The tiny Unihertz Atom ($ 259.99) is the real disconnector’s phone. Rugged and packed with interesting features, this adorable little Android handheld makes a good companion for when you want to head out and look at the world around you, as opposed to staring at your phone’s screen for hours at a time. It’s not really meant to be your primary phone, but as far as secondary devices go, it’s significantly more successful than the Palm Phone.
The Atom is like a chubby little lozenge. It measures 3.8 by 1.8 by 0.7 inches (HWD) and weighs 3.8 ounces. It’s largely covered in rubber bumpers, with a textured back. It’s much better built than Unihertz’s previous effort, the Jelly Pro. The company sells a $ 15 arm strap for it, which looks like a good way to carry it if you don’t want a little lump in your pocket.
The phone has real volume buttons (unlike the small Palm Phone), along with a power button and a programmable red button on the side. Below the teeny 2.45-inch TFT LCD, there’s a fingerprint scanner/home button and two capacitive touch buttons. The battery is not removable and there’s a dual SIM slot, but no microSD card slot.
The phone is rated IP68 waterproof, and I had no problem submerging it in water for an hour and using it immediately afterwards. I also dropped it several times from waist height and knocked it around with keys. The rubber edges protrude ever so slightly to protect the Gorilla Glass screen, but I’d still be concerned with cracking it in multiple face-down drops to concrete.
There’s a traditional 3.5mm headphone jack on the top; you can also connect wireless headphones using Bluetooth 4.2. Sound quality isn’t great; there’s less bass in headphones than you get with a flagship smartphone. But if you’re using this at the gym to just power you along the treadmill, you’ll be fine.
Tiny phones don’t have great batteries. The Atom has a 2,000mAh battery and bleeds a lot of battery in standby (possibly because of the fitness software running in the background). I lost 40 percent of power over 16 hours without doing much with the phone. So you’ll want to recharge this at least every other day. That said, it does surpass the Palm in that it can pretty reliably ride out a day.
Is This Your Only Phone?
I don’t see the Atom as your primary phone, so we should probably talk about how you’re going to hook it up. It works with carriers that use the AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon networks (more on that below). I think it’s best as a secondary device for T-Mobile users, using T-Mobile’s Digits number-cloning function to sync calls and messages with your primary phone.
But you can also get an inexpensive prepaid line with a virtual carrier such as Ting or US Mobile, if you intend to use the Atom as a running phone. Those carriers let you set up plans that are, for instance, very few calling minutes and mostly data, or vice versa. The Atom’s unlocked nature gives you a lot of flexibility you can’t get from the Palm, which must be a secondary line for people with a Verizon primary line.
Using a Tiny Phone
Let’s talk about usability. Yes, a 2.45-inch, 240-by-432 screen is very small. That’s part of the point—the Atom saves you from getting swallowed into a giant screen. Some status icons are so tiny they’re unreadable, however; I actually had to magnify the “VoWiFi” icon to see what it said. The touch keyboard, well, takes patience.
The Atom runs Android 8.1 with a bunch of preloaded apps focused on either fitness or outdoor use. The Mediatek Helio P23 processor in here, with 4GB of RAM, punches above its weight because it’s pushing so few pixels on the small screen. On PCMark, the phone’s 4780 score puts it a little above midrange phones like the Moto G6. The GFXBench Car Chase graphics benchmark did very well with its on-screen tests because the screen is so tiny, with its 15fps measuring up to “flagship” level. But don’t push the poor little thing too hard. Basemark Web kept stalling out, perhaps because the surface area on this phone is just so little.
When it comes to web pages, you can’t see a lot. Google Maps works, but tapping on points of interest can be a little frustrating, and you may have to squint to read the type. Games don’t necessarily work on a 432-by-240 playfield. But messaging and email apps work just fine, as does social networking. You can absolutely stay connected with this phone, but with a little bit less usability than with your primary phone.
Left to right: OnePlus 6T, Unihertz Atom
Unihertz adds a few smart apps to the standard Android 8.1 build. There’s a pedometer front and center on the home screen. An FM radio works with your wired headphones, and it works very well, with excellent reception in testing. There’s a voice recorder, and every call has a call recording option. Zello, a push-to-talk app, is preloaded and can be connected to the red button on the side. And a “toolbox” app gives you a compass, flashlight, bubble level, magnifier, protractor, and other useful items.
With such a small phone, you’ll probably want to use voice commands. Holding down the left soft key launches Google Assistant, and you can set it up to respond to “OK Google” commands from the home screen. The phone doesn’t respond “OK Google” if it isn’t woken up and unlocked first, however.
I ran into a big bug when testing the device; after one particular software update, the proximity sensor died, meaning the phone would launch Google Assistant whenever I held it up to my face during a call. That’s not great. I fixed the issue through a combination of toggling Google Assistant and recalibrating the sensor based on some instructions I found online. So now it works, but that fix isn’t for tech newbies.
The Atom has 64GB of internal storage, of which 52GB is available. You’ll probably use that mostly for music. The Atom works perfectly well as an offline music player even without any SIM card or subscription in it, and it can stream over Wi-Fi. Playing YouTube, as I saw on the Jelly Pro, works surprisingly well because even low-res videos look fine on the tiny screen. If your video involves subtitles or chyrons, though, they may be unreadable.
The phone has a 16MP main camera and an 8MP front-facing camera. As is often the case with phones like this, they aren’t great. Expect to see lots of JPEG artifacts even in images in good light. In low light, the camera has serious trouble focusing, and in very low light images are unusably dim. The camera interface is also very picky because of tiny touch targets—it isn’t easy to hit the camera-flip button to take a selfie, for instance.
I don’t have great news about video recording, either. In good light, you can get very, very shaky 720p videos at 30 frames per second, obviously with no image stabilization. In low light, things get really bad: frame rates drop to as low as 8 per second and you’re stuck trying to decipher shadows. The front-facing camera takes 640-by-480 videos basically following the same rules.
The phone’s USB-C port works fine with Windows PCs to transfer files, but if you want to stream video from this phone, use wireless casting.
Calls and Connectivity
The Atom has dual SIM slots, which you can use with domestic or foreign GSM/LTE networks. The phone works best on T-Mobile’s and Verizon’s networks, but it will also run to some extent on AT&T. It has LTE bands 2/4/5/12/17, along with a lot of roaming bands.
Used with both T-Mobile and Verizon SIMs in it, the Atom supports both VoLTE with HD calling and voice-over-Wi-Fi, and calls are crystal clear. The earpiece isn’t terribly loud, measuring 85dB up to the ear, but the speakerphone has a nice punch of volume. One thing you have to watch out for, though, is mouth positioning: The quality of your transmissions varies a lot depending on how you rotate the phone on your face.
On AT&T’s network, the Atom runs up against the carrier’s unreasonable restriction against VoLTE and VoWiFi calling on uncertified phones, and as a result you’re stuck on 3G without HD calling. That’s not the greatest, but it’s true for any non-AT&T-certified phone.
Overall, the Atom is best with T-Mobile. On Verizon, you get clear calls but the phone lacks Band 13, which Verizon uses for some in-building and rural coverage. On AT&T you get data coverage, but the phone falls back to 3G for calls. On T-Mobile, you get both call quality and coverage.
The Mediatek Helio P23 chipset here has category 7 (up to 300Mbps) downloads, which means it won’t hit spectacular peak speeds, but is noticeably better than super-low-end devices with only Cat 4. On T-Mobile’s network in New York I got 15 to 20Mbps, which is fine given the phone’s tiny size. It also has a hotspot mode, but of course that will drain the tiny battery.
Comparisons and Conclusions
The Unihertz Atom is the best tiny phone available right now, and it’s a significant step up beyond the company’s previous phone, the Jelly Pro. It also outpaces the adorable but limited Palm phone as a secondary, “digital detox” device because it has an ordinary SIM slot (to work with various services) and basics like volume buttons. Unlike the Punkt MP02 and other simple phones we’ve tested, the Atom supports VoLTE on T-Mobile’s network, which gives it much better call quality and coverage.
That said, this is still a niche device. The Android interface isn’t designed for screens this tiny—typing on the touch keyboard is pretty tricky—and I’m a little worried by the proximity sensor bug that I encountered, even though I was able to fix it. The camera also isn’t great. Those concerns hold the Atom back from a higher rating.
The niche of people wanting to disconnect from their big, immersive phones is growing, and I hope to see more devices serving it. The Atom gets some basics right that other current entrants miss. It can be a faithful friend for people looking for an affordable, secondary device to use while they’re out.