The Palm Phone: a Positive Review

Palm, the company that made popular PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) back in the 1990s has been bought up and resurrected with a phone released last year that’s unlike any other phone out there. Except, in many ways it is like a lot of other phones. Just smaller. Way smaller. I haven’t posted a tech review since September 2014, but I decided to write something about the Palm’s new PVG100, commonly just called the Palm phone.

Look up reviews for this phone and you will find a lot of negativity. Headlines declare this phone to be a “tiny tragedy” (Andoidpolice.com) that “no one needs” (Engadget) and “an imperfect solution” (Mashable) that is—my favorite—”fun, endearing, and bad at everything” (ArsTechnica). In fact, Digital Trends called it “the most useless product of 2018.”

So why did I buy one?

And more to the point, why do I like it?

It may be that I like it for the very reasons it draws criticism. When you first see the phone, its most stand-out feature is its size, which flies in the face of current trends. For over a decade now, smartphones have been growing. The original iPhone, released in 2007, had a 3.5″ display. Android phones began offering larger displays shortly thereafter. Apple kept their iPhone compact for a while, until, realizing that consumer expectations were changing, they increased the display an incremental half inch with the iPhone 5. From there, though, later iPhones grew in bounds, and the newest release, the iPhone 11 Pro Max has a 6.5″ display. Smartphones are so large now, that Samsung and others are redesigning the software to make new phones more convenient to operate with one hand. The first sentence in a review of the iPhone XS Max from PC Magazine online put it bluntly: “Small phones are dead.”

Some of the most popular phones of 2018. If you can’t tell much difference between them, it’s because there isn’t.

Yet one small phone has just emerged. The Palm puts a 3.3″ display on a very thin and light 9.66 x 5.06 x 0.74 cm body (9.66 cm is about 3.8 inches). The build is solid and handsome. It really is a good looking phone, very reminiscent of an iPhone, actually. The display, all 3.3 glorious inches of it, is vibrant and super crisp. This is good, since text on it can be a bit small.

What I like best about this phone (perhaps stating the obvious) is how compact it is. This is its greatest strength. I can actually carry this in my front pants pocket without looking like a football player in full thigh pads everywhere I go.

The phone runs Android 8, and thus can do all the things smartphones typically do. Its limitations come from its physical dimensions (some apps are awkward on the tiny screen) and its processing power. While fine for everything I do, this phone isn’t built to play high-graphic 3D games or edit videos. Not that you’d be doing those things on a phone that can fit into your jeans’ fifth pocket.

Whether you can live with the Palm depends on your phone habits. If your daily phone use time is four hours or more (which is average, not extreme), you’re not going to like this little device. Though the phone can do Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Slack and YouTube, its physical size makes these things less entrancing, and encourages just quick dips in and out. I don’t have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Slack, or Snapchat on my phone anyway, so who cares? The Palm does everything I need it to do, and does it in an svelte, unobtrusive package.

The Palm. It’s water and dust resistant, as shown in the top photo. The bottom photo is a promo shot with Palm collaborator and NBA star Stephen Curry.

I’m not suggesting that Palm’s first modern phone has no room for improvement. There are three things I’d like to see in the next version of this device, if there is one.

  1. Better battery life. It’s pretty bad. The 850 mAh battery that powers the PVG100 is inadequate, even for less obsessive usage than average. If they can pack a 1600 mAh battery or larger into version 2, things would be much more workable. My solution to this is the Mophie Juice Pack, a phone case that connects to the phone’s port and includes a built-in battery, doubling the battery life.
  2. Expandable storage, or more internal storage. The phone includes 32GB of storage. This isn’t that bad, since one of the points of this phone is reducing your dependence on apps, but I’d like to see that increased, or at least a micro SD card slot added.
  3. Like most of today’s high-end phones, this phone has a single USB-c port and no headphone jack. It expects you will do all your audio output via Bluetooth. Bring back the jack, please. (I don’t expect this to happen, unfortunately).

I suspect that the lower battery life and storage capacity may have been due the fact that Palm initially released this phone on Verizon as a “companion” to your current phone. The idea was not that this would be your primary phone, but that it would link to your main phone number and act as a phone-away-from-phone, a phone to take on outings or to events where having your big phone would be unnecessary. That was a dumb idea. (I should mention that some of the criticisms calling the phone useless or unneeded had this “companion phone” angle in mind.) Luckily, a lot of people with more of a digital minimalist mindset started asking, “Wait, I like this thing; why can’t it just be my phone?” So later that year, Palm started selling the phone unlocked (meaning not tied to a particular cellular service provider) and without requiring it be to linked to any other device, allowing anyone to drop in a SIM card and have at it. If they release a second version designed to be a person’s daily driver, the battery life and internal storage may take higher priority.

No one expected this phone. It catches us by surprise. It was bound to be controversial. And at a time when all the new phones look pretty much the same, it was a gutsy move. As a device that isn’t ideal for hours of viewing or lots of typing, and whose size makes social media, web browsing, and binge-watching videos significantly less enticing, it won’t please many of the very of people who will review it—tech journalists and YouTubers. The gadget enthusiasts who gape at the latest and greatest are the ones most likely to publish reviews of the Palm and least likely to appreciate where it fits in to the lives of people choosing a more considered relationship with their devices. Personally, I think my little Palm is super cool. It’s elegant. It’s well built. It’s easy to carry. And it gives me access to all the advantages of a smartphone (calendar, music and podcast streaming, maps, e-mail, cloud-based contacts, apps as needed, etc.) without sucking me in. I like that. In fact, when I pick up my old Motorola, with its 5.5″ screen (rather modest by today’s standards), it feels enormous. Which goes to show that it’s just a matter of what you’re used to, and that that can change. So let me end with a list of the three biggest things Palm got right.

  1. The compact size. Obviously, this is what distinguishes the Palm from the competition! If it had been a normal sized phone, I wouldn’t even be talking about it.
  2. The build. Between Palm’s sharp, vivid display and its solid, attractive glass and aluminum casing with gentle corners and rounded edges, this is one of the best put together phones I’ve owned. Well done.
  3. The speakers. Yup, this little guy is whole lot louder than expected, great for listening to the news while my wife and I get ready for work in the morning.

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