Years ago, I owned a Psion Organiser, which, at the time, was the perfect device for taking notes using thumb typing. The Nokia Communicator 9000 series took the concept a stage further, adding a Qwerty keyboard to a mobile handset, which meant no more hassle trying to get documents off the device. I also had a chance to use the Ericsson R380 and the Blackberry Q10 became a pocketable mobile workhorse, in situations where using a laptop was not possible. Back in those days, the main applications I used were for word processing and email. And prior to the Q10, the best mobile internet available on those older devices was via WAP (wireless application protocol).
However, today we expect a fully featured web browsing experience on our smart devices, online video and music on-demand, instant messaging services and mobile video conferencing.
Two decades on since I first used a phone with a full QWERTY keyboard and the Astro Slide 5G from Planet Computers is revisiting this form factor – as a device for people who hate typing on a smartphone touchscreen. It’s interesting to see where Planet Computers positions the new 5G equipped device. When I spoke to CEO, Janko Mrsic-Flogel, he said there are a number of key applications, which simply do not have a great user experience on the usual touch screen keyboard of a smartphone. One of these is terminal emulation; the other is manipulating spreadsheets.
Both benefit from having a largish landscape screen and a separate keyboard with real cursor navigation keys. “Personally, I was kind of missing a device that I could actually write on that’s pocketable,” he adds.
For Mrsic-Flogel the Astro Slide 5G is about offering users “proper empowerment in their pockets”. This, he says, was the motivation behind starting the London-based company, which crowdfunded its first device, Gemini, in 2018.
In terms of specification, the Astro Slide 5G offers a full mechanical keyboard, an FHD display with screen resolution of 2340 by 1080 and a 48 MP camera in a 172.4 x 76.5 x 18.7mm device that weighs 325g. There is no denying it is a large device that definitely bulges and weighs down a trouser or jacket pocket. But it runs Android 11, and Planet Computers is supporting the option to dual boot into Linux.
How many hands
While Mrsic-Flogel describes the notion of zero hands (ie touchscreen only), one hand and two-handed usage, with Android Office productivity apps like Google Docs and Office 365, I found it harder using thumb typing than the devices I had used over 20 years ago. But on a flat surface, it is definitely easy to type almost properly, given that the keyboard is just over half as wide as the Logitech K380 I am currently using.
In an attempt to emulate how an IT admin could use this device, I installed the Terminus app to connect over SSH to a Raspberry Pi. It is certainly usable, much more than trying to access a Linux command line on the normal touchscreen keyboard of a smartphone. I like the fact the terminal console shows up as a full screen, which leaves the IT admin free to type away on the physical keyboard.
I also ran Chrome Remote Desktop to test access to a Windows PC, emulating the user experience of streaming a Windows desktop. Again, it’s usable, but the narrow screen height meant that I needed to scroll around the remote desktop quite a lot. Accessing the web and web-based applications is far easier, which I believe is how the Astro Slide 5G will mainly be used.
To enable the device to run operating systems other than Android, Mrsic-Flogel says says Planet Computers has opened up the kernel and the bootloader allowing the open source community to develop distros of Linux that can be loaded onto Planet Computers’ devices. In fact, last year, a version of Debian was made available for its Cosmo Communicator device, the smaller sibling to the Astro-Slide 5G.
A laptop replacement?
Clearly it is not a laptop replacement. I was hoping that thumb typing would be easier, as this allows you to cradle the device in the palms of your hands, rather than rely on having a flat workspace. In the past, this has allowed me to use devices with small keyboards in tight spaces, such as on a bus, or when parked up, in the driver seat of my car. But the size of the Astro Slide 5G meant my thumbs could not reach all the keys easily. For some people this will not be a problem and Astro Slide 5G’s QWERTY keyboard works exceedingly well on a flat surface, as Mrsic-Flogel points out: “So this device sits very well on a small coffee table inside the train or the little tray table in the plane, and you kind of do your stuff and you know, like you’re not worried about somebody is going to tilting their seat and destroy your laptop.”
I agree with Mrsic-Flogel as there are definite benefits in using something like the Astro Slide 5G, to enable people to carry on working in the cramped spaces of economy class flights or when travelling by train.
Among the questions I wanted to discuss with Mrsic-Flogel was around how he saw the Astro Slide 5G being used by field workers, who may need to carry a laptop day-to-day when offsite. He says: “If you have a tablet or a laptop or even a Chromebook, you do certain things which will be more visible to somebody else.” For Mrsic-Flogel, a pocketable device, like the Astro Slide 5G, allows people to type in notes directly, respond to email or input data into business applications in a way that is less obvious than if they had to use a laptop or a tablet device with a keyboard.
For professional users, he says the physical cursor keys represent a big win over a touchscreen keypad. Nevertheless, the Astro Slide 5G is a niche device, one that will appeal to smartphone users who long for a real QWERTY keyboard underneath their fingertips.
There is no denying that smartphone tech is as good, if not better than the average laptop. Where smartphones fall down is in the physical limits on the size of the display and the soft keyboard. Chances are, some mobile phone users will make a case for using VR headsets to project a giant display of their smartphone screen. But this is not the market segment the Astro Slide 5G is trying to address. It is simply a mobile phone with a proper keyboard.