The new Palm is a tiny phone to keep you away from your phoneOctober 15, 2018
There’s a new phone with the word “Palm” on it that’s tiny, intriguing, and has very little to do with Palm beyond that word printed on the back. It comes from a startup in San Francisco, which purchased the rights for the name from TCL last year. It costs $349.99 and will be available in November, but you can’t go out and buy it on its own. It’s only available as an add-on to a current line. Also, Steph Curry is somehow involved.
It is a weird little thing.
The Palm phone is a device that you can add on to your Verizon plan, which shares your phone number. It’s a phone designed for you to use on the weekends, when you’re going out for the evening, or just generally when you want to be a little less distracted by your big phone with all its apps. That said, it runs a full version of Android 8.1 and all the apps from the Google Play Store.
So to review: it’s a tiny phone to keep you from using your big phone, but it could do all the things your big one can do if you wanted (but you shouldn’t because the whole idea is to get you to be a little less obsessed with your phone). It’s like a phone for your phone. And Steph Curry helped design cases for it so you can strap it to your forearm during workouts. There are Kate Spade clutches for it, too.
Like I said: weird. But also: fascinating.
Let’s step back. There’s a whole trend of some people trying to get away from being too tied to their phones. We have new settings and software to track and show us our usage, but those are easy to ignore. There’s also a trend of every phone just getting bigger and bigger.
So some are trying to get around both problems by buying a “minimalist phone,” something that can just call and text. But you end up with a whole host of problems when do you do that. Do you just give up on having a smartphone entirely? That’s not really a feasible option for most people anymore. Do you find a dumb phone — like the Light Phone — that does just enough to cover your needs? Chances are, there will also be One More Thing you want that phone to do.
If you want a less distracting phone, what you really want might be something you can use without giving up your big honking smartphone when you really need it.
That’s the idea behind the new Palm phone. It’s a sidecar for your phone. You should almost think of it more as a thing to get instead of a connected smartwatch than as a second phone. In fact, thinking of it as a smartwatch is a good move since that’s precisely how Verizon (and only Verizon) is selling it: as an add-on for existing plans. You can’t just go buy the thing on its own or unlocked as your primary phone.
On the one hand, getting a second phone to help you get away from your main phone is a patently ridiculous idea. But then that idea kind of worms into your head. Yes, I would like to go out to the cabin and just have a little tiny phone I know won’t blow me up with work emails. Yes, having a tiny phone that will actually fit in my pocket and weighs next to nothing seems great.
It might be a more elegant solution to having a “time well-spent” phone than picking up a plain Jane feature phone or backing a Kickstarter for an in-betweener phone. But even though the Palm phone solves a lot of “second phone” problems, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come with a lot of complications of its own.
Before we get into all that, though, this thing is still a phone. And there’s plenty to say after a couple hours of playing around with it last week. (We’ll get to Steph Curry, too.)
The new Palm phone looks nothing so much like an itty bitty iPhone X. Its designers say that they weren’t aiming for that; instead their design goals of making a little phone that felt comfortable tucked away in your hand led to the shape. Still, though, look at it.
Both the front and back are Gorilla Glass 3, and it’s rated for IP68 water and dust protection. There’s just one button — the power button — which serves multiple purposes. There’s only an 800mAh battery in there, but that’s more than enough to power it for a long time since it’s so small.
It’s obviously tiny; at just 50 x 97 millimeters, it’s not much bigger than a credit card, but it’s thicker at 7.4mm. It nestles in your hand in a way that will make you instantly nostalgic for the old days of smaller phones. It weighs 62.5 grams, and it’s easy to believe you’d forget this thing was even in your pocket.
Being this small, there’s no room for a headphone jack or for wireless charging; it has a single USB-C port. And yes, it will be one more thing you have to keep charged.
It is not a very powerful phone, by design. It has a tiny 3.3-inch, 445-ppi LCD display, big enough to use to check information and type on but not big enough to make you want to do real work on it. The rear camera is 12 megapixels, and the photos it takes seems passable but not great. There’s also an 8-megapixel selfie camera.
The Palm phone has a processor we’ve seen on other low-end phones — the Snapdragon 435 — paired to 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. If you know anything about Android specs, you probably know that’s not super powerful — but since this phone is so small, there are fewer pixels to drive, and so it felt fast enough when I tried it.
Palm (and yes, it is very weird for me to refer to this company as “Palm”) has made a bunch of software changes both to make Android 8.1 work better on a tiny screen and to ensure it will do a better job of not distracting you.
There’s a single virtual button on the bottom. You tap it once to go back, twice to go home, and long-press it to get to the multitasking screen. Since there are no volume buttons, you need to swipe down the quick settings panel to adjust that. And since there’s no fingerprint sensor, Palm wrote a custom face-unlock feature that uses the 8-megapixel front camera. I can’t say how secure it is, but my hunch is a traditional PIN would be a lot more secure. The power button does double duty as a way to launch Google Assistant; you long-press it for that.
Instead of the traditional Home Screen and App List setup on most Android phones, the Palm phone just has a vertically scrolling hexagonal grid of apps. If you long-press one of the icons, you’ll get a big pop-up of the shortcuts that are available for that app. (App shortcuts are one of the most underused features in Android.)
The only real gesture to the original Palm that I could really find (besides the fact that this new phone is tiny like a Veer or Pixi) is what happens when you swipe up from the home screen. It brings up a list of apps over an area where you can draw a letter to search. It looks for all the world like the graffiti areas on old PalmOS devices, right on down to having four app icons in the corners.
But no: this is not a phone inspired in any appreciable way by either PalmOS or webOS. This company took the name. They talked to me for a long time about their ethos and it is an interesting one, but they talked about “reinventing” a Palm ethos rather than bringing it back.
The core of that ethos is something they call “Life Mode.” (Or, because the founders are dads, hashtag dad mode.) More than any other feature, the Life Mode on the Palm phone is what makes this a “time well spent” minimalist phone. When you turn Life Mode on by tapping a palm tree icon, it enables a set of Do Not Disturb and Low Battery settings.
In Life Mode, your notifications are obviously turned off, but Palm is also turning off the wireless radios. The cellular and Wi-Fi radios will only turn on when the screen is on. (Bluetooth will also turn off but stay on if you are connected to headphones.) It’s a much more aggressive way to turn off notifications and deny incoming phone calls. Palm specs the phone at eight hours of normal use without Life Mode on, so if you toggle it the Palm phone is expected to last a super long time on a charge.
Oddly, the Palm phone is not running the latest version of Android which has a bunch of Digital Wellbeing features built right in. The company tells me that they didn’t want to conflict with those Android 9 Pie features. Perhaps an update will come in the future, but it’s a miss for now.
Here’s the other thing to know about the Palm phone: it’s very much a Verizon phone. From the way that it’s being sold to the software that’s on it to the wide suite of accessories being developed for it at launch, it has the carrier’s fingerprints all over it.
For people who know anything about Palm, there is a deep and rich irony to the Verizon partnership. Verizon rejected the first Palm Pre, sending it to the Sprint purgatory at launch. Verizon also pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch on Palm when it suggested it would heavily back the Pre Plus, only to move all its attention and marketing dollars to the Motorola Droid.
Anyway, the Palm phone comes preloaded with a handful of Verizon apps, but not as many as I expected. Chief among them is Verizon’s Message+ app for texting. It’s a terrible-looking app that comes with a lot of creepy advertising “features” and just one really killer feature: it automatically syncs text messages across multiple phones with the same phone number.
Verizon’s NumberShare feature is the linchpin that makes the Palm phone work. It becomes an “extension” device to your main phone, sharing its phone number. That’s what allows calls and texts to come through. The Palm phone is designed mostly for Android users — iPhone users could use this, but, since the Palm phone is an Android phone itself, they won’t get their iMessages on this device.
You can also tell this is a Verizon jam because the Palm phone is launching with a huge suite of accessories: cases, lanyards, armbands, Kate Spade clutches. There is a surprising amount of money in phone cases and Verizon surely wants to make sure it gets some.
That brings us to Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, who is a creative strategy director at the company. Palm says he’s not being paid to do that job, but is instead actually an investor. His main input has been in developing accessories, they say, and he’ll also be involved in the marketing. Palm insists that he has been “put to work” testing accessories and is not just a figurehead creative director in the vein of Alicia Keys, Ashton Kutcher, Justin Timberlake, Nick Cannon, and will.i.am.
I have been reporting on the original Palm phones since the early 2000s, starting with my days at TreoCentral and on through PreCentral, This Is My Next, and The Verge. I met my wife because of a shared obsession with Palm devices. I ran the largest online Palm community. I have a drawer full of old Palm devices (some of which were never released) and still pop off on Twitter about how its innovations presaged many of the “new” features that appear on smartphones today. So when I say that this new Palm phone isn’t anything like the old Palm phones. I speak from experience.
Palm has a history that is largely untold and mostly forgotten but nevertheless deeply enmeshed in the products we use today. Palm’s design has informed the smartphone you’re using right now, Palm’s engineers work at the major companies that make products you interact with every day.
This new Palm phone is not connected directly to any of that. No Palm employees work at the new Palm and beyond the fact that the old Palm was the last company to really make a serious effort at selling tiny smartphones, this new Palm phone doesn’t have much in the way of the old Palm’s software aesthetic. Even the new Palm logo does nothing to evoke the old Palm.
I’m not worked up about it because this new Palm phone has its own ideas which are fascinating. Is this product a luxury? Absolutely. It’s a phone only for people who already have phones. Still, the idea of having a tiny phone that you could get you to stop being Extremely Online is compelling.
I don’t know if this new Palm phone is the right way to achieve that goal, but I’m glad to see some companies are willing to try something different in smartphones, something other than just making them bigger and more powerful.
And hey, if this new Palm phone fails to sell, that would be a very Palm thing to do.