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Palm's quasi-phone turns heads, but we're still not sure what it's for

Observers called it "tiny" and "adorable," not "must-have."

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Aww, isn't the new Palm just adorable?

Sarah Tew/CNET

Within hours of unboxing the new Palm device, observers called it "adorable," "cute," "tiny" and "the smallest iPhone" they'd ever seen. 

"Wow," they exclaimed. "Look at that phone! It's like Zoolander!" But when I explained that it mostly-kinda-isn't-actually-a-phone, nobody called Palm's literally palm-size handheld "necessary."  And when asked if they'd pay $350 for it, the conversation devolved into a chorus of "but" and "uh" and "couldn't I just buy an Apple Watch instead?"

The major problem with the Palm so far is that people don't easily understand what it is, who it's for, or why anyone should spend real money on it. A second problem is that, when pressed, I'm not sure I can tell them.

Here's what I can say. The Palm is a teeny-tiny, 3.3-inch Android device that works with the Verizon phone you already have to make calls, read texts and generally check in on life. But there are two key things to remember: First, the Palm is meant to be there as a security blanket to the internet, a thin strand of connection to the outside world when you want to mostly concentrate on what you're doing (the gym; a walk) or who you're with (happy anniversary!) and not on a screen. And second, the Palm doesn't replace your phone, it works with it. So you're tacking on about half the price of a handset on top of a handset. 

Just so we're really on the same page: The new Palm isn't a phone, but it works with the phone you already have. When you want to watch videos, play games or take fancy portrait shots, reach for your main device. But when you want to go for a jog, run a quick errand or focus on the people around you, Palm wants you to take its gadget instead. For Palm (yes, Palm is the name of the product and the company), the device is a lifeline when you need it, not an object to obsess over like you would your usual phone. 

I tried out the Palm, and it's... crazy. Let me fully disclose that this isn't a final review -- I'm in the throes of that now -- which means that the device might still win me over with more time, or not. Follow me on Twitter or come back next week to see what the definitive call is there. 

The Palm is too small for watching video, playing games and typing missives, but it's just the right size for playing music, recording workouts and other at-a-glance tasks. And since it runs on Android, your apps and data will sync. So will your texts and calls.

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It goes on sale Nov. 2, exclusively through Verizon in the US, but Palm says it's in talks with global carriers as well. You'll have to pay a $10 monthly fee to connect the Palm to Verizon's network.

Palm is the latest retro brand, alongside BlackBerry and Nokia, to hitch a ride with Android in the hopes of making a comeback. It's most associated with the Palm Pilot, Palm Treo and Palm Pre. It resurrects that venerable gadget brand that popularized the concept of personal digital assistants in the days before the iPhone. But Palm's comeback is risky. Although it shares a message about digital detox that Apple and Google have recently embraced, it introduces yet another device for people to buy and use -- one that looks and acts a lot like the device they already own.

On one hand, I'm puzzled by Palm's "solution" to the large-screen, always-on problem. Why would the Palm be a better solution than an LTE smartwatch you can actually strap to your wrist? On the other hand, I'm intrigued by Palm's chutzpah. 

There's a lot to unpack here, so read on for all the Palm specs and how exactly this new not-phone works.

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You'll generate a scannable QR code as part of the setup process linking the phones.

Sarah Tew/CNET

How the Palm connects to your phone

The Palm has an LTE connection, but uses your Verizon phone's call forwarding (through the Verizon Messages+ app) to get calls and texts. If anyone texts or calls, your phone and your Palm will both ring. (This is how the LTE-connected Apple Watch works, too.)

I set up a Pixel 3 phone that Verizon provided along with the Palm, and used another phone to call the Pixel 3. Both that phone and the Palm rang, almost simultaneously. I was pleased there was virtually no lag. 

Since the Palm is an Android device, there's a huge advantage for Android users. The Palm will technically work with iPhones, but you won't have access to any Apple-specific apps that aren't also available on Android. For example, you can use Apple Music (because it is, oddly, actually available on Android), but not FaceTime or iMessage.

In fact, to get messages to sync between the iPhone and Palm, you'll need to disconnect iMessages and use the Verizon Messages app instead. You can also use third-party messengers like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

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The 3.3-inch Palm next to a Galaxy Note 9 with a 6.4-inch screen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The smallest iPhone clone you've ever seen

With rounded edges, no fingerprint reader and only one power button on the entire thing, the Palm's resemblance to the iPhone is unavoidable. It's easy to hold and use but almost slipped out of my hands more than a few times. Palm wants you to buy accessories for it, such as a workout sleeve or lariat. Palm will also sell you a bi-fold wallet case and a Kate Spade clutch which you wear around your wrist. 

Verizon sent me a sparkly, micro Kate Spade case to go along with it (I'm guessing not all reviewers got this particular case), so it felt more stable. I almost bent a nail back trying to remove the case after I put it on.

The Palm's 3.3-inch screen has a 720p resolution, which keeps things looking sharp and colorful. Gorilla Glass 3 on the front and back help give it a modern appeal. There's no headphone jack, no physical home button (you can press an on-screen control), and no volume rocker (there's an on-screen software slider instead). You mainly control the Palm with swiping gesture navigation. You unlock the phone with facial recognition -- but unlike Apple's Face ID, it isn't secure enough for mobile payments. In fact, the Palm has no NFC at all.

You'll be able to take photos from the 12-megapixel rear camera and the 8-megapixel front-facing camera. Don't worry too much if it takes a bath -- the Palm is water-resistant to a rating of IP68. That means it can submerge in a meter of water, about 3 feet, for up to 30 minutes.

You can program the Palm to launch Google Assistant or your camera when you double-press the power button.

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Typing on the Palm is madness. Whenever you can, use voice instead.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's adorable, but typing's a pain

The Palm has a slightly different interface from your usual Android phone, one I really like. It's colorful and the circular icons float on the screen almost like clusters of grapes. I'd love to try the layout on a full-size device.

As an Android device that connects to the Google Play Store, you can download and use any app you like -- though some, particularly games, won't be fun or easy to play. Setup, by the way, was laborious with the teeny-tiny keyboard, but thankfully short-lived.

Even my smaller-size fingers had trouble tapping and typing into the Palm. Palm knows this isn't an ideal typing device, which is why it hopes you'll rely on Google Voice more than you might do on your phone. It'll support a traceable keyboard, such as GBoard or Swype. Autocorrect worked pretty well too during my limited hands-on.

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Life Mode lets you decide which apps and people can reach you while you're otherwise offline.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Life Mode preserves battery and keeps you only somewhat connected

Palm sees its product as a lifestyle device that you take with you when you want to be mostly off-grid. Life Mode is an option you turn on when you want to limit what you see and do just the apps you pick.

Say you're working out and you want to enable only your fitness tracker, your music and your incoming calls. Life Mode suppresses every other notification and app until you're ready to reengage with the world.

By turning off most radios and apps, Life Mode also helps stretch life on that 800-mAh battery.

To really test the Palm, I'm leaving the Pixel 3 -- its main Verizon buddy phone, its artery -- in the office and have primarily using the Palm after hours. A device this different deserves consideration, so tests are ongoing. So far I'm still getting over the micro size and trying to shift my mentality to the Palm's purpose. Will the Palm win me over and bring me zen? Find out next week. 

Palm specs

  • 3.3-inch, 445ppi, 720p resolution
  • 12-megapixel rear camera and flash
  • 8-megapixel front-facing camera
  • 32GB local storage, 3GB RAM
  • No expandable storage
  • 800-mAh battery
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 435 processor
  • Proprietary optical sensor to unlock the phone, but not 3D, not secure enough for mobile payments
  • One speaker on front
  • USB-C port
  • One button power-lock
  • Gesture controls
  • Android 8.1
  • No NFC
  • Water resistance: IP68

Editor's note: Originally posted Oct. 15, 2018 and updated Nov. 2, 5:00 a.m. PT with more details.

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