Last year around this time was the first time I made a bigger contribution to a crowdfunding project at Indiegogo: the Gemini PDA
The Gemini PDA is a project by the Planet Computers Ltd. who aim to follow in the footsteps of the Psion Series personal digital assistant devices, but with modern hardware running Android and/or GNU/Linux as an operating system.
People who know me also know that I’m into mobile devices with hardware keyboards, and I that I couldn’t type reliably on a touchscreen if my life depended on it. At that time, I was looking for a replacement for my old, touchscreen-only cellphone. I decided even if this device wouldn’t fit my needs as an everyday cellphone, it would make a good add-on GNU/Linux computer for my pocket, or at least a fun thing to experiment with.
The specs look pretty promising as well (paraphrased from the Indiegogo page):
- Wifi/LTE connectivity
- Android OS+GNU/Linux dualboot
- Mediatek Helio X27 SoC (64-bit deca-core ARM)
- 4GB RAM
- 64GB internal flash + microSD card slot
- 3,5mm jack
- mechanical full keyboard
- 4220mAh battery
Holding it in my hands
So I contributed and got myself a 4G version of the device (you never know), and was really hoping it would arrive before 34C3 so I could take it there. But being a crowdfunding project, it took a while longer, but at least it wasn’t cancelled or so. Around the beginning of april, I was holding my very own Gemini PDA in my hands.
The device itself feels great. It’s nice and heavy in your hand, and the opening mechanism feels really good. It runs a pre-flashed Android Nougat system. The prebuilt Debian preview for this device can be flashed manually.
The form factor is surprisingly convincing, even if it would be pretty big for a smart phone. It can actually be used as a phone without using a headset or the speakerphone function, as it has microphones and speakers integrated in the lid. The device supposedly detects which end should be used for the speaker and which for the microphone, and is able to switch it around if you turn it. I wasn’t able to test this yet, as I didn’t put a sim in it.
Planet Computers also added some neat LEDs in the outside lid that can be programmed. It’s a nice little function that can be used for notification, although I think it’s intended to show off how much of a “geek” you are.
The obvious bummer was that I opted for a german “QWERTZ” keyboard layout, and got a “QWERTY” one. The labeling on the keycaps was correct though. This turned out not to be a problem though, since the keycaps can easily be switched by myself. More on that in the “ugly” section.
A thing that I would definitely like to see on future versions of this device is a backlit keyboard. The angle of the screen (which is pretty fix btw.) prevents the backlight from illuminating the keyboard a little, so it is hard to type in dark environments.
Another thing that isn’t really helpful or necessary, but I imagine belonged to the phantasy Planet Computers had in mind when designing the device, are the custom, pre-installed Android apps. They wrote a custom notes app and an app bar that suggests to install some additional software. I guess this is because the vision was to create a device for executives or other business kind of persons, that would love to edit Excell sheets and make Skype calls on the go.
Also, the Debian image isn’t pre-flashed, and the “Flashing Tool” requires Windows to run. There might be some alternate ways for flashing (fastboot etc.), but apparently it is possible to rewrite memory that contains critical information, like the IMEI for example. I want to be sure to make a backup of those things first with a way known to work though, so I’m dependent on a Windows machine.
Android also doesn’t seem to be optimised for that wide landscape resolutions. Some apps actually become close to unusable due to that, and even Termux seems to have some incomprehensible problems with that resolution. Here are some example screenshots:
Another bummer is the clamshell mechanism, which only seems to be pretty sturdy. If you’re e.g. lying on your back and hold the device above you, gravity is strong enough to attract the display lid so it folds halfway down. The device is not exactly usable in that position.
The speakers as well are not suitable for playing music. I’m pretty sure they’re not intended for playing music to be fair, but it’s just not bearable.
Now to the real problem.
Apparently, a “tactile” keyboard is the same to Planet Computers, as a “mechanical” one. They used the terms interchangeably, which should have caught my attention. But it didn’t as I mostly only looked at the description in the spec list.
I was surprised how “wobbly” the keys felt, especially if you place a finger in between two keys. This isn’t at all what I would expect from a mechanical keyboard. Since I had to swap my 'Z' and 'Y' keycaps anyways, I had to have a look. And this is what I saw:
It’s a flipping rubberdome keyboard, and not even a good one! I was expecting mechanical switches underneath those caps. What good is a tactical keyboard, if you still can’t be sure that you actually hit the key you wanted to? This keyboard requires only little less of my attention than when typing on a touch screen. This was really disappointing for me. I mean it’s still better than sacrificing a big portion of a screen for a keyboard, but this isn’t at all what I would expect from a company that promotes productivity and professionality on the go. I also feel mislead by the specification list.
My disappointment in the device, as well as the ongoing Revision Demoparty, prevented me from playing around with the device further. I probably won’t ever use that as the default mobile device over my Blackberry Keyone, but I can imagine using it as a replacement for a laptop computer from time to time. A prerequisite for that would be running a mainline Linux distribution on it though, which probably still needs some time and development.
If the Gemini would be available in stores where I could test the feel before making a purchase decision, I probably wouldn’t buy that device. Although I am really happy to see some movement in this niche, and hopefully some companies from the handset market will be challenged by it and throw in their competing devices.
I’ll probably stay away from bigger crowdfunding commitments in the near future.
Update: I got a replacement for the keymat, which made things a little bit better.