Before there was the smartphone there was something called the personal digital assistant or PDA. This was usually a miniature looking computer, complete with display and keyboard that would fit into your pocket and instantly be available for work as soon as you opened it’s case (back in a time booting a laptop was a coffee making moment).
I was a huge fan of the original Psion organizer, with a particular fondness for the Series 3. It was a revolutionary device for its time, combining the size of a modern day smartphone with a keyboard that was nearly-almost usable. Ironically, or horrifying by today’s standards, it had no network connectivity. You could shove an RS232 cable into it and transfer data (who remembers zModem??) or if you were a real trendsetter you could shell out for the original Psion modem to connect you on the move. It is ridiculous to think of a device with such limitations, but 25 years ago this was the cutting edge in mobile computing.
So you can imagine my joy when I learned of the Gemini PDA, from Planet Computers in the UK, that they had partnered up with the original designer of the Psion PDA to produce an Android version of the popular clam-shell PDA. I put my order into the Indiegogo crowd sourced site just before January 2018 and patiently waited for my unit to be built and sent to me – hoping of hopes they would not hit any snags before getting it over the line.
They made it. It arrived a few weeks ago and after spending some time with it, I feel I can speak to its strengths and weaknesses with a little authority.
The unit itself feels solid and weighty. Not weighty, but a quality heavy. There was a familiarity to it that brought back a huge smile – holding it, sizing it up, felt like I was holding my original Psion.
Flip open the case, revealed the beauty that lay within – a high definition color display and a keyboard that was ready for even the fattest of fingers to start tapping. Closing the case again, had that wonderful spring-clam magnetic feeling.
By all accounts this is an Android smartphone, with a keyboard permanently attached. The unit came with 4G and WiFi, including a camera. It had the necessary SSD slot to increase storage, bluetooth, USB-C charging and everything else you would expect from a modern day iPhone/Samsung device.
Getting started was quick and easy – popped in my SIM card from Verizon, logged in with my Google account and within 5 minutes, I was up and running with all my apps installed magically from the Google borg.
It just so happened that the week the device arrived, was when the World Snooker started, a 19 day event that captures me annually. The Gemini PDA was now my snooker source, allowing me to test both battery longevity, screen resolution and speaker quality.
On the battery front, the Gemini PDA did probably better than my Samsung S9+, even though I was streaming over WiFi for most of the day. While it lasted longer, I did note that it took significantly longer to recharge the device (now that said, I know the S9 has made big strides towards rapid charging so probably not a fair comparison).
The screen was beautiful, crisp clear and responsive. It is fully touched screen and didn’t have any issues with the usual pinch’n’zoom and all the usual pawing one performs on a smartphone.
The speaker quality sadly was a let down. It sounded tinny with a complete lack of bass. I thought it first to be just the BBC stream, but after playing many a YouTube video, it never got any better. Though, pair it up with bluetooth speakers and no problems, so clearly the physical speakers installed are not the best.
But speaking of that, one has to remember that this device is retailing at $599, fully loaded. That is significantly less than the Samsung S9 or Google Pixel. While it is easy to be a bit sniffy about various items, the price point I feel is pitched just right, cutting corners where needed.
It comes with the latest Android which has been modded a little to accommodate the Gemini hardware. There is a couple of Gemini specific keys that will pop up a utility bar with quick-access functions, this was handy, but frankly after a period of time, just got in the way.
Now for the keyboard. The very thing that makes this device stand out from the crowd.
The keyboard is wide enough that you can’t use it with your 2 opposing thumbs, and you can forget about using it in one-hand. Just not that type of device. Once put on a flat surface, the keyboard comes alive. Solid, follow-through, satisfying travel and click in each key button with instant feedback on the screen. My fingers are of a slim nature that I could type relatively fast. My only frustration with it, was the space-bar, it is offset from the middle a little that I kept missing it with my right-thumb. The keyboard is slightly smaller than my travel bluetooth keyboard I use with my tablet/phone but not small enough that makes it unusable.
Overall the device is a wonderful addition to the smartphone world and while I don’t think there is a huge mass appeal, it will be useful for those that need more than just a media-player from their mobile device (oh did I say it is also a phone?). I think the biggest issue with the device is that Android is just not geared up to be in permanent horizontal/landscape mode. There are too many apps that just don’t know how to handle this viewing mode which has the knock-on effect of hiding a lot of in-app functionality.
While the device can by used in portrait mode, it feels so wrong when you hold it like that with a keyboard hanging off the side.
So setting that aside, I am a huge fan of the Gemini and the mission statement that Planet Computers are making with this device to the market place. I hope they sell enough units to make them profitable and to continue development. The company is still young and desperately needs more support from the community to help round out some of the rough edges that the more mainstream Android forums usually provide help with.
Overall, a wonderful nostalgic trip back to a time there was a real difference between a PDA and a phone, but not quite ready to become a single device to replace my current Samsung S9. Instead, relegated to a secondary device to throw into the carry bag for long trips or meetings.
Solid machine, worth the money.