Gemini PDA review: We’ve come a long way since keyboards

The personal organizer is back... again.

The sun may have set on the phone-with-a-keyboard phenomenon, but there are still people who pine for physical keys. Armed with a deca-core processor, Android, all the wireless connections you need and slots for SIM and microSD cards, the Gemini ($599, by Planet Computers) is a refreshing proposition to those frustrated with the port-less, key-less mobiles of today. (And yes, it even has a headphone jack.) But I'll warn you now, the touchscreen world has come a long way in recent years -- so much so that you might find a keyboard isn't as helpful as you hoped and can even be a hindrance.

When the Gemini was shown off at CES earlier this year, team Engadget was divided. Most saw it as a novelty at best. A handful of us (myself included) thought it was exciting. The idea of laptop productivity on a device that fits in your pocket roused my inner Tolstoy. No more wasted time on municipal transport! I'd finally write that novella while languishing at the coffee shop! Little did I know that the reality was I'd be pecking out emails hunched over my lap, or lamenting the absence of Swiftkey like a long-lost friend.

But first, what exactly is the Gemini? In short, it's a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) modeled on the classic Psion series, but with some 2018 twists. Or, you might argue that it's a mid-range Android phone with a keyboard attached. Both definitions are accurate. Which one is apt for you will depend on your needs. I'll explain why later.

Before we get to that, though, let's talk about the hardware. The Gemini casts a silhouette that's slightly bigger than an iPhone 8 Plus or a Pixel 2 XL. Held in portrait mode, it's about half an inch taller, and about twice as thick. It's chunky, but not unmanageable for most pockets. The screen is hidden away until you open the clamshell device, so if you intend on using this as a phone (it's available with or without a SIM slot), know that this means there's no home screen, no clock to glance at and no way to glance at notifications (though there is a notification LED). In short, when the Gemini is closed, it's more like a sleeping laptop than a phone on standby. Which if you're buying this soley as a PDA is obviously less of an issue.

Open the Gemini up, though, and everything changes. The 6-inch (FHD) display isn't mindblowing, but it's on par with most mid-range Androids out there. Below that is the all-important keyboard.

As I rested my fingers on it, I noticed something strange: My thumbs were touching together. Not surprising, I guess (given the size of the Gemini), but for someone who spends a large part of the day touch-typing, it felt unnatural. I opened a browser from the touchscreen and started to type "engadget," but found myself feeling flummoxed trying to hit the right keys. This isn't an indictment of the keyboard, yet. I have a few different PCs I switch between regularly, and all their layouts are slightly different; it often takes me a few minutes to adapt. But the early signs weren't promising.

The keys themselves feel steady under your fingertips. The travel as you type is similar to that of a larger non-chiclet laptop, just much closer together. All the essentials, like Esc, Tab and Shift are where they should be, albeit a little cramped. Many of the keys serve double duty via a "function" option, allowing you to adjust the volume, screen brightness and so on. Confusingly (for me) the @ sign isn't Shift+2 like you might be used to, but Fn+K. With Android there are ways to change this, but that means the symbols printed on the keys will no longer be accurate.

There's a bigger drawback to typing on the Gemini, which isn't directly related to the keyboard itself. I found that if I set the device on a surface, I can type at a decent clip after a few minutes. But if you're lying back on a couch, or resting it on your lap, it becomes near impossible to get comfortable. This is one of the factors that will likely move you from camp "PDA" to camp "phone with a keyboard" pretty quickly.

I am willing to persist with quirky technology if I find the idea endearing enough. When it comes to email, I found the keyboard useful. I wouldn't want to spend my morning responding to messages with the Gemini, but it's practical enough in short bursts. Keyboard shortcuts for reply/archive, etc. work, and you can navigate messages with the arrow keys as you'd hope (at least, in the Gmail app you can).

Planet Computers clearly had productivity in mind when it designed the Gemini. To that end, it pre-loaded a menu dock with apps like Word and Excel, though you can add whatever you like there -- even if it does just pop up over the Android home screen (where you could also have those same apps).

It's worth mentioning that as you're mostly going to be using the Gemini open like a laptop (i.e., in landscape), apps that are portrait-centric (like Instagram) don't format quite as well. (You can lock it to portrait, and wield the Gemini like an open book as a workaround.)

I'm guessing that if you're in the market for a PDA in 2018, Instagram might not be at the top of your list for apps. When I used Microsoft Word, there were occasions where I thought, "This isn't bad, actually." For a crazy moment, I even thought about writing this whole review on the Gemini, but that soon passed after typing a few lines. Despite gaining some aptitude with the keyboard, I never achieved the comfort and speed I needed to convince me I could work on this for extended periods of time.

I can probably type faster with a touchscreen than with the Gemini's keyboard, and given that you need optimal conditions to really type anything (a desk/table, etc.), it became clear this wasn't designed to replace your phone (not that Planet Computers are claiming as such). There is a WiFi-only Gemini ($499), which might be a better option if you're not looking to use it as a phone much or at all.

There was one problem, in particular, that persisted: The space bar kept missing strokes and I read other reports online with similar complaints. Even after I was more comfortable with the keyboard, I still found myself having to hit backspace (or use the touchscreen to place the cursor) so that I could add in missing spaces. So any progress in my typing speed was always impaired by having to make corrections.

What if you do want to use it as a phone replacement? Remember, you pretty much have to open the Gemini to do anything, so while you can place calls with it, you need to open it, peck in the number (or just use the touchscreen anyway). You can summon Google Assistant to make calls, but that comes with its own issues. Answering calls is possible while closed, but of course, you won't know who's calling you.

There are other minor annoyances, too. The internal speakers aren't very good. I played a YouTube music video, and recognizing the song was almost impossible until the vocals kicked in. (Sidenote: The space bar doesn't pause videos by default like it does on the desktop either.) There is a camera, but you'll only ever want to use it for Skype/Hangouts, etc., and using it to take photos of anything is one step goofier than using an iPad (pointing an open PDA at something without being able to see the screen).

So, it's a mid-range Android phone with a keyboard attached? Well... yes. But, and here's the part where your proclivities come in: Maybe you want something that has all the apps you are used to on your touchscreen phone, but absolutely want a keyboard, too. I briefly used to work as a systems administrator, and the Gemini would have been perfect for restarting servers, working on the command line and other such tasks without having to take my laptop out.

The Gemini can dual-boot into Linux (or other operating systems), meaning if you want to bring Android and Linux along with you in the same device and don't care about the whole phone thing, then the Gemini (with its 64GB of expandable storage and dual USB-C ports) is quite a flexible workhorse.

Thankfully, my days as an on-call sysadmin are over, but I can see how the Gemini might resonate with developers or a certain tinkerer crowd as a second or even third portable device. The quirks of the keyboard are potentially surmountable when you have the convenience and connectivity that this thing offers. As a bonus, the 4220 mAh battery is pretty longevous, especially if this is not your primary device.

For me, I think my nostalgia clouded my better judgment. As excited as I was for the Gemini, it turned out not to be the device for me. Whether I like it or not, my computing habits have moved on, and I'm happy with my phone/laptop combo. But I do hope that the Gemini finds its audience, and that the company continues to release new versions. Maybe one with a second screen on the outside to enhance the phone features or allow for more convenient touchscreen access. It's a lot to ask for a company just shipping its first product, but if it can balance mainstream needs with the demands of hardcore fans, it might carve out a little space in the market for itself.

"When the Gemini is closed, it's more like a sleeping laptop than a phone on standby."