Gemini PDA, First Take: Return of the Psion Series 5, in Android/Linux form

Amid the barrage of Android phones desperate to differentiate themselves via camera technology, overlay software or physical design comes something truly different: the Gemini PDA. Gemini is an Android/Linux hybrid in a tiny clamshell chassis with a keyboard that’s truly magnificent.

This Indiegogo-backed project is an unashamed homage to the Psion Series 5, the iconic Personal Digital Assistant that launched (hold your breath) 20 years ago in 1997. The Gemini’s relationship to the earlier ground-breaker is clear in its physical design, in some of its software features, and in the general ethos of those who are bringing it to market. When I spoke with Dr Janko Mrsic-Flogel, CEO of Planet Computers — the company behind Gemini — he explained that his ethos is to be true to the original device, while also creating something exciting for the modern user.

This isn’t just flannel. Psion’s founder Dr David Potter is Honorary Chairman of the board of Planet Computers and the Gemini’s designer is Martin Riddiford, who created the Psion Series 5 keyboard. The keyboard here is almost indistinguishable from the one on the legendarily usable Series 5 — I know, as I took my own Series 5 along when I met Mrsic-Flogel to set it against the Gemini device:

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The Gemini PDA, a dual-boot device running Android and Linux, next to the 1997 Psion Series 5. Note: the Gemini device on view is a prototype.


Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The Gemini PDA I saw is still in prototype, and final launch is planned for CES in January. Although there were things that are unfinished, I was able to get a real sense of what the finished article will be like.

Psion fans might miss the slide-out effect of the keyboard, but the Gemini’s clamshell design is still efficient, and removing the slider has helped keep the Gemini relatively small and light: the whole device weighs just 308g and is small enough to slip into a pocket at 171mm wide by 79mm deep by 15mm thick. When opened up the back hinge pops out to form a stand that helps keep the device steady on a desk.

The 5.99-inch, 18:9 aspect ratio, touchscreen (2,160 x 1,080 pixels, 403ppi) is designed to be used almost exclusively in landscape mode. You can switch into portrait mode, but it’s awkward to use as the keyboard doesn’t fold away behind the screen. But that’s really not the point of this device, which is designed for content creators who work with words. The target market ranges from students to health workers, from writers to system administrators, according to Planet Computers.

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The Gemini PDA running Linux, hooked up to a monitor via a USB-C-to-HDMI cable.


Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

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The ability to run Linux is key to a host of people who might want to use the Gemini as a serious computing device. I saw it working well hooked up to a large monitor, with a Bluetooth mouse attached. You can run Linux either in a dual-boot mode with Android or, for those who don’t mind a bit of rooting, you can boot direct to Linux. Sent to a big screen via USB-C to HDMI (there are two USB-C connectors), Linux looked great. Dr Janko Mrsic-Flogel told me that the plan is to ship with Google Docs and Microsoft Office apps too.

Homage has been paid to the original Psion Series 5 in many respects beyond the clamshell design and iconic keyboard. A lot of effort has gone into retaining the old Psion Agenda calendar app — including its much-loved week view. Things have been updated of course, and the app will now sync with Google Calendar and other online tools. There’s even an apps bar. Where this was hardwired into the Series 5, it’s now a pop-up, but the referencing is obvious. Keyboard shortcuts abound too, just as they did on Psion’s original device.

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The Gemini PDA will come in wi-fi (802.11ac) or wi-fi 4G versions. It’s based on a deca-core CPU with an ARM Mali GPU, supported by 4GB of RAM. There’s 64GB of internal storage and a microSD card slot for expansion, a 5MP camera, and a 4,220mAh battery.


Images: Planet Computers

A modern take

The Gemini isn’t just a clone of an old favourite — it’s also a 4G handset. How do you know who is calling when the clamshell is closed? This dilemma has been solved by the somewhat flashy setup of five LEDs that sit in a fold of the aluminium lid. These can be set to provide personalised colour bursts for different callers, allowing you to identify callers in direct proportion to the number of colour combinations you can remember. Calls can be taken with the device closed thanks to a side button if you want to take pot luck on the caller. With the device open, of course it’s easier to know who is calling; and there’s also the option of network-free options like Skype, which demoed very well for me.

We’ll update this First Take with a full review when the Gemini PDA ships early next year. Check the Planet Computers website for full technical specifications.

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