Things go in and out of fashion and so it is with smartphones. In my early mobile career, the perceived (phone hardware) industry wisdom was that noone would ever want a phone without a physical number keypad. They said people need haptic feedback. They said none would type on a screen that has lots of oil and smudges on it having been placed next to the face. The iPhone proved they were wrong.
However, things have gone too far. While you can still get some phones with numeric keyboards, full keyboards for use by writers, bloggers or just ‘workers’ don’t exist any more. We have much better hardware, connectivity and apps since the early PDA days and now is arguably the time when full smartphone keyboards might be more useful.
Planet Computers have spotted the gap in the market. They have the Gemini PDA Android and Linux keyboard mobile device on Indiegogo. It was funded in just 2 days.
The Gemini is engineered by Martin Riddiford who helped develop Psion PDAs. You can read more about his latest design choices on medium.
This is one of the few crowdfunded things I have ever backed. It’s a compelling concept combining an old form factor but bringing it up to date with new ideas, hardware and software. However, note that none of the photos or videos show it actually working. It will be a large effort to make this thing real and more importantly glitch-free. Doing this for $000,000s rather than $0000,000s will be a challenge. The glitch-free part is important if the product is to have a good reputation and hence a future beyond the initial production. On the plus side, the team is experienced and has no legacy company baggage to slow them down. It will be an interesting journey.
March 2018 Update:
Well it’s arrived. 3 months late and still without some of the promised (Agenda) software. That doesn’t worry me as I wouldn’t use Agenda anyway. Why develop yet another calendar app when so many great ones have been written already? I use aCalendar+ which works great in landscape on the Gemini. There’s also a Planet Computers app to create notes. But again, why bother when there are many others? My favourite is Evernote, that again, works well in landscape and syncs with all my other devices.
I have been amazed how many apps work well in landscape. The Android UI uses a lot of screen estate for the notification and menu bars and when the on-screen keyboard comes up there’s no space left for the app. This is why many apps only run in portrait. The effort to get them running in both aspects often isn’t worth it. However, when you have a hardware keyboard and no on-screen keyboard there is space to do useful stuff. Luckily all the apps I mainly use support landscape and work very well.
The device is actually better than I expected. It’s well made and the main attraction, the keyboard, works very well. The battery lasts a very long time – multiple days depending on your use.
It’s relatively heavy at about 300g but whether this bothers you depends on how you are going to use the device. For me, it’s a laptop replacement. Something that can be taken to meetings to take notes. It is not generally acceptable to take meeting notes on smartphones and the Gemini is the ideal lightweight laptop replacement. I won’t be using the Gemini as a phone but I have a data only SIM for connectivity. If you try to use the Gemini as a phone I expect you will find it heavy, fragile and ergonomically clumsy. This won’t stop some people trying!
The side button to start Google Assistant is novel as you can ask questions without opening the device. Despite some early bad reviews, the production keyboard keys work well. A few keys are not printed square but this is very minor.
I haven’t found any large glitches yet so can say Planet Computers have succeeded where I was very sceptical (but obviously hopeful)!