Living with the Alphasmart and Gemini

So…in the last couple of months, I’ve acquired an Alphasmart Neo 2, and a Planet Gemini, both of which I’ve talked about before, but now I’ve owned them both for a while, it’s time to reflect on whether they’ve been worth buying, and how I’ve got on with them.

The answer in both cases is yes, I’m extremely glad I own both of them, and they’ve achieved what I hoped they would – making me more productive and less of a passive user of technology.

I’ll start with the Alphasmart, as I acquired it first. This is a very simple keyboard device with basic text editing functions and a small screen. It was designed for educational use, and doesn’t do much besides get text into electronic form. It doesn’t save text as files per se – you connect the device to a computer when you want to get text off it, and it will act as a USB keyboard, retyping whatever you’ve typed into it. It’s a bit slow, but the best thing about that is that you can dump the results of your writing into any program you like, and you don’t need to faff about with file syncing or conversion. This makes the device almost entirely future-proof – for as long as USB remains an active computing standard, you have no trouble at all getting your work off the machine.

I had a couple of minor issues with it, most of which I’ve managed to resolve. The first is that it has a US keyboard layout, so when I plug it in to a computer here in the UK, it assumes it’s a UK-layout device, and some characters don’t come out right. The main thing is that various bits of punctuation come out wrong, namely the @ and ” getting mixed up. After thinking I’d just have to put up with this, as it wasn’t a huge issue, I worked out that it’s easy to swap input language on a Windows device before you send the text over, so that one is resolved.

I also had a few scary moments when I first got the machine when it would die and refuse to come back to life for some time. I thought this might be a major fault, but I simply discovered that the three AA batteries powering it were just a bit loose inside. The machine arrived from the eBay seller I ordered it from with batteries already in it – they were a cheap generic brand, and when I replaced them with Duracells, which are presumably built to better standards and fractionally bigger, the problem went away.

So far, I can only transfer text from the Alphasmart to another machine. I tried installing the Alphasmart Manager software on my PC, which allows transfer in the other direction, but I can’t get it to work. I suspect this is a Windows 10 issue – I have an older Windows 7 machine that will hopefully resolve this.

The Alphasmart will even successfully transfer text to my phone, via a USB-C adaptor cable!

In everyday use, the Alphasmart is a brilliant example of “less is more”, and it’s an absolute treat to use. I’m writing this on it now, in a cafe on my lunchbreak, and I’m making quick and easy work of it. It truly is distraction-free, and the lovely keyboard encourages me to write and enjoy the process. Throw in the robustness, portability and almost supernatural battery life, and it’s a complete gem of a machine. Given that they’re no longer made, but are currently cheap and plentiful, I’m tempted to buy another to keep in reserve, in case (God forbid) anything happens to this one.

Moving on to the Planet Gemini, I’ve had this for about a month, and I have to say I feel a certain amount of pride in owning a crowdfunded device that’s so rare! There’s currently only a few thousand of them out in the wild, and I’m yet to see another one, although there’s already quite an active user community online.

Effectively the Gemini is a cross between a modern Android smartphone and a 1990s Psion Series 5 – so it’s a phone that happens to resemble a miniature laptop with a tiny but perfectly usable keyboard. I was a massive fan of Psions back in the day – these tiny battery-powered miracles were actual proper computers you could fit in your pocket. When I was a student, I wrote almost all of my uni essays on a Psion 3a. Sadly, despite being amazing machines, Psion ceased production of them and exited the consumer market completely in about 2000, and there’s been nothing like them since. Original ones are difficult to find and not really up to the job these days.

So…the Gemini came along, and was successfully crowdfunded by a bunch of nostalgic Psion fans. It had a rocky road to production with a few hitches along the way, but it’s now been my sole phone/communication device for a month, and again, I’m really pleased with it.

I’ll start off with a few notes on the design. When closed, it’s an elegant and minimalist little device made almost entirely of brushed metal that feels absolutely gorgeous (I’ve been known to stroke it now and again). Open it up, and it immediately looks familiar – the keyboard is almost identical to that on the Psion Series 5. It was sufficiently similar for me to be able to touch-type quickly on it as soon as I started using the device – it was a very nostalgic experience! It’s not a keyboard that will work well for you if you’re afflicted with big hands and/or fat fingers, but I’m fine, given that I have neither.

The only aspects of the hardware I don’t like are (a) the absence of a pop-out stylus, as on the Psion 5s, and (b) the design of the hinge, which feels a bit crude compared to the premium feel of the rest of the device. Psion hinges were a more elegant design, but given that they kept breaking, it’s probably just as well to go for something simpler and more robust.

The out-the-box Gemini also doesn’t have a camera, which is a bit weird for a smart device in 2018. You can get an add-on 5MP camera that sits under a replacement top plate, but it makes the machine a bit unsightly. I’m not sure whether I’m going to get one. I’ve just taken to carrying my DSLR around a bit more often, which can beam pics to the Gemini via wifi.

It runs a stock version of Android with minimal alteration for the device itself. I won’t go into the pros and cons of Android – suffice to say, it’s a mixed bag, but it’s hard to see what else they could have used. It’s very unusual in being a landscape device – generally this isn’t a problem, but some apps just don’t work very well that way. You can flip the screen easily to use it in portrait, but it is a bit unwieldy to hold when doing so. However, some apps work just brilliantly with the landscape screen and keyboard – it’ll come as no surprise that emailing, texting and typing up long documents works really well. The Android versions of Word and Excel are a treat to use with the keyboard, and you really can knock up slick documents without having to use any other devices. I use the WordPress app for blogging too, which works fine. It’s also perfect for watching video.

Unfortunately, Instagram doesn’t seem to work very well whichever way around the phone is, but it’s just about usable.

The form factor really does change the way you use the thing – it’s completely different from using a slab smartphone. It’s not all that practical to dig it out and check for messages every few minutes, so I tend not to do that, and I consider it a major plus in developing a healthy relationship with the device. I don’t want to be glued to it, passively consuming content. The million-dollar-question is whether it makes me more creative and productive, and the answer to that is absolutely, yes. The instant-on, work-anywhere functionality of the Psion is back in a lovely little package. However, with the addition of Internet access, modern apps and cloud storage, the device really is freed from some of the Psion’s limitations, and it’s a great experience seeing ideas come to fruition on the machine’s lovely hardware.

Some aspects of the design aren’t hugely practical for some people. It’s obviously a phone as well as a computer, but with the device closed, you can’t see who is calling you. I get around that with a fitness watch that provides smart notifications, but that might not work for you. I actually spend very little time phoning people as I’d rather poke my own eyes out, but if you’re always making phone calls, this might not work for you. For occasional calling, it’s just fine.

If, like me, you think the keyboard is far from dead, and you want a productive writing machine, the Gemini has a lot to offer. If you’re looking at it thinking “why on earth would I want one of those?”, I wouldn’t suggest you buy one!

The computer you have with you is always better than the one you don’t, and both of these are gloriously portable. The Gemini has a lot of strengths, but there’s always going to be room for the Alphasmart in my technology arsenal. There are times when you want to be free from distraction, and when you just want to plough on with writing, it’s very hard to beat.

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