Thursday, 14 September 2017
Digital devices for world travellers
[Some of the mini-laptops and handheld computers I've used in my travels around the world since 1995. Back row, left to right: Gateway 2000 Handbook 486, Asus Eee PC 901, Panasonic Let's Note CF-R7. Front row, left to right: Psion netBook / Psion Series 7, Psion 5mx, Psion Revo Plus / Diamond Mako.]
Among the most frequently-asked questions at my travel talks is, "What type of laptop computer, tablet, smartphone, or other digital device do you recommend that I bring with me on a trip around the world?"
The answer begins, of course, with, "The smallest, lightest, and most rugged device that will meet your needs." But what device that is depends on your needs.
Some people get by with a smartphone. But what if you need or want to write documents or blog posts or lengthy messages or do work that requires a keyboard, but you don't want to carry a "full-sized" (and fragile) laptop computer?
You can carry a tablet, a separate (folding) keyboard, and some sort of case or stand to hold them both in the right position. But that tends to be awkward to use, and the whole kit typically weighs as much as a miniature laptop, "subnotebook", or "palmtop" computer with a built-in keyboard.
Do miniature devices with "real" built-in keyboards really exist? Yes. Since 1995, when I first got a computer small enough to bring with me when I travel, I've had a succession of devices (as shown in the photo above) that are substantially smaller, lighter, and more rugged than any typical laptop. On any of these except the smallest (the Psion 5mx and Psion Revo at lower right), I could comfortably write and edit long documents. I wrote and edited most of my first book on the Gateway 2000 Handbook 486 at the top left, which is the next smallest of these devices.
The problem isn't that devices like this don't exist, but that (with the exception of the brief popularity from 2007-2010 of the Eee PC and competing "netbooks" -- none of which came close to the build quality or performance of the Psion netBook from a decade earlier) relatively few people have been willing to pay the price of miniaturization or of higher quality construction for smaller and lighter devices that can stand up to travel.
Most travellers in the USA go by car, not by plane, and have plenty of room in their vehicle for a full-sized laptop if they need it on the road. As a result, keyboard devices smaller and more expensive than a "standard" laptop have been niche products in the USA and many other parts of the world -- except in Japan and to a much lesser extent in Europe, where more business people travel by train and by mass transit. Few models or even product lines of smaller devices with keyboards -- again, except for some that are distributed only in Japan -- have been widely available or remained in production for very long.
"Tiny" in the USA connotes "toy-like", and people expect toys to be (a) cheap and (b) not suitable for doing real work.
Not so in Japan, where "tiny" connotes "finely crafted" and "precious". A Panasonic Let's Note is marketed in Japan (and not marketed at all in any other country) as a premium-priced jewel of a computer, not a cheap toy. The smallest current model, the Let's Note CF-RZ6a, is smaller than the first (and smallest) Eee PC in the photo above, but as powerful and full-featured as many "full-sized" contemporary laptops. Like the Psion netBook of 20 years ago, but unlike most other laptops or digital devices, it's designed and tested to withstand shock and vibration including being dropped onto a hard floor from the height of a desk -- a routine travel event that will crack the screen and often the case of most other laptops. I've dropped my Psion netBook off a podium onto a hard floor without it being damaged, and I've carried my Let's Note in a bicycle pannier for months at a time and over hundreds of miles of bone-shaking gravel and paving-stone surfaces. The Let's Note CF-RZ6a is the the best netbook-sized device for world travel currently in production -- if, and only if, price is no object.
Lack of distribution and availability in brick-and-mortar stores is especially problematic for a category of device that most people not only don't know exists but can't evaluate (or assume won't be worth the price) until they can try it. Most people won't pay more for a smaller computer that they assume must be less powerful or that has a keyboard they assume will be too small to really be useful.
I had to buy each of the devices in the photo above, except the Asus Eee PC, by mail or online without being able to inspect or try them. Few people will do that. I plan to look at a Let's Note RZ6a, to replace my 10-year-old Let's Note RZ-7 whose batteries no longer hold a charge, when I'm in Tokyo in November. But I'm not going to spend more than US$2,000 to order one from Japan without a hands-on inspection of the size, shape, weight, build quality, and functioning of the keyboard, touchscreen, and other components.
Can you really type, even touch type, on a device that's smaller than a standard laptop? Maybe, depending on your own typing style, the size and shape of your hands, and the design and build of the keyboard. A keyboard is not a commodity. Personal tastes for key spacing, layout, and feel vary so much that reviews are of limited use. You can't tell if a keyboard will work for you until you try it, hands on.
Last night, for example, I got my hands on a prototype of one of the most promising of the current crop of new digital devices that might enable me to leave even my mini-laptop behind some of the time when I travel, and still get writing and other work done on the road. But because the keyboard (although functional) was one of the components of the prototype that wasn't yet in its final form for mass production, I can't really judge the keyboard until I receive one of the production models.
[Prototype of the Gemini Android/Linux clamshell PDA with keyboard and touchscreen. The lighting was poor; there are better photos of the Gemini PDA here in the only earlier hands-on review of the prototypes.]
I prefer to buy "mature" hardware and software that has been tested and debugged in extended real-world use. It's typically cheaper (especially second-hand), more reliable, and better value than anything on the cutting edge. But mass-produced time-proven hardware isn't an option if you want a digital device you can travel with that has a keyboard but that's smaller than a netbook with a 10" diagonal display. No smaller "palmtop" or "subnotebook" sized digital device with a keyboard has been mass-produced in several years.
The only current prospects for such a device are from crowd-funded start-up projects. In March 2017, I contributed to the crowd-funding campaign for the Gemini PDA with an estimated delivery date in November 2017. I was willing to risk my money on this particular project because it was deliberately trying to replicate the most successful elements of the Psion design (but with updated digital components and connectivity), and because the keyboard and case of the Gemini PDA were being designed by Martin Riddiford, the same person who did such a superb job on the design of the Psion netBook, 5mx, and Revo.
As I wrote some years ago, "IMHO (in my humble opinion), the Psion line of 'palmtop' computers running Psion's EPOC version 5 operating system (ER5) are the best portable computers for travellers ever made. Although I no longer use my Psions on a daily basis, neither the hardware nor the software have been matched, much less surpassed, by any competitor or successor. They have both hardware and software features that wouldn't be matched for years, and in some cases has yet to be matched, by later generations of netbooks, tablets, and smartphones."
The Gemini PDA prototype photographed for the Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign was actually built around an actual Psion 5mx keyboard. It's the odd case of a "start-up" with a proven design I already know I like.
The closest competition for the Gemini PDA is the GPD Pocket, another Indiegogo project that made it into mass production a few months ahead of the Gemini PDA and is now available for online ordering and drop-shipping from China. The GPD Pocket runs Windows 10 or Linux, while the Gemini PDA runs Android or Linux. That means the GPD Pocket will run standard Windows desktop applications, while the Gemini PDA will run standard Android smartphone or tablet apps. More services of use to travellers are available as Android apps than on Windows. But if the reason to carry a device like this is to be able to keep up with work, and that requires you to run the same Windows apps you use in the office, the GPD Pocket is currently by far the smallest Windows device with an integral keyboard and display and enough processor power and memory to run most standard Windows office applications.
The GPD Pocket is very similar in form factor to the Gemini PDA, and has gotten favorable reviews for build quality. But almost all reviewers who have handled it (I haven't) have criticized the design, layout, and functioning of the keyboard. The only reason to buy one of these devices is that you really want the keyboard. And if you are trying to make the keyboard as small as possible but still usable, every detail of the design and production of the keyboard becomes critical. I saw this in the Sharp Zaurus SL-C1000, another ahead-of-its time PDA sold only in Japan in the 1990s, with a keyboard and touchscreen that could be used either with the clamshell keyboard or with the display reversed and folded flat into tablet mode. I used one for a while (at the time, it was the smallest device that had a Web browser that could access my bank's Web site), but despite generally excellent build quality, the size and design of the keyboard made it unusable for extensive writing.
Which brings me back to the Gemini PDA. This week the company behind the Gemini PDA, Planet Computers Ltd., brought their first functional (although not final) prototypes to the Mobile World Congress America trade show in San Francisco. Yesterday evening, Planet Computers' CEO Dr. Janko Mrsic-Flogel and CTO Davide Guidi met up with four of their Indiegogo backers at a brew-pub down the block from the Moscone Center to show us the prototypes, answer our questions, and get feedback on hardware and software design choices.
[Dr. Janko Mrsic-Flogel, CEO of Planet Computers Ltd., the company designing the Gemini PDA. Note the size of the Gemini prototype on the table.]
I came away with the impression that Planet Computers are on track to deliver what they hoped for, only a couple of months later than their original estimate. Gemini PDA shipments to Indiegogo backers were originally estimated for November 2017, and are currently planned for late December 2017. I'd rather get my device a couple of months late than have it be rushed out the door with known defects or without adequate testing.
The testing plans are reassuring, given how much of the device is custom-designed. The first 100 mass-produced units will be used for destructive testing to failure, including drop and vibration testing, keyboard testing, and at least 10,000 opening and closing cycles of the clamshell hinge. After that, 2,000 units will be produced for Indiegogo backers and another 8,000 for sale through other channels. Dr. Mrsic-Flogel says the company will break even on those first 10,000 units, but "real" profitability would require sales of at least 100,000 units.
Will the Gemini PDA find its market niche and reach that level of sales? I'm not sure.
As with its Psion predecessors, the Gemini PDA may sell itself to people who see and try it. But because it doesn't fit into any existing category, people who don't know it exists won't be looking for it and may not find it.
Psion fans have been praying for the resurrection of the Psion form factor and concept (or, to be precise, the form factor of one or another of the three main sizes of EPOC Psions, as shown in the front row of the photo at the top of this article) with updated internals. They've put their money where their mouth is in oversubscribing the Indiegogo project to almost three times its funding goal.
There's a finite market of people who remember Psion, however, and to be sustainable the Gemini PDA will have to find markets among people who've never before seen a pocket-sized digital device with a usable keyboard, or thought about how they would use one.
The Planet Computers executives I met seemed surprisingly oblivious of what I think are two of the key markets for their product, in Japan and among writers. These are likely to be two of the three crucial categories of earliest adopters for the Gemini PDA. (The third such group, former Psion users, is the easiest to reach -- and clearly being targeted by Planet Computers -- but inherently the most limited in number.)
Dr. Mrsic-Flogel said he was surprised that the largest share of backers for the Indiegogo campaign was in Japan. His very rough estimate from memory was that 40% of the Indiegogo backers were in Japan, 30% in the UK, 20% in the US, 5% in Germany, and 5% in the rest of the world. (These shouldn't be taken as precise percentages, but probably do reflect the ranking by country.) This order of countries should have been expected, given the history of miniature digital devices sold only or primarily in Japan. In Japan, unlike anywhere else in the world, the Gemini PDA does fit into an existing and recognized niche, which makes it much easier to sell.
I was amazed, in light of those backer statistics, to see no Japanese-language version of Gemini PDA Web site and no evidence of a marketing or product-launch focus addressing Japanese backers and potential customers. If there are twice as many backers in Japan as in the USA, why wasn't Planet Computers taking their prototypes first to Japan to build buzz in Japan, get Japanese reviews, thank Japanese backers, get their feedback on product design and market positioning in Japan, and enlist their support for follow-on Japanese viral marketing?
Dr. Mrsic-Flogel was equally surprised when I told him I'm a writer. The other three backers at the meetup in San Francisco were all techies, although some of them write code. But it should be obvious to anyone in touch with the community of Psion fans and fanciers, or who has thought about who would value a device with this form factor, that they are people who write. People who don't do lots of writing don't need a keyboard, and aren't going to be willing to pay more or put up with the additional complexity, weight, and need to open the device to use the touchscreen.
The Psion calendar and contact management software is the best I've ever used, and the database was marvelously flexible. You can try it on any Windows or Linux/wine machine by downloading and installing the free Psion emulator included in the EPOC SDKs. It will also be possible to run the original Psion EPOC Agenda, Data, and other apps full-screen on the Gemini PDA by running the EPOC emulator in Linux with wine, or on the GPD Pocket in Windows or Linux with wine. That sounds inefficient, and it is. But the original Psion EPOC apps were designed to run on so much slower processors and with so little memory compared to contemporary devices that no delay from the layers of emulation would be noticeable. The EPOC emulator runs flawlessly in Windows 7 or under wine on Ubuntu or other contemporary versions of Linux.
But writing is the killer app for a keyboard, and few people are going to buy a mobile device with a keyboard unless they expect to do a lot of writing: note-taking, e-mail, journalism, blogging, literature and other creative writing, business documents, etc. Journalists, travel writers, and travellers generally -- especially those who travel by bicycle, boat, or small plane, on which space and weight are at a premium -- are among the hard core of most dedicated Psion devotees and potential Gemini PDA buyers. For people like this, PDA and phone functions and software are secondary to functionality as a tool for writing anywhere and anytime.
Knock-offs are probably not so much of a threat to the Gemini PDA as they are for some other new devices. If the Gemini PDA succeeds, it will have imitators. But the fact that the hardware, especially the keyboard and hinge, are not merely clever but complex may make it harder to clone successfully than a device that is innovative mainly in its concept and/or software.
I've already committed my money to the Indiegogo project. But if I've gotten you thinking about possibly backing the project or buying a Gemini PDA if and when they are available for normal sale next year, or if you're a backer of the Indiegogo project with questions about what to expect, below are more additional details than you probably want about the hardware and software:
[Gemini prototype running Android. The bottom row of icons is a user-customizable shortcut toolbar, similar to the Psion EPOC toolbar, that pops up when a dedicated key labeled with a "planet" icon is pressed.]
As I knew when I decided to contribute to the crowd-funding campaign, Planet Computers chose to work from the dimensions of the Psion 5mx, not the larger Psion netBook (as I would have preferred) or the smaller Psion Revo. Every former Psion user, fan, and crowd-funder has their own wish list and priorities. Choices had to be made, and each backer of the campaign will inevitably be disappointed with some of them. Fundamentally, I suspect that the Gemini PDA will be (slightly) smaller than I can write on comfortably, and only sometimes allow me to travel without carrying some larger device. But "sometimes" will be better for me and the weight of my luggage than "never".
The Gemini PDA is almost exactly the same length and width as the Psion 5mx, but only about half the thickness. It looks and feels substantially more rugged than the Psion 5mx. (It was the Psion netBook, not the 5mx, that was rated for a 1-meter drop.) I'm not an engineer, so I don't really know what I should expect, but considering that what I saw and handled were the first prototypes, the build quality seems remarkably high.
The hinge mechanism is completely different from that on any of the Psions, and relies on precisely shaped wrap-around plates of spring metal on the top and bottom of the case. The Gemini will ship with a special tool (basically a thin flat plate of similar spring metal) which can be used to pry off the cover plates to get at the SIM card, eSIM, and micro-SD card slots and possibly the battery. I'm a bit worried that it might be a nuisance to carry this tool around, or it might get lost. But I was told that it isn't strictly necessary to use this special tool. You could use anything thin and sharp to pry loose the cover and hinge plates, although too pointy a tool might put a pry-mark dent in the edge of the cover plate. The good thing is that this means access to the slots on the back of the system board, and possibly to the battery, without having to unscrew anything.
(An eSIM or "embedded SIM" is a new alternative to a SIM card that allows multiple "accounts" and phone numbers that would previously each have required a separate SIM card to be stored on one chip. eSIM standards have been adopted but are only just beginning to be deployed. The Gemini will be one of the first "eSIM ready" devices.)
In the Psion 5mx, Revo, and netBook, the system board was under the keyboard, with a flexible cable through the hinge to the screen that was one of the most common points of failure. In the new Gemini PDA, the system board is behind the screen, so there is no flex cable between the system board and the screen. Instead, there are two cables through the hinge from the main board. One cable goes to the battery and one goes to the keyboard and other input/output devices and connections. The keyboard and battery cables don't need to carry as high a data bandwidth as is needed for the screen, and it should be possible to make them less fragile than the Psion screen cable was. The cables will be tested along with the other components of the hinge. Also, since the back of the back of the Gemini can be removed without screws to access the SIM card slot and micro-SD slot on the back of the main board, it might be easier to repair or replace the flex cables or reseat the connectors if necessary.
The Planet Computers team had only just received the final version of the system board and battery. They hadn't had time to calibrate the batteries or test either the battery life or the time required to charge the battery. They are hoping for 300 hours of standby (comparable to the Psion netBook), 30 hours of talk time (which seems more than ample), and 8 hours of Web browsing or other online activity with the display at full brightness.
I and others of the backers told them this seemed insufficient writing or Web surfing time. They said that the battery life would be longer in "flight mode" (by an as-yet-unknown amount) and that they would work on a switchable (and perhaps auto-switching) power conservation mode, especially for offline writing.
It might be possible to replace the plug-connected battery by prying off the cover plate, without removing screws, but that isn't yet certain. For many backers, battery life will be one of the largest disappointments. Planet Computers says they wanted a larger battery, but couldn't use a larger battery without exceeding restrictions in many countries and with many carriers on shipments of larger lithium batteries.
The display seemed very sharp and was actually much brighter than necessary in a rather dimly-lit pub. Automagic adjustment of screen brightness depending on ambient light levels wasn't yet working, but is planned. The display uses typical glossy Gorilla Glass, so there could be a problem with glare in bright sun, as with most other current-model smartphones and tablets.
Since there is no backlight the keyboard will be hard to see in dim light if you don't touch type, and there were no orientation bumps on the "F" and "J" keys as aids for positioning your hands on the home keys. I urged the team to make the key labels substantially more bold, even at the risk of some lost of subtle esthetics, to maximize key legibility for two-fingered typists in dim light.
The Gemini will ship without a stylus (which would be useful, as it was on the Psion, for selecting and editing text on such a small high-resolution screen) or a clip or slot to hold a stylus, but Planet Computers plans to offer a stylus as an option at a later date.
The Gemini will be shipped as a dual-boot Android/Linux device, and will also offer a Linux shell accessible from within Android.
Planet Computers has been in discussions with operating system vendors, but has not made a final decision on the exact version of Android (based on Android 7.1) or Linux (probably based on Debian 8 or 9). They are aware that many backers and buyers will want an open and freely-modifiable device, and that some will not want to have their device rooted to Google when booted in Android.
As I noted in a comment on the Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, Android is open source, but the versions preinstalled by most smartphone and tablet makers are bundled with proprietary software that gives Google root control of device. Lineage OS (a fork and the main successor to the earlier Cyanogen Mod OS) is a build of the open-source Android kernel and components, with the option to add from a menu of Google apps. But if you unlock the bootloader of your device in order to install Lineage OS that doesn't give Google root control of your device, most device makers will void all their warranties on your device.
Regardless of the Android version you use, you can only install apps from the Google Play Store if you've given Google root access -- and thus, effectively, full control and ownership -- of your device. That's a "feature" Google has included in the way the Play Store and Google Play Services work. You can "side-load" apps individually, but as with Linux a repository (F-Droid is the best-known open-source Android app repository) allows for easy installation and auto-updates to multiple apps through a single management tool.
"In principle" Davide Guidi, CTO of Planet Computers, sees no reason not to use Lineage OS, allow users to unlock the bootloader without voiding the device warranty, and make custom Android apps (such as the Psion-style user interface elements and "Agenda" app) available through a repository other than (or in addition to) the Google Play Store. The Gemini PDA team are aware of the precedent of the OnePlus One, which used the predecessor of Lineage OS and allowed users to unlock the bootloader without voiding any warranties. But none of this is yet decided for the Gemini.
For backup and sync Planet Computers plans to offer three options: Google's cloud, a cloud service provided by Planet Computers (which aside from the Gemini PDA project is primarily a cloud services company), or a service similar in concept to owncloud that a user could install on their own Linux server. I and others of the backers at the meeting pointed out the importance of a Windows desktop sync tool such as PsiWin for Psion devices. But the Planet Computers executives were hesitant to commit to any Windows backup and sync tool for Gemini devices.Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 14 September 2017, 18:53 ( 6:53 PM) | TrackBack (0)