A few months ago I got a little bit excited about a device that I had seen on Indiegogo. It wasn’t because it was the fastest or the most powerful device. It didn’t have the best camera either. It also wasn’t designed to be a gaming monolith.
So, what was I getting so excited about it then?
One reason. It had a proper keyboard. In a proper landscape orientation. Like on a proper laptop. This device, however, is small enough to fit into a standard suit pocket, oh and it is a phone as well!
Roll on a few more months and I was able to get some hands-on time with the device at MWC 2018. Here I was able to see it in its final version. Yes, I was pretty impressed there and then, but felt that this type of device warranted a much more thorough assessment.
Well that day has now come. We now have the Planet Computer Gemini in hand and I am actually writing this article on it right now on a bus as I head to work!
Will it match up to my aspirations of being the ultimate on-the-go productivity tool? Or will it fall short?
That is the purpose of this review !
Design and Hardware
The Gemini is unlike anything else that is currently on the market. This is mostly down to the use of the landscape-oriented “clamshell”. The closest thing design-wise that’s on the market right now is the Axon M. This works in a very similar way in landscape. That phone, however, supports a portrait orientation for normal phone use, something that the Gemini does not. This is really a phone of two halves, so in order to dissect it properly, I am going to address the halves separately.
Before we fully dive into the tour of the device here is the unboxing that I shot recently in my garden!
The Top half
This is where the screen sits along with some of the other workings. The screen itself is a 1920 x 1080 with a 16:9 aspect ratio. Flanking the end of the screen are the speaker arrays. In these identical modules, we have a single speaker.
The fact that they face outward means that some of the sound is lost, however the chambers are quite a good size so volume doesn’t suffer too much. The biggest complaint I can see on the top sections is that the screen looks squished in-between the ends of the phone. It could do with being a touch wider in both directions. This would make the top half look better.
Just to the left of the screen you will find, buried up in the right-hand corner, a 5mp camera. This is surprisingly not that bad. It is definitely serviceable for taking selfies and also for video conferencing. It will also record video at 720p so not too shabby really!
The other main area of interest hides under the removable casing. You do however need to use the tool that is in the box to get into this section. Do not try and open it without it as you will potentially damage the device. Under this cover is where you can find the IMEI and the serial number. In addition, you will also find the Micro SIM slot and the microSD card slot. Although it seems like the microSD card is hot-swappable, I would always err on the side of caution and eject the card through the system UI prior to removal. Nestled next to these is a void with a connector at its base.
This is the space where you could fit the optional second camera. I do not have one of these for review as it’s an optional add-on. The cover does come off easily enough, but I would imagine that it is something you would not want to do that often. It is a bit of a faff.
There are some very strong magnets on the top and also on the bottom half of the device. This arrangement keeps it all closed up tight, and as it does so you’ll hear a reassuring “clunk”. The device does feel very secure in the closed form and it takes a bit of leverage to get it open again, to the extent that it would be handy if there was a lip on the edge of the case to help.
The bottom half
This very much the business end of the phone as it’s where the keyboard is housed, and boy what a keyboard. Even in this “not quite final” production version. The keys are a good size and have a nice amount of travel at 1.5mm. They also have a nice return on that is really well damped.
If I had one complaint about the feel of the keyboard, it would be that the noise levels are a bit louder than I would have liked. It is a bit too loud for typing in a quiet environment. You do feel a bit self-conscious. While the same noise level may be acceptable for a laptop, I think that – for a mobile device – it could do with being quieter.
All of this being said, I would rather have the keyboard than not have it.
I have been after this style of device for years now – ever since I used my very first PDA, the Xperia X1! The mapping on the keys is a little strange as well and can be somewhat off-putting at first, but after some minor adjustment I was happily tapping away at a reasonable speed with goodish levels of accuracy.
One real area of concern was that I did seem to be missing a large number of keypresses when using the spacebar, again thought this seems to be associated with the pre-production status of this device
Down in the bottom half there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack which is nice to see included here, and I am glad that the designers did not take to the trend of excluding this. The idea of having to decide between the headphones or power is still annoying to most. It is not a major issue here though as the jack is on board.
Alongside this, you will not one but two USB type-C ports on either side. On the left-hand side, you have the port that will support charging and data in/out. The other port on the right-hand side will allow just data. The former port will also support fast charging from the included power supply and other power delivery chargers. It can be a bit funny with other power inputs though, so it is something to watch for. For example, it struggled to charge from my Galaxy S9 charger which seemed a bit odd. It’s a first as even my Huawei P20 Pro works on this, albeit not for Supercharge.
The only other button on the device is for voice control and this works exactly as you would imagine. It takes advantage of Google Voice Services very nicely. The responses are very clear and give a large amount of information when required. It does require a bit of forethought though, as sometimes it did misinterpret some of my commands. This is not unusual as I find that this happens on my normal phones so it is no fault of the Gemini.
The last things on the bottom are the microphones. Having microphones at either end allows for a neat trick that I have only ever seen on one other phone in that past. That trick is that when you take a call you don’t need to worry about which way up you hold the phone . This is where the rather odd-looking cutouts on the top cover come into play as they are there to help channel the sound from the speaker through to your ears.
That is about it for the exterior hardware tour, apart from one of the other big features of the device. This the located on the back and is prominently emblazoned with the device name and also the company name. We are of course talking about the hinge cover. I say the cover as it is just that – a piece of metal that covers the hinge of the device. It also assists in keeping the screen stable when you are using the device. Some rather clever engineering has gone into the hinge cover, and it’s shaped to allow a very slight angle when you use the device on a surface or indeed (albeit to a lesser extent) on your lap. I have been really impressed with the angle created for typing as it feels really nice and does not cause any major issues for me.
The fact is that the combination of the screen and the hardware keyboard here is really well done. It is, in my opinion, something that has been missing from the mobile market for far too many years now. I am extremely happy that someone had the foresight to attempt to bring this back to the market.
Now, that’s enough gushing about the exterior hardware. Onto the internals and to what actually makes this thing tick.
Inside the device we have a fairly standard build for a moderately priced smartphone of 2018. The phone is powered by a MediaTek Helios P25\P27m. Alongside this you’ll find 4GB of RAM paired with a 64GB drive. So what about the battery? That comes in at 4200 mAh, which is not that bad, although it does seem small in comparison with the initially advertised size of near 7000mAh (this was the size suggested in the early Indigogo campaign but got reduced quickly). It is pretty good with regard to how long it lasts, especially in the ways that I have been using the device. This has been mainly for typing up this review and watching media. I have also spent some time using it to browse the web but not a massive amount. I feel that its best usage scenario is as a way of taking notes and creating typed content. It is in these areas that the device excels due to the keyboard.
The software implementation here is not really much to write home about, as for the most part it is just Android Nougat. It feels quite like the standard AOSP variant. However, hiding just under the surface you have some tweaks and customizations. The first of these can be found when you press the “Planet Key”. This will cause a dock to appear on the bottom of the display. This area can be customised to include whatever apps you would like. I have set mine up with my most commonly used work apps, such as Google Docs, WordPress, Chrome etc. This means that I am never too far away from getting into any of these apps.
Alongside the apps, you will also notice that there is a section called “Planet”. It is here that you can access the customization menu for the dock and set it up to the suite. There is also a very handy “force rotate” here which will allow you to turn the screen around should you encounter an app that does not like landscape.
One of the other great features of the Gemini comes in part due to the fact that it uses USB Type C with display port capabilities. What this means is that this can easily be used in conjunction with a USB Dock to get some serious work done at a Desktop-style setup. I was lucky enough to be given the Gemini USB hub to test as well and here is a brief video of the setup that I used.
Unfortunately, at the time of writing, one of the stalwart features for the old school Psion 5MX (which is this devices ancestor essentially) is missing. That is the “Agenda” tool. I have not been able to download this from any resource and it did not come pre-loaded on the device. This is a shame as due to the scaling of the display, the inbuilt Google Calendar widget just doesn’t tick the box for me. This is is one of the inherent downsides of using Android in an always-landscape orientation. It also affects the Gmail widgets and most other ones that have been designed for the portrait-style phones UI. Again, it is not enough for me to not use the device, but I just figure I should inform you, the reader!
I do not normally feature a section in the review but in this instance, I will make an exception. One of the whole purposes of this device existing is for the keyboard. I have been a long time fan of the idea of having a real physical keyboard in a small form factor device. This probably stems back to when I was using the first ever netbook, the EEE PC from Asus. The keyboard on that was not much bigger than its 7″ screen and as a result, took some getting used too. I spent a long time using netbooks back in the day and I have always been a fan of using small-scale laptops.
Portability and ease of typing have also been at the forefront of my needs for a device. So, the question is, does the Gemini keyboard tick the boxes for me from a writing experience?
In order to try and answer this question, I took the Gemini on holiday so that I could write when I was able to catch 5 minutes of free time. I have written about 75% of this review on the Gemini and at first, it was a frustrating experience. For whatever reason, it seemed that the keyboard mapping isn’t matching up exactly with what is printed on the keys. Primarily the secondary key functions don’t match up to what is printed on the key caps. After I got past these small inconveniences things got better. As I mentioned earlier on in the review the space bar was not registering my presses correctly unless I pressed in a very specific area. I decided to do some more investigation into the issue and came across a Gemini User forum. It seems that this has been an issue for some users and Planet are addressing it by getting the keyboard membrane replaced for the users.
Summary and Conclusion
At the top of this review, I asked a pretty tangible question, whether the Gemini is the on the go productivity tool that I have been looking for?
Well, I would have to say that it has the potential. It ticks most of the boxes that I am looking for. As a typing machine, it is very good once you have become accustomed to the way the keyboard works. As a multimedia playback device, it is great for using with headphones, however the external speakers aren’t great. As a phone itself (to be fair this was not a use case I thoroughly explored) it is found to be lacking due to the absence of a front-facing screen when closed up. It was a shame that I could not get the full desktop-style experience to work as I had seen in the demo units at MWC18 earlier in the year. However, that would not be enough for me to not carry one around as my second device.
The real question is whether there is actually a real-world need for a device like this. I regularly tote a Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 and a higher end mobile (either an S9+ or P20 Pro). This setup suits me perfectly. If, however, some slight changes were made to the design and implementation of the Gemini, then I could see this becoming a potential for replacing my current setup.
What would these changes for the Gemini V2 be? Well, first up I would stretch the screen to fill the full width of the unit. I would also install as slightly higher resolution screen to fit more content on. I would also add a backlit keyboard to allow work to be done under any conditions. Some potential improvements of the keyboard mapping would be beneficial as well – it was confusing at first but usable after some time.
The most important thing for me to switch to it as a daily driver would be the inclusion of an external display to allow it to be used as a proper phone when closed.
As it stands, unless you are looking for the ability to use data when out and about, I would recommend getting the Wifi only version of the device and tethering to a hotspot when needed.
I would like to thank Planet Computers for providing the review unit and letting me test the device over the last few weeks. I look forward to what they do next with the device.