Palm Phone Review: Fun, endearing, and bad at everything
That's usually the expression I get when I whip out the new Palm phone, one of the tiniest Android phones released in recent memory. This 3.3-inch device has a spec sheet closer to a smartwatch than a smartphone, and it looks more like a prop from a comedy skit rather than a serious connectivity product. There have been phones with 3.3-inch displays in the past, but they haven't really been combined with the more compact design trends of today. The result is something ridiculously, eye-catchingly small. The Palm phone looks like a joke.
Wait, "Palm phone"? That Palm? Yep, this phone, which is called "Palm" and from the company "Palm" (so the Palm Palm ?) is a newly formed zombie brand made from the ashes of the legendary Palm Inc, the very same company that created the Palm Pilot, the Palm Treo, and WebOS. After bombing out in the smartphone market circa 2010 and selling to HP, Chinese firm TCL bought the rights to Palm back in 2014and announced plans to resurrect the company in 2015. The corpse of Palm remained still for several years, but the right combination of a full moon, or lightning strike, or something roused the company back to life just last month. Zombie Palm's first product is this tiny, Verizon-exclusive smartphone with a not-so-tiny price tag of $350.
Design and build quality
Palm definitely did something right with the design of the Palm phone. Before the logic center of the brain kicks in and asks "What am I supposed to use this for?" people's initial impression of the Palm phone is usually amusement. You'll always get a smile, laugh, or eye roll when you show someone the Palm phone for the first time. It's just so cute and tiny and different. You look ridiculous using it in public, and you'll usually get weird looks from people as they no doubt wonder, "what the heck is that thing?"
|SPECS AT A GLANCE: Palm Palm|
1280×720 3.3-inch LCD
(445ppi, 16:9 aspect ratio)
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon 435 SoC (Eight 1.4GHz Cortex A53 cores)|
|NETWORKING||802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS|
|PORTS||USB 2.0 Type-C|
|CAMERA||12MP rear camera, 8MP front camera|
|OTHER PERKS||IP68 water resistance|
It's hard to communicate just how small the phone is from a spec sheet, but here's a little exercise for those of you at home: grab your wallet, pull out a credit card, and hold it as if it were a smartphone. That's about how big the Palm phone is.
Now hold the credit card in both hands, stick both thumbs on the front, and pretend you're typing on a tiny QWERTY keyboard. Are your hands cramping up yet? Having a hard time imagining typing on a keyboard that small? You're now getting a good idea of what to expect.
The 3.3-inch display doesn't sound that small on a spec sheet: after all, the first-gen iPhone had a 3.5-inch display, and the first Android phone (the T-Mobile G1/HTC Dream) had a 3.2-inch display, so it doesn't sound that outlandish. Those early smartphones only had a 3:2 aspect ratio. So they were much wider than the Palm phone's 16:9 display. So, forget about the screen measurement—you've probably never held a smartphone this skinny.
The 1280x720 display means the Palm phone is packing 445 pixels per inch. The dense, tiny display looks great, although it is only an LCD. The front and back are covered with Gorilla Glass, with an aluminum frame peeking out from between the two glass panels. The glass back is a fingerprint magnet, and, while usually I would complain about how fragile glass backs are, I'm honestly not sure the Palm phone weighs enough to crack the glass panel when dropped.
The front adheres to many of the usual smartphone conventions—you get rounded display corners, a speaker/earpiece combo on top, and an 8MP front-facing camera. For navigation you get the option of displaying the world's tiniest on-screen navigation buttons or using the single capacitive navigation button that sits just below the screen. This one button tries to pull triple-duty and cover the three main navigation features: a single tap will go back, a double tap will open the home screen, and a long press will open recent apps. I never found it to be even close to useable.
The aluminum sides have only a power button, SIM tray, a pair of microphones, and a USB-C port. There's no volume rocker at all. Instead, you have to pull down the Quick Settings panel and adjust the volume slider the same way you would adjust screen brightness. The lack of a volume rocker is pretty annoying—you can't easily adjust the volume of music or a call, and you can't change the volume of a video while still watching the video. It also makes a phone reviewer's life difficult, since you can't take screenshots easily. There's a button in the Quick Settings to take a screenshot, but that simply doesn't work for many screens.
The back has just a single 12MP camera and flash and nothing else. Without a fingerprint reader, you'll have to log in with a PIN, pattern, or password, or you'll have to trust the questionably secure 2D face-unlock powered only by the front-facing camera.
Other than the lack of a fingerprint reader and NFC, the Palm phone is a full-featured Android device with all the LTE connectivity, telephony, and app access you would expect from a normal-size smartphone. Oddly though, Verizon won't let you buy the phone and activate it. The company requires the Palm phone to be a secondary device on your Verizon account, where it will share a phone number and SMS access with your primary smartphone. Another oddity: the phone has what is clearly a SIM slot on the side, but it doesn't open.
So... what are you supposed to use this for?
The Palm phone might be cute to look at and fun to show off to people, but once you've made all the obligatory Zoolander references and gotten over the novelty of a tiny cell phone, you'll realize the Palm phone isn't really good at anything. And it is really expensive. What are you supposed to use this for? Is it a new-age iPod? A smartwatch alternative? A smaller phone to take on your fitness activities? It's not really good at any of these things.
First, the $350 price tag puts it firmly in smartwatch territory, which is a huge problem for justifying a lot of Palm's supposed use cases. You can get an Apple Watch Series 3 with cellular access for $380. You can also get an LTE-equipped Wear OS or Samsung watch for around this price.
Palm calls this phone a "wearable" and sells a variety of cases, armbands, and lanyards designed for easy portability, but nothing is more portable than a smartwatch. So, if you're looking to travel light, just get the smaller device.
The Palm phone isn't a great music player thanks to the lack of a headphone jack and physical volume rocker. Sure, you can pair Bluetooth headphones to it, but you can also just pair Bluetooth headphones to your smartwatch, which is going to be smaller and more portable.
The Palm phone also can't beat a smartwatch for fitness activities, since a watch is going to be lighter and easier to carry. Plus, a watch will do heart-rate tracking. Maybe you want to bring a real phone, because you hate the lack of a keyboard on a smartwatch and don't want to speak to your device in public—but the Palm phone is too tiny to comfortably type on. The body is so skinny that you can't hold it with two hands, and the keyboard on this skinny screen is so small that a fingertip presses about four keyboard letters at once. You're relying on autocorrect so much that you might as well use Wear OS' tiny keyboard.
Plus, a smartwatch has one more major feature that the Palm phone doesn't support: NFC. If you're out for a jog, you can run into a shop and buy a drink with your smartwatch. You can't make a payment with a Palm phone.
I could kind of understand the Palm phone if it were dramatically cheaper, as kind of a smartwatch stand-in for people who don't want to spend the money on a good smartwatch. But when it's exactly the same price as a smartwatch—just buy a smartwatch. If your goal is hyper-portable functionality, you get even more functionality in an even more portable form factor with a smart watch. The Palm phone simply isn't good at anything, and it lacks the payment and fitness tracking of a smartwatch.
The Palm phone comes with a teeny-tiny version of Android 8.1. Again, we've seen Android phones with 3.3-inch screens before, but the 16:9 aspect ratio makes this display much skinnier than any of those older, first-gen Android phones. The whopping 720p resolution also serves to make everything much smaller than it was on those early 480×320 devices. Some things, like text, do a fine job of scaling, but the on-screen navigation buttons are clearly too small, and the screen just isn't wide enough to support a decent QWERTY keyboard. Some buttons, like the "Clear all" button at the bottom of the notification panel, are so small that most of the time I can't press them on the first try.
This build of Android 8.1 has been skinned with a dark theme in most places. It looks nice and makes the LCD blend in with the bezel of the phone, but it would be a lot better—and more power efficient—with the zero-power, true blacks of an OLED display. The highlight colors of this dark theme are really funky, ranging between pink and neon green for things like switches, buttons, and icons.
The biggest change from the normal Android layout is the home screen, which does away with the usual app drawer and multi-page home screen for a single scrolling list of apps. The layout looks like the Apple Watch's baby brother, with a honeycomb grid of app icons that grow bigger as they scroll into view. There's no app drawer and no way to even set a wallpaper—just a black screen with scrolling icons. This is a full-featured Android phone, but the simple home screen really makes the Palm phone feel more like a limited media device than a do-it-all smartphone. If you don't like it, installing something like Nova Launcher and getting a normal home screen back is easy enough.
The other big addition to Android—I guess—is the Palm Graffiti-inspired lock-screen feature. If you swipe up from the bottom of the lock screen, you'll launch an app-search interface that uses drawing-text input. Just like on Palm's Graffiti system, the bottom-third of the screen is dedicated to letter drawing, with an icon in each corner of the drawing area. Each letter you draw will narrow the list down as you spell out an app name, and then you can tap on a result to launch an app.
I appreciate the throwback to Palm's old writing system, but this app-search interface was never useful. Thanks to the time it takes to draw a letter and wait for the system to recognize it, scrolling through the app list for what you want was always much faster. The input doesn't even support Palm's graffiti gestures , and there's no way to see what you're currently typing or a way to erase a letter. The app search is nothing but a poorly implemented gimmick.
The rest of the Android bits are right where you would expect them, just really tiny. You can pull down the notification panel from the top and expand the Quick Settings panel, which also contains the critical volume controls, since there are no hardware buttons. You can double-press the physical power button to open the Google Assistant and speak a command. You can flip through an itty-bitty settings screen, open a tiny webpage in Chrome, or install a tiny app through the Play Store. Recent Apps is also the normal vertical cascade of cards that you would expect from an Android 8 device. Everything is here, just dark, which is fine.
Normally I would write about the device's OS update prospects at this point, but Palm—the new zombie Palm—is a brand-new company without an update history. Things aren't looking good so far, though. First, Android 8 is an old version of Android—the newest version is Android 9, and it's November, and this phone is still on the "August" security patch. That's three months out of date. I'm going to guess the update support will not be good.
Speaking of things that are "not good," let's talk performance! The Palm phone struggles to do just about everything, which is expected considering the Qualcomm Snapdragon 435 SoC is near the bottom of Qualcomm's lineup. You get eight Cortex A53 cores and an Adreno 505 GPU, all built on a 28nm manufacturing process. While that's not great, the Palm phone still performs worse than the specs and benchmarks would lead you to believe. I ran into all sorts of problems like GFXBench crashing in between benchmarks and Chrome randomly closing.
The battery life is awful. The Palm phone easily has the worst battery performance of any phone I've ever tested. It's the worst score we've ever gotten in our battery tests, and during heavy usage, describing the battery percentage as a minute-by-minute countdown timer is not an exaggeration.
The battery life is the real killer for this phone. Even if the $350 price doesn't matter to you, the battery life is so poor it makes the phone unfit for any use case. The Palm phone feels like it is always on the brink of death, and that makes it an untrustworthy product to bring with you as your only form of communication or media.
Palm's band-aid solution to the terrible battery life is to include a "Life Mode" switch that will turn off Wi-Fi and LTE connectivity when the screen is off, which will certainly improve standby battery life.
Listing image by Ron Amadeo
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