Having written a preview of the Gemini PDA back in February, I’ve spent the past week with one of the first production units. This review isn’t a glowing recommendation for a number of reasons, but there are still reasons for people to buy it. And a few reasons not to…
Gemini PDA review: reason to buy #1, the keyboard
The Gemini PDA is a unique device. Nothing like it has existed since the Nokia Communicator and Psion Series 5, back in the days when things were literally black and white. (Okay, black and green.)
Indeed, the keyboard is a close replica of the Series 5’s because Planet Computers, the company behind the Gemini PDA, engaged the services of the man who actually designed the Series 3 and Series 5 for Psion.
The keyboard is 90% brilliant too. There’s a well-defined action and plenty of travel on the keys, and if you have dextrous fingers and can touch-type you may well soar past 50 words per minute. Perhaps even higher.
Unlike an on-screen keyboard, it’s also easy to type out uncommon words and commands. That could be a huge boon for sysadmins and programmers, or those who work in technical fields.
Commenting on my original preview, Robert Harmsen also made this point: “I have lots of meetings in which I have to make notes. Back in the Psion days, I could type blind and fast on them. And typing on such device during meetings is accepted. Typing on phones is still not.”
Gemini PDA review: reason NOT to buy #1, the keyboard
You’ll notice my cunning use of 90% rather than 100% above. Sadly, that missing 10% proved a royal pain when typing – because really I’m talking about the spacebar. Sometimes it leaves too big a space between words andatothertimes itleaves nospace atall.
That’s quite annoying.
Some of this may be due to my typing style. Perhaps I could adjust it so that I hit closer to the middle of the spacebar. Perhaps I’d adjust my typing method over style. Perhaps I’m hoping for too much.
Either way, it’s a big enough pain to stop me from buying. I really hope they improve the spacebar for version 2 of the device.
Gemini PDA review: reason to buy #2, Android
While Planet Computers promises that a version of Debian Linux is on the way, enabling you to dual-boot the device, right now the Gemini PDA ships with Android 7.1. Overall, that’s a positive, simply due to the strength of Google’s OS and all the apps that it supplies – not least a free version of Microsoft Word and Excel. (An update for Android 8.1 is, apparently, in the works.)
Gemini PDA review: reason NOT to buy #2, Android
The problem with Android is that it’s been designed to be used as a phone OS, not a keyboard OS. Simple things like reading a news story become a pain because you’re either holding it in landscape position, and have to awkwardly scroll down every couple of sentences, or holding it in portrait where the keyboard gets in the way.
Before I switched to the Gemini PDA as my main phone during the testing process, I hadn’t realised quite how important this is to my everyday use of a phone.
Gemini PDA review: reason to buy (and NOT to buy) #3, jam tomorrow
The Gemini PDA was an Indiegogo sensation, raising over $2 million in funding. It’s already shipping products to its 6,000+ backers, and has been a redoubtable success.
I also have nothing but admiration for the team that made this happen. In the space of a few months, it’s not only been able to develop its own hardware but create an add-on camera, customise Android to work better with a keyboard, and continues to work hard on numerous other enhancements.
These include a version of Debian Linux, which could be fantastic – it means the two USB-C ports suddenly make sense, as you can use them to plug in a monitor, keyboard and mouse (using daisychaining, if you’re wondering how you can connect three devices into two ports).
Hey presto, you have a fully working computer that sits in your pocket!
The problem is that this is jam tomorrow. There is a Technical Preview of Debian for the Gemini, but it’s for testing not for using. Likewise we’re still awaiting the Gemini diary app that will allow you to view your whole year’s worth of appointments on one screen, just like on EPOC (the operating system Psions used).
The end result is that the Gemini feels like v0.9 rather than v1.
Gemini PDA review: What about making calls?
There’s no external screen on the Gemini PDA, so how do you know who’s making a call? Right now, you don’t – you have to flip it open to see who it is, or press the silver Voice Assist button to accept the call and hope it isn’t the bailiff. The Gemini is clever enough to work out which mic/speaker should act as the microphone or speaker depending on how you’re holding it, and the quality of calls is fine.
In the future – see my note about unfinished business above – you’ll be able to assign a combination of LED flashes to people (and other events). So, if your mate Dave calls, a series of green LEDs might flash up. If it’s your boss, they could be red. Or whatever combination of colours you like. With five LEDs to choose from, all of which appear between the faceplates you see above, there’s no limit.
It’s also surprisingly slim, especially if you once used a Nokia Communicator. The Planet Computers website describes it as 15.1mm thick but I think that must be for an earlier model, because my callipers measured it at 14.2mm. Likewise you should ignore the site when it says 320g (or indeed 400g on some spec listings). It’s actually 304g.
All of that means it’s still twice as heavy and 50% thicker than a normal phone, but you can stick the Gemini into a jeans or jacket pocket without feeling uncomfortable.
Update 14 June 2018: Planet Computers has got in touch to say that the Gemini now supports eSIM technology. The main benefit? If you travel a lot, you don’t need to swap SIMs each time you land in a different country. However, don’t expect it to work for you just yet – the company says that it’s proven it works and “the device is now available for mobile operators to test as part of upcoming eSIM trials”. It’s a nice forward-looking inclusion, though.
Gemini PDA review: reason NOT to buy #4, the price
Ignore the keyboard for a moment. With a ten-core MediaTek Helio X27 processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage and a 2,160×1,080, 5.99in screen, you essentially have a mid-range phone/phablet. One that would cost you around £200, maybe £250, if you ordered from China.
All those components are fine, and I’m more than happy with the quality of the screen having tested it with a coloromiter, but at £599 for the 4G Gemini PDA that means you’re paying roughly £350 for the keyboard. Or £250 if you order the Wi-Fi-only version of the Gemini PDA for £499.
While I understand that Planet Computers has to make a profit, from a potential buyer’s point of view that feels like too much. At £399 for the Wi-Fi version I might just have been tempted, but that “extra” £100 hurts.
Gemini PDA review: speed, battery life, yada yada
I don’t want to waffle on too much about speed. This phone is snappy in use, which is all that really matters. If you care about such things, it scored 1,728 in Geekbench 4’s single-core test and 4,888 in the multicore test. Both solid, mid-table results.
Likewise it managed 17fps in the off-screen Manhattan test in GFXBench, which means it will cope with 98% of modern games. If that’s truly important to you, though, then pick a phone with a faster graphics chip, such as the OnePlus 5T. It hit 60fps in the Manhattan benchmarks.
I also ran a video full-screen (setting the screen to 170cd/m2, which is roughly halfway up the brightness scale) and it died after 11 hours and 6 minutes. That’s okay (although the OnePlus 5T lasted over 20 hours when Expert Reviews put it through a similar test), but I hoped for more when Planet Computers makes much of its 4,220mAh battery.
Sadly I wasn’t able to test its claim that it could last two weeks in standby mode.
Gemini PDA review: so should you buy one?
There is a niche market for the Gemini PDA. Many of its backers are delighted with their devices, no doubt helped by the fact they paid $399 rather than the full whack. And I can see it for people who use a keyboard for entering large amounts of text or need to enter data in spreadsheets – or people like Martin, who I quoted above, who intends to use his Gemini to take notes in meetings.
He also points out that you’ll be able to make presentations from the Gemini, thanks to the USB-C outputs, and make Skype calls; I should mention that the Gemini includes a pair of stereo speakers but they’re a bit harsh, so it’s a good thing that it also includes a 3.5mm jack.
Even then, it feels like most people would be better served with, say, an iPad mini and a Bluetooth keyboard. Or just carry an ultraportable around with them, like the Dell XPS 13.
You really do need to be someone who has a specific need to travel light – or has a nostalgic devotion to the Psion Series 5.
I think you also need to be an optimist. You have to believe that Planet Computers will continue to develop the software and add-ons to make this a device that benefits from constant upgrades. As I said above, it feels like unfinished business to me.
And finally, I think you need to be flexible. I’m unwilling to change the way I type to avoid those annoying double spaces – but you’re probably more patient than I am.
If you do decide to buy, or already have, then I’d love to hear about your experiences. Do you love your Gemini PDA? Can you type at 120wpm with nary an error? Let me know below.
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Gemini PDA verdict
A solid first effort at updating the Psion Series 5 for the modern world, but some finessing remains to be done