch, too: It’ll set you back $349, plus the $10 monthly fee for syncing it to your main phone line. While that’s roughly half the price of most flagship phones today, it’s not quite cheap, at least as Android phones go.
I’m not on Verizon, but the carrier lent Mashable a Palm phone and a Google Pixel 3 XL that were synced together so I could get the full experience. To be clear, the Palm can be a companion (and sync) with any phone on the same network, but if your main phone is an iPhone, you won’t be able to use iMessage if you want your text messages to sync properly. It’s a green-bubble life for you.
But it might be a better life. As I’ve said before, the idea of a phone designed to make you use phones less might sound ridiculous initially, but it actually makes sense the more you think about it. However, there’s the idea and then there’s real life, and the Palm IRL doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its digitally austere lifestyle.
Or maybe it does a little too well. After using it for a few weeks, I’m honestly not sure.
Little phone that makes a big statement
I’ll say this for the Palm: It’s a conversation-starter. Almost every time I pulled it out in a group meeting or with friends, I got comments on it. It’s so tiny compared to today’s phones that it messes with people’s expectations in a big way.
Still, the 3.3-inch, 720 x 1,280 screen looks quite good. The pixel density is 445 ppi, which means images and text look just as sharp as they do on high-end phones. Palm also scores points for its well-considered home screen, which is basically three rows of apps that you scroll through with your thumb. It looks clean and feels natural to this device. Best of all, it isn’t bogged down by bloatware (it’s still there — Verizon just kept it to a very few apps, and mercifully put them at the bottom of the scroll, out of the way).
As a practical matter, however, there’s inherently less you can do with a small screen: Notifications take up a ton of real estate, for starters. Apps show only a sliver of the content you can see on other phones (e.g. in Twitter, you can see three tweets, max). I also found it harder to zero in on icons and text that I wanted to tap. This is not a phone for people with big hands.
While the screen can be frustratingly (refreshingly?) small, the form factor is addictive. The shape is comparable to a Zippo lighter or credit-card case. With the Palm in hand, you’ll instinctively want to play around with it, flipping it among your fingers in ways you never would (or could) with an iPhone XS.
On the bottom of the phone is the USB-C charging port. The only physical button is the power button on the right side. There’s no headphone jack. There are also no volume buttons — if you want to adjust volume, you need to swipe down from the top to reveal a horizontal volume slider.
I don’t like this choice. While I’m sure Palm kept costs down with no volume buttons, not having them turned out to be a surprisingly annoying inconvenience. Adjusting volume on the phone in your pocket by feeling for volume buttons is one of those things you don’t realize you rely on until it isn’t there.
By default, the Palm has a slightly weird navigation, using just a single capacitive home button below the screen. You tap to go back, double-tap to go home, and long press to get to the app switcher. I got used to it pretty quickly, but if you hate it, you can go back to a regular Android nav bar, though that will take up a little room along the bottom.
Face unlock and battery issues
Palm provides a form of face unlock with the Palm, and it works well — I really liked how it would work even when I rotated the phone. It’s noticeably slower than the iPhone’s Face ID, but, while I could live with that, I really missed the iPhone XS’s raise-to-wake feature. Often I’d raise the Palm and its blank screen to my face, expecting it to come alive, and then remembered that I needed to press the side button to get it to even acknowledge my presence.
However, it’s a tad unfair to pick on the Palm for being slow and, well, less smart than other phones. It’s explicitly not a flagship phone, after all, packing a Qualcomm Snapdragon 435 chip (a processor that usually indicates a budget device). It has 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, which are both okay, but not great (though you can enhance storage with a microSD card).
Here’s the thing, though: The Palm inadvertently hurts itself by being a companion device. Yeah, it’s not supposed to be a flagship, but the owner probably has one, and switching to the Palm is a noticeable step down in terms of performance. Everything — from apps to network connections to general responsiveness — slows down. You wouldn’t notice except for that iPhone, Galaxy, Pixel, or OnePlus in your other pocket.
Something else that falls way short of a typical “bigger” phone: battery life. To be fair, the Palm isn’t designed to be used like a regular smartphone: When you take this device along with you on your camping trip, you’re probably expecting to use it two or three times just to check messages or something.
But even so. Unless I more or less completely left the Palm alone during the course of a day, it would sputter out well before the end of that day. One morning I took it running and, using it solely to play music to Bluetooth headphones during the run, it was down to 60% after 40 minutes. This was at 8 a.m.
It’s pretty clear the battery on this thing is simply too small, since background refreshes or notifications aren’t sucking extra juice. While the phone is more than capable of using those features, by default the Palm puts you in “Life” mode, which basically shuts all that down until you explicitly engage with the device by turning it on and unlocking it. That’s pretty smart, actually, and I’d love it if more Android phones go in this direction, encouraging you to turn off notifications or limit them to just a few essential apps. It’s a way to put your digital life back on your terms.
The Palm, by its nature, encourages you to not just limit notifications, but also the apps themselves. When you first set it up, it recommends you set it up as a “clean” device, so you won’t be tempted to install every app you have on your main phone.
While this sounds good in theory, in practice it’s misguided. There are all kinds of apps — from fitness apps like Nike to smart-home monitors like Google Home to services like my transit pass — that aren’t “sucking me in” per se, but I want to have with me when I have my phone. I found that, for the Palm to really deliver on its “connected but not immersed” promise, you still need to install 50-60% of the apps on your main phone. Not everything, but more than you’d think.
One of the reasons we can never ditch smartphones altogether is they’re not just communications devices — they’re everyone’s camera as well. Palm acknowledges this by giving its phone a camera that’s actually decent: It captures 12-megapixel images (same resolution as the iPhone XS), has an LED flash, and it can record 1080p video at 30fps.
On paper, that’s just fine. And in practice it was, too. Outdoor shots looked sharp and colorful, and indoor ones were OK, too. The 8MP selfie cam is OK, and defaults to a relatively wide field of view. Like I said, fine.
But once lighting gets even a little dim, pictures taken by the Palm start to lose a lot of detail. Shots of food I took at a holiday party at dusk looked positively smeared, and pics of Christmas lights in the dark outside were basically unusable. Here’s where I really missed the imaging prowess of a flagship phone; images taken by the Google Pixel 3 XL, by comparison, were in another class entirely.
The camera underscores the issue with the Palm phone: The needle it’s trying to thread is impossibly small. Sure, there are times when we want to disconnect from it all, and having less-capable hardware is one way to encourage that disconnection. It’s a workable, even enjoyable solution — right up until you run into one of the phone’s limitations at a key moment.
For me, that happened mostly with the camera. Spoiled by the Portrait mode on my iPhone XS and the impressive low-light capabilities of the Pixel 3 XL that Verizon provided, I found myself only using the Palm reluctantly. Generally, the number of situations where it’s the best — or, more correctly, the preferred — device turned out to be fewer than I thought.
Not the phone you thought it was
And I say this as a person who recognizes the need to be less immersed in the digital world and live more in the moment. I don’t bring my laptop to meetings if I can help it. I have set times every day and on the weekends where I consciously put my phone in its charger or on a counter and leave it there. It’s also been banned from my bedroom.
Even though I didn’t find the Palm as good at its job as simply adhering to those habits (and others), I’m still compelled by the idea and think it could be improved. I can live with its slow performance, but I’d like to see an even better camera and a more robust battery. Those enhancements would certainly add to the cost, but I feel that’s not such a hard sell, and a more accurate picture of the Palm idea: I don’t want a crappy phone, just one that’s better suited to being more present IRL.
Of course, you have to start somewhere. Palm will certainly cultivate fans, and even some true believers, with its device designed to “leave your phone behind.” With some improvements, I think it could recruit even more.
Then again, maybe there’s no way to square this circle for everyone. That’s why the Palm is such a hard device to review — when you start to take apart the idea, you find yourself tripping over its tiny mountain of contradictions. Think about what I’m saying: I want improvements to the tech of a device that’s designed to make me use tech less. That’s like saying I want more sugar in my diet soda.
Yet, somehow, I think that’s the key to optimizing this oxymoron of a gadget: The Palm has great potential to improve the tech balance in your life (certainly more than a smartwatch, all of which have proven to be inadequate app platforms). But it does so by acknowledging that smartphones are so intertwined with our lives at this point that we can’t divorce from them completely.
For those moments when we do need to engage, even when we’re trying to disengage, a passable experience shouldn’t be the goal. That’s why, in its first incarnation, Palm doesn’t quite hit its target. But that doesn’t mean it’s a misfire.
Correction: This post initially misidentified the “main” phone in the test. It’s a Google Pixel 3 XL, not a Pixel 3.