The Big Tech Question

Gemini PDA review (first look): the phone Psion fans have been waiting for?

A friend went on holiday to Australia with her husband, and spent an evening in a remote campsite. Cracking open their first beer they heard a familiar voice – their neighbours from a couple of doors down were in a nearby tent. Which is almost what happened to me at CES in Las Vegas: having travelled halfway around the world, the most interesting product I saw was the Gemini PDA – being designed by a company 45 minutes drive from where I live.

Read our full Gemini PDA review, now released, here

Okay, so not exactly the same, but that proximity meant I could persuade Planet Computers – the startup behind the Gemini PDA – to lend me a pre-production sample for a first-look review. (It helps that I edit PC Pro, the UK’s number one IT monthly, where you’ll find a three-page review of the Gemini in the next issue.)

The morning I spent with the Gemini PDA meant I could answer a number of questions about the project. Not enough to deliver a decisive buying decision, but close enough so that those who don’t mind gambling can decide whether or not to risk $399 $599 (update 13/2/18: the price has now risen to $599 and the rest of this review has been amended accordingly) and order one before they go on sale. And you may well be tempted.

First things first: what is the Gemini PDA?

Is that a Psion Series 5 in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

It’s a Psion Series 5 redesigned for the modern world. So the much-missed Series 5 keyboard is there (with caveats, which I’ll come to in a moment), but the old mono screen is replaced by a 5.7in 2,160 x 1,080 colour display, while Android is the main operating system. The company will offer a dual-boot option into Linux, but I wasn’t able to test that with my sample.

How much does it cost and where can I buy it?

Right now, you can pre-order the Wi-Fi version for $299 and the 4G version for $399 $499 and the 4G version for $599. The reason for the dollar signs is that the Gemini is currently only available on crowdfunding site Indiegogo. My conversations with Planet Computers suggest it will remain on Indiegogo until the end of February, but after that you may have to wait for it to go on sale via more conventional channels – and expect a big price jump. Their best-guess guide price is £599 for the 4G version at retail.

What’s the connection with Psion?

An unusually close one: Martin Riddiford was the original designer of the Psion 5 keyboard and now runs his own design consultancy. Planet Computers commissioned his company to design the keyboard, and also asked Martin to be a non-executive member of the board. He duly obliged.

What’s the point of the Gemini PDA?

If you’re asking then it probably isn’t for you. It’s for people who enter a lot of text into their phones and get frustrated by the limited speeds they can hit with on-screen keyboards. That could mean journalists and students, but it could also mean anyone who needs to send detailed emails – and doesn’t want to reach for a full-blown laptop every time.

So how good is the keyboard?

The keys are raised, just as they were with the Psion Series 5

I was using a pre-production version of the Gemini, and I didn’t fall in love with the keyboard. It felt too squishy and unresponsive. I had to precisely hit the spacebar, for instance, to make it recognise the keystroke. I raised my concerns with Planet Computers and they acknowledged that my prototype wasn’t perfect.

But there’s potentially good news. The Chinese manufacturer they’re working with had sent three different types of keyboards, with different types of feel, and Planet had decided on the one they liked – which, they promised, was a firmer version than the one I tried.

When will the first Gemini PDAs be shipped?

“Before the Chinese New Year begins.” That’s the promise made by the company on its Indiegogo page, which translates to mid-February. That may seem ambitious, but I know that two key members of the Planet Computers team are out in China at the moment, overseeing the production and making final tweaks.

What’s less clear is how quickly new backers might get hold of their PDAs, but it’s not as if tens of thousands of devices have to be made. In fact, about 2,200 units have already been pre-ordered, so it depends on a) how the first production run goes, and b) how many the factory can pump out per week.

Will the Gemini PDA fit in my pocket?

It’s chunky but will fit in a pocket

I was quite happy walking around with the Gemini in my jeans pocket. It’s slimmer and lighter than the Psion 5mx that sits (broken) beside me now, and while you definitely notice the Gemini’s 15.1mm depth compared to the 7-10mm depth of a normal phone, bear in mind that you don’t need to worry about screen protectors or cases.

I’d question the wisdom of putting the Gemini in a suit jacket pocket – you’ll notice the 320g weight and the bulk – but it’s doable.

How fast is it?

More than fast enough to run Android comfortably. They’ve chosen a ten-core processor, with the different cores running at varying speeds so that you have power if you need it but not at the expense of battery life. I tested using Geekbench 4 and it returned decent results of 4,750 for the multi-core test and 1,761 in the single-core benchmark.

That compares reasonably well with the latest smartphones; it’s an Everton in the Premiership, where the Apple iPhone X is Manchester City and the Samsung Galaxy S8 is Manchester United Tottenham Hotspur. To be more precise, the iPhone X scored 10,390 and 4,258 respectively (according to Expert Reviews), while the S8 scored 6,629 and 1,994.

Can I hook it up to a screen?

Yes. In fact, this is one of the rather cool features of the Gemini – that, at a push, it could be a fully fledged computer. There are two USB-C ports, both of which can be used to hook up a screen and for charging. There’s support for external keyboards and mice too.

Does it work with Google Play?

Yep. In many ways, this is an Android phone stuck onto a keyboard. It’s a customised version of Android 7.1, so you shouldn’t expect updates galore, but Google Play works absolutely fine. I downloaded Netflix, for example, and it worked perfectly.

Does it have any other cool features?

An empty year calendar view

Depends on your definition of cool, but Psion-aficionados’ ears may perk up at the promise of a full-year calendar just like the good old days. I tried to synchronise it with Google Calendar but without any luck, but they promise me this will work when the final software is released. I’m praying I don’t have to dig out my old copy of PsiWin 3.

It’s also got five LEDs on the rear, which you can program to identify a caller. So they could flash red if it’s your loved one, or green if it’s your boss. Or a combination of lights. Whatever your memory can handle.

Perhaps in homage to the voice recorder built into the side of the Psion Series 5, you can press a side-mounted button to launch Google Assistant. I’m not 100% convinced I’d use this, but who knows?

Much more useful is the Planet Computers button to the left of the Spacebar, which calls up the Application bar – familiar to Mac users because it looks almost identical to the macOS Dock. You can program this with whatever shortcuts you like.

What are its limitations?

There’s no rear-mounted camera. There is one above the screen, but you should be thinking webcam calls rather than capturing a great photo. Planet Computers is offering a $49 add-on, five-megapixel rear camera to its backers, but I’ve no idea how good it will be.

The sound quality from its speakers is mushy too. If you want to listen to music or watch a film, then you’ll definitely want to take advantage of the 3.5mm jack.

This isn’t the phone for hardcore gamers, either. The gaming chip – a Mali-T880 – sits at the lower end of the spectrum, and could only hit 17 frames per second (fps) in the Manhattan 3 benchmark while top-end phones reach 60fps beyond.

Can you show me some screenshots, please?

Why, since you ask so nicely, of course. Here are some I made earlier.

Microsoft Word
Microsoft Excel
Application bar

Any other specs I should be aware of?

The Gemini will ship with 64GB of storage, but you can add to that via the microSD slot. There’s also 802.11ac wireless and Bluetooth 4.2. And its full dimensions are 171 x 79.3 x 15.1mm (width x depth x height).

Gemini PDA: What questions remain?

There are still a number of questions hanging over the Gemini PDA. First of all, confirmation of how much it will cost. I wouldn’t pay £599 for this product.

Then there’s the battery life question. Until I get a production sample, I can’t be sure how good it is. However, a 4,220mAh battery is a good sign; most phones have a 3,000mAh battery. I’d expect the Gemini to comfortably last a day.

And then we come to the big question…

Should you buy a Gemini PDA?

Personally, I’m tempted to jump in and place a $399 order on Indiegogo right now. When the price was still $399, I was seriously tempted. I realise the keyboard may not be 100% perfect, but then again the Psion 5mx’s wasn’t either. It can’t be in that small a space. Nevertheless, I made do with it and pumped out thousands of words.

But I look at it in the same way I look at gambling on whether Andy Murray is going to win Wimbledon: I’ll only place the bet if I’m in a position where I can lose my money without crying. If $399 $599 doesn’t sound like too much of a gamble to you, then go for it.

Do you have any other questions about the Gemini PDA?

The company is responsive to questions on its Indiegogo page, but I’m in regular contact with them through their PR team – so if you have a question, I’m happy to ask it. Post your comments below.

Update 6 Feb 2018: Can you remap the keyboard buttons? (via @MattGumbley on Twitter)

Matt asked, “Can the keyboard layout be switched from UK QWERTY to Colemak? (A software remapping, not moving keys around.)” The answer, according to Planet Computers, is yes! “You can remap the keyboard via software but some characters might not function as intended. We have not tested Colemak.”

Update 15 Feb 2018: Will the Gemini have a better camera option than the 5-megapixel add-on? (via Tim in comments)

I asked Planet Computers, and they said yes, sort of. A 20-megapixel camera is in the works, but won’t be available until Gen 2 of the device.

Update 15 Feb 2018: Is Planet Computers talking to Microsoft? This would be a killer business tool if it dual booted into Windows… (via Tim in comments)

The answer, according to Planet Computers. “[We’re] currently involved in informal talks with Microsoft but these are at a very early stage. There are still some technical challenges to overcome to be able to achieve this but if the community want it, Planet will do all they can to make it happen.”

Read this next: What are the best free chess apps for Android?

  • Design
  • Features
  • Value (based on Indiegogo price)

Early verdict

If you loved the Psion Series 5, you’ll love the Gemini PDA – but only if the company delivers on its keyboard promises