Many moons ago, I was the proud owner of a few Psion products. This small British IT company started out writing software for the Sinclair ZX81 and Spectrum, but soon moved on to specialise in pocket computers. In the nineties, they produced the Series 3 and Series 5 machines – computers that ran off a pair of AA batteries for a month, and would do a whole load of useful things. I had a Psion 3a for some time, and wrote most of my university essays on it. I also went online with it, sampling the delights of the internet (albeit in very primitive text form) for the very first time. I even did a bit of trainspotting with it (don’t ask). Later on, I had the more sophisticated Psion 5mx, which was a fantastic piece of design with a keyboard to die for. This again packed an office suite into your pocket, and allowed rudimentary online access with a mobile phone. I used to blog with it, which was quite radical back in the day.
It always gave me a liking for keyboard-based devices. I was an early adopter of the smartphone, and my favourite one was the HTC TyTN II. This ran Windows Mobile before they ruined it, and it had a tiny, but perfectly usable, flip-out keypad. Sadly, not long afterwards, the iPhone came along and ruined everything. Keyboard devices disappeared, and trying to do anything particularly demanding or creative became almost impossible. Everyone imitated the iPhone’s ghastly form factor, and choice disappeared. I’ve tried using Bluetooth keyboards, but however good they are, it’s fiddly as hell having to carry two devices around.
This time last year, I came across an Indiegogo campaign to crowdfund the development of a new Android device, the Planet Gemini. It’s essentially a smartphone in a case and form factor very similar to the Psion Series 5 – in fact, the keyboard is almost identical, as it was designed by the same person. Anyway – I’d never crowdfunded anything before, but given my love of Psions, I stumped up the cash. After various trials and tribulations, the team at Planet came up with the goods, and a couple of days ago, my Gemini arrived.
So…excitedly opening it up, what did I find? A gorgeous and attractive little device that is completely unlike any other phone on the market. It’s largely metal, when it’s closed it’s fantastically minimalist, and when it’s open, it’s just perfect for creating content, as you can tap away on it merrily for ages. That’s what I’m doing right now – it seemed only right to scribble this on the machine I’m reviewing, and the keyboard is lovely. Although it’s been many years since I last used a Psion 5, it’s all coming back to me now.
The machine is much thinner than a Series 5, and the construction is rather different, as it has a flat mobile phone battery rather than a pair of AAs powering it. The hinge design is somewhat less elegant, but given that Psion hinges were always prone to breaking easily, I’ll forgive them if this turns out to be more robust.
Setting it up was a little frustrating, but I got there in the end. It was partly down to being unfamiliar with Android 7, partly my really slow WiFi, and partly down to some of the quirks of the machine. It became obvious very quickly that interacting with this is VERY different to a typical smartphone. For a start, it has no external screen, so although you can answer it closed, you can’t see who is calling you (unless you have a smartwatch – recommended). It also has no camera, which might strike a lot of people as very weird, although you can buy and install one as an optional extra. It also has no dedicated hardware controls, virtually everything being done via keyboard shortcuts. Finally, and this is the biggie, it’s designed to be used almost entirely in landscape orientation, which really isn’t what Android is designed to do. You can select portrait mode if you want, but the device is a bit awkward to hold when you do. A lot of apps behave rather badly in landscape, so you’ll need to do a bit of both.
Having used it for a couple of days, I’m impressed by a lot of things. It’s fast, the screen is lovely, the speakers are clear and loud, and it’s just brilliant for writing on. I’m typing this just about as fast as I would on a conventional computer, even though the keyboard is far, far smaller (I’m not cursed with sausage fingers, though). I’m getting used to the quirks, and finding that generally it does what it’s meant to do very well. I’m not bothered by the missing camera – as a keen photographer, I tend to find that smartphone cameras are quite disappointing, and I hope this might encourage me to use my decent digital SLR more. It has WiFi, which enables me to transfer files to the Gemini easily, so I don’t think it’s a great loss.
There’s a couple of things that aren’t so good. The Psion was always a superb package of hardware and software, and the user experience was phenomenally good. Sadly, Android isn’t particularly well suited to this form factor, although I’m not sure what other consumer-oriented OS would have done the job better. There’s bit of a mismatch between the lovely hardware design and the pig’s ear of a user interface that needs far too much tweaking to be satisfactory – although I’m getting there, gradually working out how to do things. There’s also no built-in stylus. I went out and bought a pen with a “fake fingertip” on the end, but it’s not ideal as I’ll probably lose it.
However… for a new startup, getting the funds together to bring this radical product to market in just over a year is really impressive. Psion fans have truly taken this machine to heart, and I can’t say I blame them. For the first time in over ten years, someone has genuinely done something radically different. They’ve produced something that goes against the grain, and properly updates what was (and still is) a classic bit of kit.
I have no idea if this will be popular enough to evolve, or if it will influence future phones, but even if it ends up being a one-off, I’m very glad I took the plunge and backed it. It was well worth the wait!
(I’ll edit this post later with a few pictures. I also intend to do a followup review once I’ve been using it a bit longer).