Planet Computers has been making smartphones with physical keyboards, unlocked bootloaders and support for Android or Linux software for a few years. I went hands-on with the Gemini PDA at CES 2018 and the Cosmo Communicator at CES 2019.
Now the company is getting ready to ship its third phone. Planet Computer introduced the Astro Slide in March, 2020 and began taking pre-orders through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that’s raised nearly $1.7 million so far.
The new model is the first Planet Computers device to feature a 5G modem. And it has a new design that makes it easier to use in portrait or landscape modes rather than just landscape – rather than closing like a notebook so that the primary screen is hidden, the Astro Slide has a keyboard that slides out from behind the screen so you can use it in notebook or phone modes.
But the device that will ship to backers isn’t exactly the same as the one that was promised. And it’s going to ship a few months later than planned.
Since announcing the Astro Slide the world was hit with a global pandemic, which led to some delays. Planet Computers CEO Janko Mrsic-Flogel told me during a Zoom call today that the Astro Slide is now set to ship in June, 2021 rather than March. The delay is largely due to COVID-19 related limitations: normally designing a product like this involves getting teams of people together in the same room for long days of collaborative work, but that was not possible for much of 2020.
The other change has to do with the Astro Slide’s spec sheet. Mrsic-Flogel says the good news is that the phone will now ship with 8GB of RAM rather than the promised 6GB and hat the front-facing camera has been upgraded from 5MP to 13MP.
The bad news is that the phone will ship with a MediaTek Dimensity 800 processor rather than a Dimensity 1000 chip as originally promised. According to Mrsic-Flogel, it wasn’t for lack of trying to get the higher-performance chip from MediaTek:
It was best processor at the time, and I really wanted it, but it was not our decision. Our hands were tied. I’m glad that we managed to get A 5G processor.
Mrsic-Flogel indicates that MediaTek told Planet Computers that it couldn’t license the Dimensity 1000 to a small customer. So Mrsic-Flogel says he’s happy that the company was still able to source a 5G processor for the new phone, even if it’s not the one he originally wanted. That will make the Astro Slide one of the first phones (if not the very first) with a physical keyboard to feature 5G support.
In terms of performance, he expects most users won’t see much of a difference between the MediaTek Dimensity 800 and 1000 processors. But the chip downgrade also means losing two features: WiFi 6 (802.11ax) and BLE audio support.
The Astro Slide will also feature a
3,500 mAh battery, which is less than the originally planned 4,000 mAh battery. But since the Dimensity 800 chip is more energy efficient, Mrsic-Flogel expects the phone will still offer all-day battery life.
Update: In response to feedback, the company has decided to stick with a 4,000 mAh battery.
Some backers of the original crowfunding campaign have already requested refunds due to the spec change, and Mrsic-Flogel says the company has already issued refunds to some of those individuals. But the company will also be holding an Astro Slide 5G first look event for backers on Jan 19th, and he’s hopeful that a Q&A and prototype demo will alleviate some concerns.
In the meantime, the Astro Slide is still up for pre-order for about $644 through Indiegogo’s InDemand platform.
Here’s a run-down of the revised spec sheet:
|Display:||6.53 inch, 2340 x 1080 pixel|
|Processor:||MediaTek Dimensity 800 (4 x Cortex-A76 + 4 X Cortex-A55)|
|GPU:||ARM Mali-G57 MC4|
|Cameras:||48MP rear, 13MP front|
|Ports:||2 x USB-C, 3.5m audio, microSD card slot|
|Wireless:||5G (global), WiFi 5, Bluetooth 5.1, NFC, FM radio, GPS, GLONASS|
|Charging:||10W Wireless + fast charging (wired)|
|Biometrics:||Fingerprint sensor (on side of phone)|
|Keyboard:||Backlit, slide-out, mechanical, with support for 24 language layouts|
|Dimensions:||164mm x 76.6mm x 15mm|
Mrsic-Flogel also notes that the plan is to ship the Astro Slide with Android 11 software, but the bootloader will be unlocked or unlockable and when the first prototypes are manufactured in March, some will be sent to members of the mobile Linux development community in the hopes of enabling support for operating systems like Debian and Ubuntu Touch.
There’s no guarantee that GNU/Linux distributions for the Astro Slide will be ready for the general public by the time the phone ships to backers in June. But if they’re not, then Planet Computers hopes to make Linux images available for download at some point in the future as it’s done for the Cosmo Communicator and Gemini PDA.
The company is also updating some of its own Android applications to work better on the new phone. Since previous Planet Computers devices were meant to be used primarily in landscape orientation, the company’s calendar, email, and note-taking apps didn’t need a portrait mode, but they will have one for the new device.
Planet Computers is also introducing a new Planet Backup application that will provide a way for users to backup and restore their data locally or to a remote server without relying on Google or other third-party cloud services. The app will be compatible with the previous-gen Cosmo Communicator as well as the Astro Slide, which could come in handy for users that want to upgrade from one phone to the other.