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Entries tagged 'cat:Displays'

My Further Experience With (Trying To) Use Astro Slide As My Main Phone

This entry is referencing the entry 'Planet Computers' Astro Slide'.

After having owened and used both previous PDAs by Planet Computers (the Gemini PDA and the Cosmo Communicator), I partly knew what to expect from their new modal, the Astro Slide. I knew it wouldn't be a robust, top-notch state-of-the-art smartphone. Planet Computers makes devices for a pretty small niche and needs to sell these devices for a reasonable price despite their low quantity. After having used it as my main phone, I've come to the comclusion that there are reasosn to be disappointed by the outcome of the device anyway.

I've written about my initial impressions of the device. This entry just adds what further experiences I made while using the device as my main phone for ~42 days. tl;dr: I'm still disappointed.

The build quality is relatively low. But I underestimated and/or misremembered how annoying those buttons with no pressure point whatsoever are. Thy aren't even protuding, nor do they have a different color or texture from their surrounding. That means every times I want to turn on the screen of the phone without opening it, I have to either stumble around the edge of the device with my finger for a while, or I need to have a close-up look at the side of the device to locate the button, then fumble around with my finger for just a little while. That turns of the touch-screen. But unlocking it by using the touch-screen doesn't always work. Sometimes the touch-screen just doesn't seem to be in the mood to respiond to being touched in certain places. I also forgot how annoying it is to have a phone without working adaptive sc reen brightness. I have to turn of the brightness way up, above a sensible poiunt, to make sure it's readable in sun-light. Sometimes, adaptive screen brightness just turns it to 0 for a while, which effectively means it turns off the screen. I guess there's a reason why automatic screen brightness is turned off by default.

The screen is okay, but not very bright, hardly readable in direct sunlight. Colors aren't very accurate. And sometimes contrast and colors shift as if some filtwer was applied, for no reason. The speakers are small and not very loud, lack low frequencies completely (no bass). The headphone output is prone to CPU noise while the screen is turned on. The fingerprint reader is so unreliable it's best treated as if it didn't exist. It's useless. The sliding mechanism feels surprisingly sturdy. I didn't break it yet. But I'm sure something will break or come apart soon, as it was the case with my previous Planet Computer PDAs. The software isn't much better. Ecven though there are security updates available and a notification makes sure to permanently inform me of that fact, no updates can be loaded. The OTA update is fundamentally broken. Apparently Planet Computers didn't think it would be a necessary feature to be able to update Android!

I don't know if it's the Mediatek chipset that the device uses (Maybe Android support for that chipset really is that bad.) but using Android on the Astro Slide is just as buggy on the Astro Slide as it was on previous Planet Computers PDAs. Some apps aren't available for the platform. After every time Android boots some internal app whose function isn't clear to me crashes. Sometimes notifications disappear for no reason. Sometimes a notification sound plays for no reason. Sometimes the screen turns off and locks for no reason. Sometimes the device reboots for no apparent reason. It can be said that Android does run on it. But it's not the experience one expects from a system that is supposed to be native to and ships with a device.

The camera quality is just beyond embarassing. The sensor was obviously chosen by number of megapixels and price only. It's been a long time since I've seen such smushy and noisy pictures even from a <100€ phone. Battery life isn't as good as you might expect from a clunky devoce like this. My Google Pixel 4a with not even half of the battery capacity, despite being over four years old and in daily use, lasts longer than the Astro Slide with (very roghty and estimated) similar use.

When backing the Indiegogo project, my intention was to use the Astro Slide as a small Debian laptop for my packet. A mobile machine for SSH, FTP, some web stuff and for texting. It would have replaced its predecessor, the Cosmo Communicator, in that role. But Planet Computers stopped supporting any OS other than Google Android. Not only is there no official buld of any Linux distribution, the package mirror that used to provide DEBs for the Cosmo Communicator also quietly diasppeared. There doesn't seem enough interest in the device in the Sailfish community. Maybe some Linux support will come from users at some point. But I don't see any on the horizon.

With the previous Planet Computers PDA, the Cosmo Communicator, I had a fallback use case: an occasional PDA for SSH stuff while travelling, sometimes a tiny fileserver at events. But lacking availability of any non-googley OS, I feel compelled to ask: What is the Astro Slide for? I, personally, don't seem to have a suitable use case for it.

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Planet Computers' Astro Slide

I've finally received my Astro Slide. A smartphone with a physical keyboard that came out of a crowdfunding campaign that I've backed a few years ago. This entry contains my first impressions of the device, in the context of having used and having been disappointed by both its predecessors.


Display6.53 inches, 2340 x 1080 pixels
ProcessorMediaTek Dimensity 800 (4 x Cortex-A76 + 4 X Cortex-A55)
Storage128 GB
Cameras48 MP rear, 13 MP front
Ports2 x USB-C, 3.5 mm audio, microSD card slot
Wireless5G, WiFi 5, Bluetooth 5.1, NFC, FM radio, GPS, GLONASS
Battery3.500 mAh
Charging10W Wireless + wired fast charging
BiometricsFingerprint sensor in power button
Keyboard53 keys, slide-out, backlit
Dimensions164 mm x 76.6 mm x 15 mm
Weight300 g

Planet Computers

Planet Computers has created/produced and is selling three PDAs/smartphones with keyboards (Gemini PDA, Cosmo Communicator, Astro Slide). That's their legacy - smartphones of the clamshell kind (or slide-out in case of the new model, the Astro Slide) similar to the Psion Series 5. The form factor and keyboard of all three those devices is remarkably similar to this 1997 PDA. The opening mechanisms aren't. But enough about previous devices. Maybe I'll write about those two, since they are relatively unique devices.

Crowdfunding period

You can skip this and the next paragraph if you just want to know about the device and not my experience of getting it and my opinion on the crowdfunding process. The Indiegogo campaign ended in May 2020. Mass shipping of the produced devices was delayed until the end of December 2022 for various reasons. There was an availability/alleged scamming issue with important parts, forcing a redesign of the board including a switch to a different SoC. There were the usual discrepancies between time planned and actual time needed to finish steps. And there was a long series of problems caused directly or indirectly by the COVID19 pandemic. There was (and continues to be) a fucking huge pile of negativity and hostility towards the maker of the device. Maybe you know the sort of comments delayed crowdfunding campaigns tend to get. My impression is that people regret giving their money to a company as an investment with no security, lose hope to receive the device as expected, and then start to badmouth everything about the project and insult people who continue to support the company behind the project. I don't read much of the comments on campaigns that I'm not supporting. But I've never seen so much hate and unnecessary negativity for a fucking tech gadget. I'll refrain from repeating any details or telling any stories that don't have a point. But I wanted to mention it.

My personal take on the long waiting period: The stated delivery date at the time of backing was never realistic. Even the date to which it was later changed, or the one after that weren't to be expected to be the actual dates at which any devices would be delivered. Every tech gadget crowdfunding I've ever seen missed their delivery target date. But of course people will expect or pretend to expect to receive it before the stated date because that is precisely the purpose of stating that date. Anyway, most of the announced delays were sort of understandable in the current situation; even though Planet Computers surely didn't tell the (whole) truth all the time and their often denounced lack of communication skills is undeniable although not as big as purported by some. Instead of checking and filling the comments page weekly for two years, myself and other people who also didn't channel all their hatred into that page just didn't complain in the comments and still received the same device at the same time as the others. Although one good thing came of the complaining of some on the comments page: When a picture of a prototype or render or something (I don't remember) was shown in an update and people complained about the space between the feet not being filled with battery, Planet Computers made a poll that ended up showing that most backers want an even thicker device than it would have already become, and the design was changed to fill the last gaps with a bigger battery. Communication as a customer with them never feels great. They try to evade warranty claims, ignore questions and arguably lie if they feel that the response sounds better that way. My contribution through Indiegogo was locked for many weeks without an update. I moved house before shipping actually started. So I couldn't update my address on my own but had to send Planet Computers a message instead. They claimed to have updated it (ignoring other questions), but over a week later it was sent to the old address. Gladly UPS really tries to fulfil their task to the utmost satisfaction of the recipient.


At first I wasn't sure whether I even wanted to open the package. Because by I'm already waiting for another device that I discovered after backing the Astro Slide campaign but expect to like better than the Astro Slide. I shortly considered selling it unopened. But whatever, I wanted a treat now, not wait a few weeks for a better one. The packaging is of the sort that we have to come to expect from electronics gear that's not of the lowest price and quality. Nice, thick cardboard and not the simplest box design imaginable. I don't really appreciate this packaging the way others do. When getting everything out of the box, the bottom tray came out too. It obviously used to be glued in but ripped out with force. Also the holder for the SIM tray opening tool was damaged. If the box hadn't been sealed by a thick round transparent sticker, I'd say this box was opened before. Anyway, the device looked fine. When I turned it on I was surprised to find that it was already set up and the language was set to Japanese. Not the most obvious choice for a device with a EU charger and a German keyboard. It really seems to me like somebody else has received and tried out this device before.

Hands-On, Keyboard

My first impression is: It's thick and heavy, as we wished for in the poll. I don't mind that. It's supposed to be a tool, a PDA, not competition for the iPhone or not something to impress people with. The sliding mechanism is new. Both folding mechanisms of Planet Computers' previous devices didn't last long in my hands (or pocket). So I'm curious to find out whether this new approach works better. In the videos it looked more awkward to open than it really it. It's hardly possible to open with only one hand, but it's possible if you absolutely have to. And I think it would become even quite easy and less awkward as long as your hands are at least of average size. It's less fumbly to close with one hand though. After only a few tries of opening it with two hands I got the hang of it and I can do it quickly, without the edge getting stuck in the keys and looking really cool. Maybe that success is due to me using it too violently. But it doesn't feel like I'm straining or pressing anything in a way I shouldn't. So before I've actually used it for a while I'd say the new mechanism feels better than the old one. The keyboard layout is the same as with their previous devices: very much inspired by the Psion Series 5 PDAs from 1997 (and other similar PDAs from that time). For some unapparent reason they've changed the size of some keys though (Left Shift, Left Ctrl, Up, Down). The keys feel more firm than on my Cosmo Communicator, except those on the edges of the keyboard. During my first few tries typing text on it this feels better than with the Cosmo or the Gemini. But my main issue persists: Keys often to very often get stuck. Not in their pressed-down state. Rather they refuse to move down if hit in the wrong angle. When touch-typing on a too small keyboard, one hits the keys in all sorts of angles though. But beyond that I don't want to judge the typing experience. I find it too small for two-handed typing and it's too big and not made for thumb-typing. It takes quite some getting used to or training to type fast and reliably on it. But that's not the fault of the device. I'm sure it must have been the same with the Psion 5. Compared to most high-quality laptop keyboards the Astro's feels a bit cheap in that the keys don't travel consistently straight downwards depending on the angle from which they are pressed. When typing quickly and carelessly, keys sometimes can feel like the got stuck on their way down. But the key press usually gets registered, so that might not matter after getting used to typing on this keyboard. The experience is very similar, if not the same, to typing on a brand new Cosmo Communicator. The space key for some reason feels like it has hardly any travel. But it works well when actually typing text. The bugs that were there in the previous devices haven't been addressed. There's still ghosting when pressing more than two keys, caps lock still sometimes gets enabled accidentally and the caps lock light still sometimes is off when caps lock is on and vice versa.

First few minutestimes trying it out

A certain standard for features, form factor and quality has became standard for smartphones. The form factor of the Astro Slide is obviously different. The technical features can be looked up in the table above. For the perceived quality and experience I'll just list things that I found noteworthy during the first few times using the device. When the device is close, the screen flashes to maximum brightness every time it turns on. The display can not be turned off while the device is opened. It turns off after the set time of inactivity. There is now automatic screen rotation based on the device orientation, like in any other smart phone since the iPhone. But more prominently placed, there is also a setting in the pull-down menu that lets the user switch between landscape and portrait mode as long as the device is closed. When it is opened, the setting is ignored and the screen is set to landscape mode. When the device is closed again, the setting gets changed to portrait mode regardless of what it was before opening or while open. The lock screen is always in portrait mode when closed and always in landscape mode when opened. That mess needs to get sorted out. But, as long as you only ever want to use the Astro Slide in portrait mode when closed and only ever use it in landscape mode when opened, it should be fine. Except when booting the device while it's opened. Then the screen is in portrait mode and can only be changed by closing and opening it again. This could be done properly. But since it's not, having two separate automatic screen rotations (based on opening/closing the device and based on orientation) plus a manual setting may have been the wrong choice.

There is a notification from "System Update" with the title "System Update" and the message "System Update" that's almost always present. Sometimes it disappears for a short while, then it comes back. It can't be dismissed, opened, turned off or blocked. I bet there are system updates because the OS is pretty old by now and I've never done an update. But I also don't see a way to do an over-the-air update. The check in the settings says there is no update even though the security check says there has been a security patches available for over a year. Too bad those update problems weren't fixed after causing me so much frustration with the Cosmo Communicator. I'll have to research doing the update manually if I want to keep using Android. (I probably won't though.)

The keyboard backlight still doesn't turn off automatically even though there is an "Auto Keyboard Backlight" setting that seems to affect nothing. Same as with the predecessor. Maybe the setting does something less obvious. But since questions like this are almost never answered and have been ignored for years, it feels pointless to try and find out. While browsing the settings I came across an empty sub-menu. No idea what I'm missing out on and why it's empty/there.

I got the Astro with only Android pre-installed. That option was supposed to become available sooner than the others. I don't intend to use it with Android. But since that's what it has right now, I'm only writing about Android in this entry. There is a Debian variant available from Planet Computers and probably also some mobile OS other than Android, but not officially supported by Planet Computers this time. The Android comes with Planet Computers' own apps and with the Vivaldi browser pre-installed. It's also heavily bloated with Google apps. I assume Google requires this to allow Google Play Store access. Very many permissions are already given to Google apps. As with other Google Androids using Google apps and sending Google all your data feels optional but isn't. The setup after a factory reset was quick and easy. I was basically just asked for a language, that's all. The user is not forced or even asked to sign in to or create a Google account unless one of their apps is opened.

I like the display. It has no high frame rate, no resolution beyond what can be detected with perfect eyesight but also not less. It doesn't have extremely thin borders. The viewing angle is as good as it gets (better than with my recent Google Pixel). Nothing noteworthy about colours. It's a very good display. The pictures that the cameras produce are very bad though. I didn't test it in bright sunlight. I'm sure there's no major problem there. But in normally lit rooms and on a cloudy winter day outside the picture quality is really crappy. Pictures are almost always blurred unless you try really hard not to move at all. And even then all pictures are a collection of blobs created by a noise removal algorithm. Every picture makes it obvious how cheap the camera sensor is. That's what happens when you put 48 megapixels in an area where 8 megapixels could have done a very good job. The front camera actually seems to make better pictures, but not by much. I had to take a picture of the lightbulb in a lamp in order to get a picture that's not a blobby mess. The speakers aren't quite as bad. But they absolutely lack bass. It's like cheap phone speakers from 10 years ago. Not nice for listening to music. But at least you understand what people say if you're in a small and quiet room.

There is a finger print sensor integrated in the power button. But it fails more often than it works and it is delayed. I've regretted trying to use it almost every time I did. It's much less annoying to completely ignore it. That may be the fault of my fingers though. I've trained several of them. But I also have had difficulties with the finger print sensor on my Google Pixel recently. (It says to clean it, but cleaning it doesn't help much/long.) All hardware buttons aside from the keyboard are very soft, leaving the user wondering whether the button press has been recognised when the device's reaction is delayed. It's unpleasant to turn it on with a button press. But I can imagine getting used to the button positioning and feeling.


There there quite a few things that I noticed that don't work smoothly. Things that might be attributed to the apps that I'm using. But I found it conspicuous how many of bugs I noticed in the first few days of using the device. My guess is that the MediaTek chipset in the Astro Slide is just not supported as well and tested as much as more widely used chipsets. Here are a few things that keep annoying me: Sometimes while playing media, the entire system becomes incredibly slow, reacting very delayed, playing video with less than 1 fps, until rebooted. Sometimes (often) it's just slow, not being able to play an H264 video in 1080p. Sometimes part of the touchscreen isn't working. Sometimes the PIN touch keyboard isn't displayed on the lock screen. Sometimes the notification light lights up or blinks shortly without any reason. F-Droid crashed several times when trying to install some apps. Overall one should expect hiccups like that, sometimes having to use workarounds like rotating the screen when the area of the touchscreen that you want to use isn't working.

This text was not written on the Astro Slide. The keyboard is just too small for long texts for my opinion. But the more I use the device the more I get used to and over its shortcomings. I'll probably try Debian on it and possibly write about that too. Debian worked pretty well on its predecessor.

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Phones people say don't exist but they do

Some people say things like: Phones should have bigger batteries, I don't care how thick it is. Or: Why aren't there any smartphones with screens smaller than 5 inches anymore? Or: There used to be a wider variety of phones; I'm missing keyboard phones/rugged phones/phones without a bunch of bloatware/etc. I think it is a very small group of people who feel like this strongly enough to say it. But I keep stumbling over such comments and I notice them because I have sometimes felt the same. And there's some truth about some of it. The most popular phones are all large and thin with privacy-invading bloatware that you can't uninstall and often with other malware pre-installed. They don't have keys on the front and you can't simply switch out the battery. But there is a bigger variaty of phones than there has ever bean. If you're missing a certain feature in your phone and can't find one that has it, you probably haven't looked far or long enough. I'd just like to mention a few manufacturers of not entirely mainstream phones and then maybe I'll make individual entries about some of them later with more information.

Keyboard phones

Notable options are:

F(x)tec: Flips open, keyboard in the style of late Nokia keyboard smartphones, best for thumb-typing, currently the first version is only available used and the newer version is currently shipping to Indiegogo backers. So it should be available without a long wait from the web shop soon.

Planet Computers: Different variants available, older ones are clam-shell, the latest is trying a new mechanism that leaves the touchscreen on the outside and usable when the physical keyboard is closed. Keyboard in Psion Series 5 style, best for table typing.

Unihertz: Clones of late Blackberry keyboard phones, screen above keyboard, for thumb-typing.

A used phone. Because you can still get a blackberry if you like. A few weeks or months from now you probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference between you almost new one and a refurbished one anyway. It's cheaper, you have more devices to choose from and it's better for the environment (whatever your definition of that may be). Did I miss or forget an option?

Phones with small screens

Uniherts also has started to fill this gap. Or you can get an older phone, maybe a used one. A few weeks or months from now you probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference between you almost new one and a refurbished one anyway. It's cheaper, you have more devices to choose from and it's better for the environment (whatever your definition of that may be). Did I miss or forget an option?

Phones with large batteries

If that's your one important requirement, you have many cheap phones that claim to have batteries with around 10 Ah (yes, 10.000 mAh if you prefer to see read more zeros) to choose from. Some manufacturers that I don't know anything about are: Yess, Gionee, Blackview, Ulefone. Ulefone seems to have several current models to choose from and I know somebody who is happy with theirs, whatever that tells you. I'm sure there are more brands of phones with giant batteries. But I'm personally happy with the 2 to 3 days I get out of my regular phone. I only complained about this when phones would at most last for one day without getting charged. If you're content with a battery with a capacity of around 6 or 7 Ah, you have even more to choose from and that range has actually started to enter the mainstream phone market (Huawei, Samsung, Asus, ZTE, …). You'll easily find some if you look for them. But many still don't think of searching for one. I guess this has been more of an issue 10 years ago, where phones needed more power to come through a day while at the same time no smartphones with big batteries existed. Getting an external battery that clips to the back of your phone has been more of a thing back then. That's still an option if such a product exist for your phone or you really love duct tape.

Headphone jacks, removable batteries, hardware buttons below the screen, ...

How about getting a used phone. A few weeks or months from now you probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference between you almost new one and a refurbished one anyway. It's cheaper, you have more devices to choose from and it's better for the environment (whatever your definition of that may be). Or at least I read that somewhere a few minutes ago. There are new phones with current hardware that haven't given up on these concepts. But none that I care to mention and the choice of phones with current hardware and easily removable batteries or hardware more than one hardware button below the screen doesn't appear to be good. Did I miss one?

But what about software? Security updates, free software, Google-less Android, privacy-respecting operating systems

Well, it would certainly make choosing and setting up a phone easier if you don't care about those things. But the FOSS community is producing images for many phones that otherwise would only run an Android built by the manufacture or carrier with all the usual insults like bloatware, pre-installed malware and other privacy-invading components. Using an older smartphone (maybe not a Nokia Communicator/Nokia 9xxx, but like maybe 10 years old) with current free software is certainly an option.

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Poly Keyboard

Here is another project idea I never really started working on: A computer keyboard that has a small LCD in each key cap. I'm convinced that there are legitimate use cases. After all, the function of the keys changes according to context. Different applications have different shortcuts, when I press and hold the Ctrl or Super key, the whole layout practically changes. Most people don't remember useful keyboard shortcuts, if they try to memorise them in the first place (if the learn about them to begin with). It would be nice to have the markings on the keys reflect their role. In some special applications, like video editing, a completely custom keyboard layout would be useful (a cheap alternative to byuing a custom video editing interface input device). In computer games, only the useful keys could light up, as well as display what they do (which depends not only on the game, your custom layout, the current situation in the game, as well as what happened earlier in the game, e.g. what items you have in your pockets). You might want to write in different languages and need different keyboard layouts at different times. You could have icons or descriptions of key functions be displayed whenever you hold a modifying key, to see which shortcuts are available. You could have a second keyboard with an additional layout to give you access to frequently used functions, and have the keys display the relative application icons or describe what they do. And it would just look cool.

The idea has been in my head for years. I even board the electronics to build a few keys to try it out. But I never build one because I think it would have been too much work on the side to get it done well, considered I come by very well without one. Now I learned that somebody else has built a keyboard very similar to what I had/have in mind. To be honest, I never really get very deep into the keyboard building community to know whether a keyboard like this already existed. I think when I had the idea I didn't even know how big the mechanical keyboard fan community is and that DIY builds are such a big thing.

The project I stumbled over is the Poly Keyboard by thpoll. Here is an article about it in the Keyboard Builder's Digest, here is the Github repo. Apparently (according too the article) it isn't the first of its kind. But it's the only one I've seen.

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Setting Screen Brightness To Any Value With A Three-Step Keyboard Shortcut (Linux)

Initially out of necessity because the brightness keys of my new laptop didn't work out of the box (the driver was aded to my distro not a month later, which should have been acceptable, but I didn't know that at first), I was looking for a way to set the backlight brighness of my laptop's internal screen easily, without typing a command in a shell. What I ended up using I like even better than the usual + and - keys.

I'm using i3wm and dmenu. The way I set screen brightness is

  • 1) I enter the shortcut (mod+B in my case)
  • 2) I enter a number and
  • 3) I hit Enter.
  • It's simple to implement. Just put this line in the i3 config file:

    bindsym $mod+b exec \
      thatbright=$(echo "1000\n2000\n3000\n4000\n5000\n6000\n7000\n100\n10" \
      | dmenu -p "How bright though?") && echo $thatbright \
      > /sys/class/backlight/*/brightness

    You can put it into one line (without the \s inbetween) if you want.

    You could easily change that to a two-step or single shortcut if you like. I like the three-step version because it allows me to choose from one of seven brightness modes easily but also lets me enter a value below or between those pre-sets without taking up more than one key.

    Code Explanation

    First, the variable thatbright is set to the number that dmenu outputs, which can be one of the numbers that are echoed to the pipe (selected with arrow keys or completed when typed in dmenu) or another number that is entered into dmenu. If that was suggessful, the value is written to /sys/class/backlight/*/brightness. If you have multiple backlights in /sys/class and you only want to set one or if your shell doesn't support wild cards in paths, you can change the * to whatever applies to your system, e.g. intel_backlight.

    Scripts/Commands to set the screen brightness

    The simplest script that sets the screen brightness in Linux is probably the one-liner from above: echo $1 > /sys/class/backlight/*/brightness. This sets the raw numerical value. You need to know what a sensible range of numbers is and what the maximal accepted value is (look at '/sys/class/backlight/[YOUR_BACKLIGHT]/max_brightness'). But there are more elaborate scripts, like bbacklight by Giuseppe Eletto with which you set the brightness with a percentage value.

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