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Review: Palm’s Tiny Smartphone-For-Your-Smartphone Is Novel But Nonsensical

7 minute read

Remember Palm? No? Here’s a refresher: The company, founded in 1992, popularized the personal digital assistant, and made smartphones like the Palm Treo and Centro before the iPhone hit the scene. In 2009, the company introduced its Palm Pre smartphone, a forward-thinking device with a brand new operating system, a (mediocre) slider keyboard, and even wireless charging support. It didn’t sell well, and the company was soon acquired by HP, which quickly discontinued the company’s products and sold it off piece by piece. Eventually, the company’s WebOS operating system was sold to LG (you’ll see it in certain LG TVs), and the Palm brand was purchased in 2015 by Chinese electronics company TCL.

Which brings us to today. The Palm you knew and maybe loved is long dead, replaced by Palm, creator of a new Android device meant as a smartphone substitute when yours is too big for comfort, or too distracting. It’s meant to connect you to the outside world on your terms, as opposed to the smartphone you own that is, I suppose, constantly beeping, buzzing, and spamming you with notifications (though over which you have complete control). With my small, dainty writer’s fingers, it sounds like an idea I would wholeheartedly support. Unfortunately, the experience is disheartening.

The Palm is an eye-catching smartphone, not solely because it’s so small. It grabs your attention because it looks almost identical to Apple’s all-screen iPhones, like someone hit one with a shrink ray. While the derivative design doesn’t earn it any points, it’s certainly far from ugly. It’s got a 3.3-inch display with a 720p resolution, which will make whatever you’re looking at sharp enough on the tiny screen. Instagram images look great, text is easy to read, and YouTube videos are small but watchable.

The entire device has rounded metal edges, and only a single power button on the side (are volume buttons bad now?). It features a USB-C port, no headphone jack, and has a rear 12-megapixel camera that doesn’t take awful shots (they’re not particularly good, but they’re certainly not terrible). The 8-megapixel front camera, however, is awful. You’ve only got 32GB of internal storage available, too, so don’t try to make many home movies on it.

Listening to music means you’ll need either wireless Bluetooth headphones, wired USB-C headphones, or a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle for your more traditional cans. You can use the Palm’s built-in speakers, which get surprisingly loud at the cost of audio quality.

The Palm might be brand new, but it runs the aging Android 8.1. Unlike your normal Android device with its home screen and list of apps, the Palm presents your installed apps in a scrollable grid. Since it’s the phone you use to get away from your actual phone, scrolling through pages and pages of apps shouldn’t be much of an issue. A long press on an app will reveal potential shortcuts, and let you add unrelated shortcuts to whichever app you’d like. Want to check the weather before you watch Netflix? Go for it. Relevant features like Google’s digital wellness tool are not to be found, and app switching on the Palm-designed interface relies on the capacitive button at the bottom of the display rather than the gesture-based controls added in the newer Android 9.

The lack of support for the Android-exclusive widget feature is unfortunate, as I very much rely on widgets for at-a-glance checkups on my task list and easy access to audio controls. Palm’s version of getting in touch with reality involves its “Life Mode” feature. It’s essentially the Do Not Disturb feature found on other Android and iOS devices but with an aspirational name and palm tree icon (oh, I get it now).

But the Palm’s entire proposition falls apart when you start talking cost. It’s $349, or just under $15 per month when you agree to a two-year payment plan. And that’s before the mandatory monthly data fee. Either way, it’s a bit too pricey for a phone of this caliber, especially one that isn’t really its own phone.

The Palm is a Verizon-exclusive device, but you can’t simply buy one outright. You’ll need an existing smartphone with a data plan, onto which the Palm gloms $10 per month. Using the carrier’s NumberShare service, both your smartphone and the Palm can receive and send calls and texts, but even that feature is complicated — you’ll need to use the company’s Verizon Messages app (also called Messages+) on the Palm as well as your smartphone. And if you’ve got an iPhone, forget about it. To use Verizon’s Messages+ service, iPhone owners will have to disable Apple’s iMessage service. Good luck trying to get users to ditch their beloved blue text bubbles.

Paying to access the data plan you already pay for on another device designed to be an extension of your original device (they share the same number, after all) seems a bit greedy, but that’s another story. Verizon seems to think the “Palm Companion Phone” — at least that’s what it’s titled on the carrier’s site — falls under the category of “connected devices” rather than the already extant category of “smartphone.”

Phones are gargantuan now, no question. Apple’s latest iPhones have displays even larger than last year’s models, and the competition is trying to make displays even larger by making foldable smartphones. With everything getting larger, it makes sense that a company would try to fill the void with something novel, and incredibly tiny. But being petite isn’t the only thing people care about.

I tried to sell my partner on the idea of a smaller, companion smartphone, though by the end of our conversation I found myself backed into a corner, unable to justify owning the costly handset without citing its gym-friendly form-factor. A phone for your phone? When you say it out loud, the idea sounds preposterous. Even my gym scenario suggests the device would be more convenient than a device like the Galaxy or Apple Watch, both of which offer features like smart home control, GPS and LTE connectivity, Bluetooth support, and their own litany of apps.

Divorced from its diminutive size, Palm offers little incentive to purchase its titular smartphone. It runs last year’s version of Android, its number sharing system is useless if you’re one of many iPhone owners, and it’s unavailable for purchase on its own. You couldn’t even buy it for your tween if you wanted to. For crying out loud, it doesn’t even have volume buttons! Sure, it’s small, but so is a smartwatch, which can serve as an actual companion to the smartphone for which you paid good money. Do yourself a favor: instead of buying a Palm phone, take your pants to a tailor and get some larger pockets.

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Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com