Planet Computers Gemini PDA

Planet Computers Gemini PDA: an affectionately retro smartphone(like) device

We test a snazzy piece of British smartphone tech that harks back to the days when business people toted pocket computers (that weren't smartphones) - are we ready for their return?

What is that? This, my friend, is a Planet Computers Gemini PDA.

Advertisement

Break it down for me. Ok, here we go. Planet Computers are a small London-based startup, apparently frustrated by the difficulty of typing and organising work on contemporary mobile devices. They’ve created the Gemini PDA as a solution to this problem, and are marketing it at “bloggers, creatives and professionals”.

Why should I be interested? Well for starters, it’s been referred to as “one of the only genuinely interesting smartphones on sale today”.

Since when is a phone not a phone? When it’s a Personal Digital Assistant. Keep up. It can make and receive calls, but dialling your mum isn’t the Gemini’s USP as such.

Why “Gemini”? The device name has found inspiration from the twins of astrological fame – as this is a dual boot device capable of running both Android (with an update to Android Oreo coming later this year) and Linux. Just to be clear, we’ve been using this as an Android device.

Any other background details? Only that this has been brought to market in less than a year – which is a hugely impressive feat for any hardware developer, let alone a start-up. It’s been crowdfunded to nearly 300 per cent of its original target, and here we are, holding a nifty piece of British engineering in our hands.

Jelly Pro smartphone: fits in your coin pocket, probably not your life © Alexander McNamara

Something about this rings a bell. Nice. And you’re not wrong – if you cast your mind back to the early days of the smartphone revolution, you’ll recall a ground-breaking device called the Psion, a mobile computer beloved of business-folk and people ‘on the go’.

Is this relevant? Well, yes – and interesting. The embrace of those early-model PDAs hugely influenced the design of today’s smartphone operating systems: Psion ran an OS which was endearingly named EPOC (Electronic Piece of Cheese) which led to Symbian, itself kicking off the integration of computer style apps with conventional communications functions, and thus we have smartphones.

Seems like we’ve come full circle. Yes, the PDA is making a dramatic (and slightly unexpected) comeback. Planet Computers feel that something’s been lost in the mix – Gemini even enlisted the skills of original Psion industrial designer Martin Riddiford for this new design.

It does seem quite retro. Yep, it does seem to have more than a passing resemblance to the Psion 5. Either way, the resurgence of retro phones, like the Nokia 8110, are where it’s at, so maybe Planet Computers are ahead of the game on this one.

Even with that darling logo, it’s a little plain on the outside. Disappointingly, yes. It’s a sleek unit, but weighty in the hand, and hiding beneath both panels are a wealth of customisable functions, including a camera add-on which, somewhat bizarrely, has to be purchased separately and clipped into place (the Gemini as standard comes with only a selfie-style camera, ostensibly for video calls and such). Not difficult, but slightly strange.

So no PDAs for this PDA? No, you won’t be getting too many public displays of affection for it (or your witty quips).

Ok, so what’s inside the box? Flip the Gemini open, landscape style, and you can’t miss it – a full QWERTY keyboard boasting tactile feedback and quite satisfying click-action, yes indeed.

Oooh. Look, it is what it is. It’s a keyboard. Typing takes a little getting used to (I found myself missing some keys, or expecting more of a response) but we’ve typed this review on the Gemini and found it perfectly useable for typing out short paragraph format thoughts, and a step up from touchscreen email composition, which can sometimes feel an eternal typing punishment. Personally, if I was writing anything longer than a page, I’d be reverting to my laptop.

Hmm. Hmm indeed. The screen is a great size for writing email and short-form thoughts, but simply for ease of use and navigation, my laptop is going to remain my primary writing tool. It’s not just the micro-condensed keyboard that makes long-form writing a bit arduous – whilst there is a deeply satisfying (Psion-influenced) hinge connecting screen to keyboard, the flipped-out screen can be fixed at only one particular angle – rather limiting the flexibility one might hope for in a 2018 portable desktop assistant.

One-thumb typing is not an option © Amir Adhamy
One-thumb typing is not an option © Amir Adhamy

So what else has this got going for it? It is a fairly nifty productivity device, I won’t lie. The apps, many of which are developed by Planet Computers themselves, are powerful, clean and well-designed. It is, in many regards, a highly functional downsized laptop. It boasts two USB-C ports (only one of which is for charging, but this isn’t a big deal), a bright, crisp and colourful display (capable of 2160×1080 resolution – slight overkill perhaps!) and a decent amount of processing power for what this is. The stereo speakers, hidden underneath the surface panel, are clear and powerful, offering a balanced stereo spread even from this small device.  The battery life is respectable, the charging extremely fast – and it’s quite customisable, both in terms of its hardware and software.

Awesome! Um, I think someone’s calling you on it. Are you going to get that? Actually, I’m not. For one, with the Gemini closed there’s no obvious way of telling who is calling me. Could be my dudes, could be Professor Frink’s AT-5000 auto-dialler – the Gemini doesn’t have any kind of caller ID screen on its outside, eschewing that in lieu of  ‘customisable caller light pattern IDs’.

Green, red, red, blue, green – it’s the boss! I think that’s the idea. In practice, I am sceptical to say the least that anyone is going to program these for individual callers, let alone between apps, and subsequently remember which order of flashing lights signifies who.

It’s me calling though – pick it up. I’d rather not. As a phone it’s really not that good – sub-standard sound is the most obvious and basic of problems, both for listening on my end, and seemingly for everyone I’ve spoken to.

So, brass tacks time – who is this for? My guess is corporates and business folk. In many ways, it’s a solution to a question no-one seems to be asking, a missing link between the tablet and the laptop, a reinvented office device for a world in which smartphones didn’t exist, but then it should be said that the Gemini does writing, email, notes, organisation, file management, significantly better than any Blackberry or iPhone I’ve used.

It’s a super neat little productivity device and Planet Computers should be commended for expediting this to market and for meeting an interested and engaged customer base’s clearly expressed desires. That said, it’s not going to replace my smartphone or my laptop anytime soon and really, the PDA market is a niche within a niche.

Tech specs:

  • £499 WiFi only, £599 4G WiFi, planetcom.co.uk
  • 5.99” IPS LCD 2160×1080
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64GB eMMC storage
  • 4220mAh embedded Battery

Planet Computers Gemini PDA

Advertisement

Follow Science Focus on TwitterFacebook, Instagram and Flipboard