The Astro Slide is Planet Computers’ third device with a Psion-like physical keyboard, eschewing the clamshell form factor for a unique slide-out hinge
London-based smartphone maker Planet Computers has started work on its third device, a 5G-enabled smartphone with a slide-out physical keyboard.
The Gemini is primarily designed as a pocket-sized productivity tool, similar to the Psion Series 5, although it also functions as a phone, while the Cosmo adds a keyboard backlight and a second external display that’s accessible when the device is closed.
Both use the clamshell form factor, while the new Astro Slide unit opts for a unique hinge mechanism that slides the screen back from the keyboard and then locks it in place at an angle.
All three devices started as IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaigns, with the Gemini shipping to backers in early 2018 and the Cosmo currently on its second production run.
The two devices have shipped to a total of more than ten thousand backers, Planet says, suggesting a small but dedicated user base.
The devices function as modern Android smartphones, with an option to run Linux, but their main draw is a physical QWERTY keyboard that makes them function as something like a pocket-sized laptop.
The concept was familiar to users in the 1990s of devices made by Psion, the British company that developed the Symbian smartphone operating system widely used by mobile phone makers before the iPhone and Android made it obsolete. The firm was later acquired by Motorola.
Planet says its devices are ideal for “typing, writing, creating on the go”, while advocates say the form factor is more practical than using a standard smartphone with an external Bluetooth keyboard.
The Astro Slide completed its initial funding run in early May, raising more than $1 million (£800,000) during the main campaign period, in spite of disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The company now says it is finalising hardware specifications and is documenting the device’s physical mechanisms, such as its unique hinge.
Planet’s engineers are not able to travel to China to work with the firm’s contract manufacturer, and are instead planning to hold an initial workshop via video conferencing.
The company is also at work on new software for the Astro Slide to work with the new form factor, which requires better support for portrait orientation than previous devices.
Planet says it is planning to have the device’s circuit board ready for manufacturing in the fourth quarter, with units to go on display at CES in January of next year and to begin shipping about a month afterward.
The Astro runs Android 10, with a Linux option in the future, measures 164 x 76.6 x 15mm and weighs around 300g, noticeably heavier than most standard smartphones.
It is to support both SA (standalone) and NSA (non-standalone) versions of 5G and to run MediaTek’s Dimensity 1000 MT6889 Octa-core processor, along with a nine-core ARM Mali G77 GPU and a six-core AI processing unit (APU), with Wi-Fi 6, 6 or 8 GB of RAM, 128 GB of internal storage, a microSD slot and two USB-C ports that support On-The-Go (OTG).
The screen is 6.53″ and FHD+ (2340×1080), with front and rear-facing cameras and dual SIM and eSIM support.
Unusual form factors have made a comeback in the smartphone world in recent years, with folding phones from the likes of Huawei, Samsung and others.
Microsoft last month unveiled the Surface Duo, a folding, dual-screen device it plans to go on sale in the fourth quarter of this year.
Like Planet’s devices, the Duo can be used in a way similar to a laptop, but with an on-screen keyboard.