Sliding Forward

Planet Computers unveils a third keyboard phone

I freely admit I’m a big fan of Planet Computers’ series of phones-with-a-keyboard. I’ve backed the crowd-funded Gemini and Cosmo devices, so I was pleased to learn that Janko Mrsic-Flogel and his small team had another project in the works.

The Astro Slide, like its predecessors, features a full qwerty keyboard reminiscent of the Psion 5 (a reference point that is becoming less relevant to a generation born after the demise of the iconic PDA). The Astro Slide’s keyboard slides (see what they did there?) out from under a front-facing, 6.5-inch touch screen, which gives the appearance of a “normal” phone. This is in contrast to the clamshell Gemini and Cosmo, which had to be folded open. The Astro Slide looks and works like other smartphones until the keyboard is deployed. Although it’s similar in size to the iPhone 11 Pro, the added keyboard certainly makes it a “chunky” device, and this is reflected in the weight of 300 grams, compared with 188 grams for the iPhone 11 Pro.

In today’s self-isolating climate I had an online-only introduction to the Astro Slide a couple of weeks ago. There’s no full working prototype yet, just a model that proves the hinge concept will work. The proposed innards are quite high-spec by today’s standards — MediaTek Dimensity 1000 processor, dual 5G modem (meaning it supports standalone and non-standalone networks) promising up to 4.7 Gbps downloads, Wi-Fi 6, a 48-megapixel camera and 128GB of storage. But remember that the device won’t ship for over a year. By April 2021, people’s expectations of a high-end phone will have changed. Furthermore, MediaTek’s Dimensity 5G platform is a less established solution than Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platform, and despite having doubtless advantages in cost, this is a potential risk to the overall performance of the Astro Slide.

The team at Planet Computers is as excited about the new device as they were about its predecessors. They’ve built a successful niche business supplying quirky hardware to a dedicated group of fans, and are right to be confident they can pull off the trick a third time. Looking at the project’s Indiegogo page, there are a few original Gemini backers who skipped the Cosmo, reasoning they didn’t want another clamshell device, but have been tempted by the Astro Slide and its “normal” appearance. At the time we published this blog post, the crowd-funding campaign had already reached funding of about £640,000, significantly exceeding its target of £160,000. It’s a fantastic start for this niche project.

The Astro Slide reminds me of the F(x)tec Pro1, which I tried in 2019. Some users of the Pro1 report that its curved edge-to-edge screen makes opening the device tricky without accidently activating items on the display. Planet Computers will be hoping that the Astro Slide’s conventional bezel surround will cut down such frustrations.

Hardware is just part of the Planet Computers story. The company also offers free calendar, e-mail and database applications for its devices. Optimized for keyboard use, they enhance its offerings in the Gemini and Cosmo. I’m not as sure these applications will be as vital for the Astro Slide — part of the device’s appeal is the ability to use it with the keyboard folded away. But they will be welcome free extras that many users will already be familiar with.

Launching a new mobile device in the middle of a global pandemic is risky (just ask Huawei), but Planet Computers knows its customers and knows how to make intriguing products. The level of funding it has already achieved reflects this. As we adjust to the new realities of the mobile industry, the team’s singular focus and relatively small-scale ambitions don’t look quite as oddball as they did almost three years ago.