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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.

Specifications

Display6.53 inches, 2340 x 1080 pixels
ProcessorMediaTek Dimensity 800 (4 x Cortex-A76 + 4 X Cortex-A55)
GPUARM Mali-G57 MC4
RAM8 GB LPDDR4x
Storage128 GB
Cameras48 MP rear, 13 MP front
SpeakersStereo
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.

Unpacking

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.

Buggedibug

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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