Friday, 5 October 2018
A review of the Gemini PDA
In September 2017, I wrote one of the first hands-on reviews of the prototype and plans for the Gemini PDA after I was part of a small meet-up in San Francisco with the CEO and CTO of Planet Computers Ltd. and a few backers of the Indiegogo project.
My Gemini arrived in San Francisco in March 2018 as part of the first production batch shipped to Indiegogo backers by express mail directly from the factory in Shenzhen. I've been using the Gemini intermittently since then, and took it with me on a two-month bicycle trip in Europe this summer. (I also brought my usual mini-laptop and Android smartphone, so I could see which devices -- if any -- were redundant, and which I would use in which situations.)
A year after my initial review, and six months after I received my Gemini, here's a detailed update on what works, what doesn't, what Planetcom needs to do to deliver on the promise of the Gemini (and the promises made to Indiegogo backers), and -- most importantly -- how to decide whether you should buy a Gemini to use on your travels.
tl;dr: You should think carefully about how you plan to use a Gemini before you buy one.
I'm glad I backed the Gemini on Indiegogo. It's unique, well worth the price, and in some respects uniquely useful. But it's not yet as useful as I hoped, and will only sometimes obviate the need to bring my laptop with me when I travel. To my surprise, the first version of the hardware is a lot better than the software released to date. Hopefully that will change, at least to some degree, with future software releases.
Planet Computers Ltd. took on a major hardware challenge in trying to design a pocket-sized clamshell device with an integral keyboard good enough to type on comfortably -- the first such device to be produced in many years. I expected that some hardware design mistakes and production bugs would be evident in the first version, especially in the first production run of roughly a thousand units for early Indiegogo backers.
On the other hand, both Android and Linux are relatively mature and configurable open-source operating systems, and most of the hardware incorporated into the Gemini (other than the keyboard and case) consisted of industry-standard smartphone components, for which Android and Linux drivers would likewise be relatively mature and already debugged on mass-market devices. I expected that I might want to change some settings and install and uninstall apps to configure my Gemini to my tastes. But other than that, I didn't anticipate major OS or software limitations on the usability of the Gemini. I expected to be able to do anything with the Gemini that the small (but very high-resolution) touchscreen and keyboard and existing Android or Linux application software would allow.
The reality turned out to be just the opposite of what I expected:
The Gemini hardware is excellent -- much better than I expected, and a great value for the price I paid (US$399 including shipping to the US for the 4G+WiFi version as an "Early Bird" Indiegogo backer), which is less than that of many new smartphones. The hardware falls short of the goals of the Indiegogo project in only a few details that aren't critical for me.
But none of the operating system releases available for the Gemini are ready for prime time, significantly limiting the usefulness of my Gemini and forcing me to accept major tradeoffs in exchange for critical functionality. Some types of users can get some types of work done with the software now available for the Gemini, and OS upgrades could make the current hardware much more useful -- but only if Planetcom makes it their priority to address the major OS and software shortcomings.
First things first: the Gemini keyboard is, in my estimation, a total success. That's crucial because the keyboard is the selling point for the Gemini against every other digital device its size. If it didn't succeed, nothing else about the Gemini would matter.
Indiegogo backers, paying for a device that didn't yet exist, had to gamble on the reputation of the team led by Martin Riddeford and their track record with the Psion 5mx and Psion netBook -- each of which had the best keyboard of any device its size before the Gemini.
The keyboard on the Gemini is essentially the same size, with the same number and arrangement of keys, as that of the previous gold standard in pocket keyboards, the Psion 5mx. But to me, the touch of the Gemini is substantially better than that of the Psion 5mx. I can type on the Gemini (with two forefingers) faster and much more accurately than I could on the Psion 5mx.
There's a certain unavoidable limit to usability that's inherent in the size of the keyboard, and you may or may not be able to touch-type on the Gemini. Some of my touch-typing friends who have tried it can, while others can't. Keyboard touch is, at least in part, a matter of taste. But to my taste, the new Gemini has by far the best pocket-sized keyboard I've ever used. This is what makes it worth considering buying a Gemini -- if, and only if, you want a pocket sized device you can type on -- and worth thinking about all the other issues in the rest of this review.
Also somewhat unavoidably, the keyboard layout is somewhat quirky. There's a full standard QWERTY layout with a row of 0-9 digit keys above it, but many other characters are in nonstandard locations. Having separate keys for more characters would have required making the keys smaller and squeezing them closer together, compromising the possibility of touch typing and the accuracy of two-fingered typing. Instead, the Gemini uses the "Fn" key as a "down-shift" key to enter punctuation and special characters printed on the front (lower) edge of the key caps. If you use the Gemini a lot, you'll get used to it, but hunting the keyboard for punctuation and special characters will be frustrating for new or occasional Gemini users.
The form factor of the Gemini is also significantly better than that of the Psion 5mx. The Gemini is similar in length and width to the Psion 5mx, but only a little more than half as thick. That thinness is critical to making the Gemini much more pocketable than a Psion 5mx. The Gemini is actually closer in size to the Psion Revo Plus (which had a much smaller and less useful keyboard, but which I used to carry routinely in a pocket) than to that of the Psion 5mx, which was just too thick for most of my pockets.
The build quality of the Gemini is remarkably good for the price, and for one of the first thousand units off the production line. Kudos both to the designers and to the unnamed company in Shenzhen to which manufacturing of the Gemini has been outsourced. In everyday conditions, I feel comfortable carrying my Gemini in my pocket without a case.
The clamshell case has a magnetic latch that seems very secure when closed, but opens easily and smoothly. Even if you aren't using the keyboard, it provides a handy built-in stand for the portrait-mode display for reading, browsing the Web, watching videos, or video calling. The hinge seems solid, with no perceptible flex.
The touchscreen is state of the art. The pixels are smaller than my eyes can see, with or without my reading glasses, and the display is bright enough to use in full sun. It's excellent for viewing photos in landscape mode (it's very awkward to use in portrait-mode orientation) or watching videos, as long as you don't need subtitles, which are likely to be too small to read.
Battery life is better than that of most smartphones: at least a week on standby. Working time on a charge depends on the screen brightness and which (if any) of the radios are in use, but I have yet to have it last less than a couple of days of fairly heavy use.
The battery is non-removable and smaller in capacity than the goal originally set for the Indiegogo project. That's not a deal-breaker for me, in light of the battery life (see above), but is a significant limitation, especially in light of the charging issues (see below).
The smaller battery size was dictated in part by increasing restrictions or prohibitions on air shipping and air travel with larger lithium batteries. Especially for people who travel to places like China where staff at airport "security" checkpoints count how many and what size lithium batteries you are carrying, I can understand the desire to make the Gemini pass for a slightly oversized smartphone rather than being treated as a larger electronic device.
I think I would have accepted a slightly larger form factor and/or a slightly smaller battery as a trade-off for a removable battery. But others might have made the same choice as the Gemini's designers of a nonremovable battery and a slightly thinner case. I can understand that thinness and pocketability was a very high priority in the design, and rightly so (as noted above).
The limitations of a non-removable battery are greatly exacerbated by several bad choices made by the Gemini's designers with respect to charging, which is done from a USB charger through a USB-A to USB-C cable and the USB-C port on the left side of the Gemini.
The Gemini is supplied with a proprietary USB fast charger and charging/data cable. A full charge with the supplied fast charger takes about 90 minutes, but a full charge with the same cable and most other USB chargers I have tried takes up to about 8 hours.
There are multiple USB fast-charging protocols, some but not all of them compatible. Unfortunately, the Gemini's designers chose a fast-charging protocol (MediaTek's "PumpExpress+" or PumpExpress 1.0) that is already two versions out of date, has been used on very few other devices, and for which few, if any, third-party chargers are available.
Gemini users have not yet identified any third-party fast charger that works with the Gemini in fast-charging mode. If you want a spare fast charger (to keep one at home and one at work, for example), you'll have to get it at a premium price from Planetcom. I ordered a second charger as part of a Gemini accessory pack in early April, almost as soon as I received my Gemini. Six months later, my accessories are still back-ordered.
[Update, 11 October 2018: In a comment below, reader Wolfgang von Jan reports that LG fast charger model MCS-H06ER charges his Gemini almost as fast as the fast charger supplied by Planetcom, without getting the Gemini as hot. LG model MCS-H06ER has a European plug with two round pins. Based on this tip, I bought an LG model MCS-H06WD, which appears to be the same or similar except with a US/Japan plug with two flat blades (non-polarized). The LG MCS-H06WD charges my Gemini fully in about two hours. That's a little slower than the 90 minutes needed for a full charge with the Planetcom fast charger, but much faster than the almost 8 hours needed for a full charge with other chargers I have tried. And the Gemini doesn't get hot to the touch while charging with the LG charger. The cable supplied with these LG chargers is LG part number EAD63849205. For now these LG chargers seem to be inexpensively available from multiple online sellers. Many thanks to Herr von Jan for his tip!]
It's unclear whether the "special sauce" that enables fast charging is just in the charger, or also in the cable supplied with it by Planetcom.
Perhaps wiring left- and right-side USB ports so that either could have been used for charging would have been difficult. But there are few markings on the Gemini housing, and when the case is closed it's not obvious which end is which. For now, the most visible clue is that the only external switch on the Gemini, a single silver multi-purpose button, is on on the end with the non-charging USB-C port.
It's much too easy to plug the charger into the wrong end of the Gemini, and discover only too late (perhaps the next morning) that it hasn't been charging at all. That's especially likely to be a problem if you are using a third-party charger, including a car charger or power bank, which can take many hours to give the Gemini a full charge.
This could be significantly mitigated by adding a charging indicator light on the left end of the Gemini next to the charging port, with distinct colors for "charging" and "fast charging". There's a charging indicator light as part of the line of colored LEDs on the top surface of the Gemini, but it's often not visible while the device is charging, and can easily be confused with other functions of the indicator lights.
I don't think I would find much use for the one external button on the Gemini, even if its function could be easily assigned in software, which it can't (yet). I'd rather the Gemini have at at least two external buttons, so they could be used for functions like volume-up/volume-down when the case is closed. If the use of the single button could be assigned from software, I'd probably start by assigning it to toggle touchscreen input when typing at length or using an external mouse.
The Gemini can control an external monitor or projector only through an overpriced proprietary USB-C to HDMI adapter available only from Planetcom. I assume that it's possible, although awkward, to chain this together with an HDMI-to-DVO or HDMI-to-VGA adapter if you need to control a display with a different video input format. But I haven't received my Gemini HDMI adapter yet, so I haven't been able to test this. I've tried a third-party USB-C video adapter I have for another device, but it doesn't work with the Gemini.
Unlike Psion PDAs, the hinge of the Gemini clamshell isn't held at a fixed angle when the device is open -- it can flop forward toward the closed position if it is tilted or shaken. That makes it especially hard to use the Gemini unless it is resting on a firm surface. You can use it while seated and resting it on your knees, but it's hard to use while standing, even with both hands, and impossible to use one-handed. (Note that the flexible spring-metal plate that wraps around the hinge when the case is closed and forms the stand when the case is open is completely separate from, and has no effect on, the actual hinge, which seems quite solid.)
The Gemini has a smooth metal case with nothing to keep it from sliding when the case is closed. Set it down on a slightly uneven surface, especially one that is rocking, vibrating, and/or slightly uneven or dimpled, and it can easily slide off. You'll need to apply some sort of self-adhesive non-slip pads or strips (see below under "Accessories") if you want to be able to set your Gemini on the seat-back tray table on a plane or train without it ending up on the floor.
The Gemini has a narrow rubber strip along the outer edge of the hinge that's intended to keep it from slipping around on a table or desk when it's open. It isn't thick enough to provide adequate friction, especially on a slightly uneven or pebbled surface, and it isn't attached securely:
The rubber edge strip tends to come loose, as shown above, and could easily detach entirely. Even if the rubber strip stays in place on your Gemini, you'll want to use more non-slip pads or strips, as close as possible to the hinge, to hold the Gemini stable while open and in use.
The angle between the touchscreen and the keyboard of the Gemini when the case is open is fixed. Unlike most laptops but like all the Psion devices, the Gemini sits stably at only one angle. You have to move it around, rather than adjusting the tilt, to adjust the viewing angle, which can sometimes be a bit inconvenient in a confined space.
A problem unique to the Gemini is that the touchscreen is both so sensitive and so close to the keyboard that it is easy to brush the screen with an errant finger while typing, inadvertently moving the keyboard focus off the input box you were trying to type into. The typical consequence is that you keep on typing, but because of the change of input focus, nothing seems to be happening. If you aren't aware of this possible failure mode, you will think that something has gone wrong with the keyboard.
This didn't happen with Psions because there was a slightly wider bezel on each of the Psion models separating the keyboard from the screen and, perhaps more significantly, because the Psions all used resistive (pressure-sensitive) rather than capacitive touchscreens. A light grazing touch wouldn't register on a Psion, but will register on the Gemini.
The extent to which this bothers you may depend on your typing skill, but I've seen this happen to everyone who has tried out my Gemini, whether they are a touch-typist or a two-fingered typist. It takes some practice to learn to keep all your fingers away from the screen while typing.
Some other Gemini users who have experienced this annoyance have suggested that it could be mitigated in software through a keyboard shortcut or option on the popup toolbar to disable the touchscreen when you are typing and don't need the keyboard. I'm not sure how often that would be useful, though, except when using an external mouse in place of the touchscreen. Unlike with Psion's EPOC OS and apps, many operating system and app controls and menu choices on the Gemini are accessible only by using the touchscreen.
The proximity of the keyboard to the bottom edge of the display makes some touchscreen gestures a bit awkward, especially swiping up from the lower edge of the screen (with your finger all the way into the gutter of the hinge) toward the center. Unfortunately, this is exactly the gesture used to unlock the screensaver in Android, and one of the basic gestures used to navigate the Sailfish OS user interface (see below). For the same reason, it's difficult to tap on icons on the toolbar along the bottom edge of the display -- if you can, move the toolbar to the top edge.
Using the Gemini as a phone is possible but awkward. It works better as a desk phone (with a wired or wireless headset) than as a phone to hold in your hand or use on the go. There's a microphone and speaker on the outside of the case, and you can hold the Gemini like a traditional telephone handset. The problem is that you have to open the Gemini clamshell to dial from the keyboard or touchscreen. That's easy when the Gemini is open on your desk, but hard to do while standing or walking. You will probably find the Gemini to be a satisfactory replacement for another cellphone only if you use Google Voice to dial all your calls.
The camera on the Gemini faces the user. It's intended mainly as a webcam for video calls, although you could also use it for still selfies. There's an optional additional higher-resolution outward-facing camera that I haven't tested.
Four different operating systems are currently available for the Gemini PDA:
- Google OS (open-source Android bundled with a proprietary blob from Google; installed on the Gemini by default)
- Sailfish OS (portions of open-source Android and Linux bundled with a proprietary blob from Jolla)
- Lineage OS (open-source Android; unmaintained proof of concept)
- Debian Linux OS ("technology preview")
None of these four OSs, in the versions currently available, are without serious shortcomings. None of them fulfills the expectations of those who backed the Gemini project on Indiegogo for a device with cellular data connectivity and calling that would dual-boot a choice of two open-source OSs. The highest priority for Planetcom should be to deliver the basic functionality that Indiegogo backers were promised, as soon as possible, by releasing open-source Android and Linux versions that support cellular data (first priority) and calling functions (second priority) on the Gemini.
Choosing and installing operating systems for your Gemini
Planetcom is shipping the Gemini with the Google OS, and only the Google OS, installed by default.
Uninstalling the Google OS and/or installing any of the other available operating systems is possible only through an unnecessarily complicated procedure that's not for the faint-hearted and requires using tools that aren't really intended for ordinary users. It's much easier to switch from the default OS to Lineage OS on a typical Android smartphone than to flash a new OS on the Gemini. Make a mistake, and you could render your Gemini unbootable.
You are relatively unlikely to "brick" your Gemini beyond recovery, though. I wouldn't let the seeming complexity of the process deter you if, after reading the discussion of OS options below, you decide that'd rather have one or more of the other OSs on your Gemini. Take it slowly and carefully, and get a more technically savvy friend to hold your hand if you aren't sure that you understand how to follow the flashing instructions.
The good thing about the tools and OS images made available for the Gemini is that they allow you to install up to four different operating systems in a multi-boot configuration. You can choose which OS boots by which combination of keys and buttons you hold down as the Gemini is booting up. I would have preferred a boot menu to having to remember these key and button combinations, but that's a minor quibble.
Here are the current OS choices for the Gemini, each with its own pros and cons:
The Google OS shipped on the Gemini includes the open-source Android operating system plus a blob of proprietary Google software. Google itself is explicit that these apps are not part of Android, but are separate apps that run "on top of" Android: "Google Mobile Services (GMS) [is] Google's proprietary suite of apps (Google Play, YouTube, Google Maps, Gmail, and more) that run on top of Android. GMS is not part of the Android Open Source Project and is available only through a license with Google."
Cellular data, SMS, and cellphone voice calling currently work with Android on the Gemini only if you also install (or accept pre-installation of) a proprietary blob of Google apps and services. But there's no good reason for Planetcom to require Gemini users to install (or accept pre-installation of) unrelated Google services and apps in order use their devices for cellular data, SMS, or cellphone voice calling.
The version of Google OS shipped on the Gemini gives Google, and only Google, root control of the device. Planetcom has also released an alternate version that gives both Google and the user (that's you) root privileges, which you can try to use to disable or remove some or all of the Google apps or privileges. But that basically puts you in a war with Google for control of your device -- a war you are likely to lose. If you don't want to give Google such extensive privileges or install so many Google apps, better to start out by giving only yourself root privileges, and install only those Google apps and services you actually want. You can do that with Lineage OS, as discussed below.
You can more or less readily remove or disable some Google apps and services, but not others, if you start with Google OS.
For example, the version of Google OS installed by default on the Gemini commandeers part of the home screen for a Google search box that can't readily be removed, even if you disable the Google Search app. It also assigns the sole external button on the Gemini to alert Google that you want it to listen to a Google Voice command. Of course, since Google has root privileges, Google could be listening all the time, just as it could be keylogging everything you type. If you don't want to carry around a self-surveillance device sending everything you do to the Google cloud, you'll need to use a different OS such as Lineage OS or Linux.
By default, all your contacts and calendar entries and all photos and videos you take on the Gemini are sent to Google. You can tell Google you want to disable these Google cloud backups, but it's difficult or impossible to know for sure what effect that attempt to opt out actually has.
On the plus side, all of the radio transmitters and receivers and related functions on the Gemini (WiFi, cellular data, SMS, cellphone calling, GPS) are fully supported under Google OS, unlike under either of the open-source OSs (Lineage OS and Linux). For now, if you need to use your Gemini with mobile data or as a phone, your only options are Google OS or Sailfish OS.
Sailfish OS bundles elements of Linux and Android with a blob of proprietary software from Jolla. Unlike Google OS, where the proprietary software is mainly visible as a suite of apps, the Jolla proprietary overlay gives Sailfish a different user interface from Android or Linux.
The best thing I can say about Sailfish OS on the Gemini is that it does support cellular data and cellphone calling (unlike, as of now, Android or Linux on the Gemini). Other than that, the selection of apps available from the Jolla app store for Sailfish OS on the Gemini is quite limited, unless you are hacker enough to compile your own preferred apps for use with Sailfish.
I don't know whether Jolla is as evil is Google. Probably not, and Jolla could scarcely be any worse than Google. However, I can't see much reason, other than a preference for Jolla over Google, to choose Sailfish OS over Google OS.
Sailfish OS is designed for portrait-mode touchscreen devices. The Gemini is the first landscape-mode device or device with a keyboard for which a version of Sailfish OS has been released. It's usable, but awkward. My impression, although it's based on only limited testing becasue I could find so little reason to switch to Sailfish OS, is that Sailfish OS is even less well suited to a keyboard device than is Android.
What stands out is how poorly either Sailfish OS or any version or derivative of Android compares in usability on a device with a keyboard to Psion's EPOC OS. Anyone who had experience using a Psion EPOC device will be deeply disappointed with any of the operating systems or application bundles available, as of now, for the Gemini. There's none of the elegance of integration and usability that distinguished the Psion EPOC software.
The EPOC OS and the suite of EPOC applications were designed from the start for PDAs with keyboards as well as touchscreens, and all of the OS and application menus could be navigated, in a consistent way, entirely from either the keyboard or the touchscreen. EPOC evolved into the Symbian OS, which was used on many devices without keyboards. But you never had to take your fingers off the keyboard or use the touchscreen on a Psion EPOC device if you didn't want to. Not so on the Gemini. You have to keep moving your fingers back and forth between the keyboard and the touchscreen. That's a significant shortcoming, and it's much more noticeable in Sailfish OS, which seems to be more of a "touch OS" than is Android.
I have no real objection to Planetcom supporting Sailfish OS as another option for the Gemini. What I object to is the diversion of Planetcom's very limited software development resources to Sailfish OS, before basic functionality -- specifically cellular data, SMS, and cellphone calling -- is available on the Gemini in either of the two promised open-source OSs, Android and Linux.
Lineage OS is the most widely-used and well-maintained open-source Android distribution, with long-term support for dozens of device models. When I met with the Planetcom team and other Indiegogo backers in San Francisco a year ago, everyone around the table agreed that Lineage OS would be the logical choice of Android distribution and the preference of most backers for the Gemini.
Lineage OS isn't incompatible with Google apps or services such as the Google Play Store. Lineage OS gives users the choice to install all, some, or none of the proprietary Google apps and services, in addition to the open-source Android OS, and to control what privileges they are given. Lineage OS includes a "Privacy Guard" module, which was included in earlier versions of Android but removed from more recent versions of Google OS, that allows you to assign or remove permissions for each app, such as which apps start automatically whenever you boot up your device or have access to your location as determined by the GPS in your device or which WiFi access points are in range. (The Booking.com app, to give just one example, starts at boot and runs all the time in the background, even if you aren't using it, unless you disable this behavior with Lineage OS Privacy Guard or some other permission control tool.)
I expected Planetcom to offer Google OS on the Gemini as an option for those who prefer it. But I can't see any good reason for Planetcom not to have made sure that Lineage OS was also available from the start for the Gemini. I haven't seen any explanation from Planetcom for this choice.
To its credit, Planetcom hasn't stood in the way of its users or third-party developers the way many other mobile device makers have done.
Planetcom has (1) published the source code for the Gemini bootloader on GitHub (see links to this and other resources below), (2) released a rooted version of Google OS, and (3) made explicit that rooting the Gemini and/or installing another OS doesn't void the warranty (although it's not clear that there is any warranty for a "perk" for Indiegogo backers that isn't defined as being a "purchase").
What Planetcom hasn't done is put any of its own resources into Lineage OS or any open-source Android distribution for the Gemini.
A first "proof of concept" version of Lineage OS for the Gemini was released independently of Planetcom within a few weeks after the first Gemini units reached Indiegogo backers. It's stable, but doesn't support cellular data, SMS, or cellphone calling. It appears to have been the work of a single independent developer, and hasn't been updated since its first release.
Planetcom needs to acknowledge that it has defaulted on its commitment to Indiegogo backers that the Gemini would be a dual-boot open-source device, and make amends by getting the remaining basic hardware support for the Gemini incorporated into Lineage OS and Linux, ASAP. Some other open-source Android distribution would be OK, but Lineage OS would probably be the quickest and easiest to implement, and the Android distribution of choice for most Gemini users (even if most of them would probably also install, albeit reluctantly, Google Play Services).
The latest word on this is a message I received from Planetcom support in September 2018: "I haven't heard of plans to release or develop a new open source operating system that supports the phone functionalities.... Unfortunately, we don't currently have any information on LineageOS development or other open source OS. We are currently focusing on improving existing support for Android, SailfishOS and Debian."
As an Indiegogo backer of the Gemini, I find this abandonment by Planetcom of open-source Android as a goal for the Gemini completely unacceptable. The diversion of resources to Sailfish OS -- which wasn't part of the Indiegogo project goals -- before finishing development of basic hardware support for cellular data, SMS, or voice functionality on the target Android or Linux OSs, adds insult to injury.
Debian Linux OS
The version of Linux available for the Gemini is a fairly "vanilla" flavor of the Debian distribution with the LXQt desktop environment. Planetcom describes this release as a "technology preview". I think it's better than that, aside from the crucial issue that cellular data and calling aren't yet supported and that WiFi is only partially supported. Debian Linux on the Gemini is largely stable, although not as stable as Lineage OS or Google OS on the Gemini.
Some users have been able to get cellular data working in Debian on the Gemini. I haven't, but I haven't tried too hard lest I break other functions such as WiFi, which is usable although only with some difficulty. The possibility of getting cellular data working in Debian on the Gemini may depend on your carrier, and will depend on your skill in compiling, installing, and configuring the necessary modules.
As of September 2018, according to a message from Planetcom support:
We are already testing cellular functionalities on Debian. While we do have positive results, they are not currently ideal and it is within the internal testing & development stage only.
Debian has always been a desktop grade operating system which very few people have managed to implement native cellular functionalities to. This will likely be resolved with a future software update....
Cellular data and phone functionalities are currently being developed for Debian but we don't currently have an ETA of when it will be available to the public.
Aside from the issues with wireless connectivity, the main limitation on the usability of Linux on the Gemini is the small size of many user interface elements (buttons, icons, toolbars, etc.) on the high-resolution display relative to the inherent limits on how precisely you can select a point on the capacitive touchscreen.
Trying to tap on the corner of a window accurately enough to "grab" and move or resize it, for example, is an exercise in frustration that's likely to take several tries.
How satisfied you are with Linux on the Gemini (once wireless functions are working) will probably depend on whether you interact with Linux mainly through the command line or through a graphical interface. The Linux terminal, command line functions, and shell apps all work just fine on the Gemini. But whether any particular Linux app with a GUI is usable on the Gemini without an external mouse (see below) is hit or miss.
Little has been done by Planetcom to optimize the Linux operating system and application menus, icons, toolbars, and text sizes for the Gemini touchscreen. I expect that eventually either Planetcom or some user will release a configuration package that makes the Gemini much easier to use in Linux. There's a limit to what can be done, though: the larger the icons and toolbars, the less workspace is available. Other approaches may involve auto-hide menus and toolbars and/or keyboard shortcuts. The dedicated "Planet" key on the Gemini ought to pop up the current menu in a Linux app, but it doesn't yet.
If you are accustomed to using wine to run some Windows applications in Linux, you should be aware that most Windows apps won't run in Linux on the Gemini, even with wine.
"Wine Is Not an Emulator", and the Gemini has a different CPU architecture (ARM64) from most Windows computers (amd64 or x86). Only applications compiled for ARM64 will run on the Gemini, even with wine. This might change in the future, depending on the success of various emulation projects, but I wouldn't count on it. If you really, really, need to be able to be able to run the full range of Windows apps on a pocket computer, consider a GPD Pocket instead of a Gemini.
As I've said all along, the reason to buy a Gemini is because you want a device with a keyboard. That means the most important applications for the Gemini are those for writing, specifically e-mail clients, text editors, and text formatting tools.
There are a variety of choices of e-mail clients for Linux (shell or GUI) and Android. K-9 Mail for Android isn't perfect, but is quite full-featured and good enough for my needs. Because many people use K-9 Mail as their e-mail client on Android tablets with external keyboards, it's better adapted to use on a device with a keyboard than many other Android apps, although it still requires using the touchscrren for mnay functions.
For straight text editing, the best text editors for use on the Gemini -- if you can get used to them! -- are probably shell applications. Emacs, anyone? I've read that you can even run Emacs on Android, although I haven't tried it.
The default GUI text editor included in the Debian Linux package is unusable on the Gemini due to too small text and controls. However, there are many other text editors with graphical interfaces (not WYSIWYG word processors) that are easier to use on the Gemini. Gedit and Bluefish can both be installed from the default Debian repositories.
What about creating and editing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, where you want more than straight text editing capabilities?
There are Microsoft Office apps for Android, but you have to sign in to a Microsoft account to use these apps at all, and many of their functions are available only in conjunction with a paid Microsoft subscription and/or Internet connectivity to the Microsoft cloud where your files are stored and processed. These apps appear to have been designed primarily for minor editing of existing Microsoft Office files on a touchscreen smartphone, not for creating new documents or presentations on a device with a keyboard.
Better standalone tools for word processing, speadsheets, and presentations are included in LibreOffice, which is installed on the Gemini by default in Debian Linux and available through the Google Play Store for Android as part of the Androports suite.
LibreOffice isn't the best straight text editor for a device with a display as small as the Gemini. The toolbars and widgets take up much of the screen (although that can be mitigated through better configuration). The strength of LibreOffice is that it can create, format, edit, and save complex documents in multiple formats (including opening, editing, and saving in Microsoft Office formats), export files to PDF format, and play presentations to an external display or projector, entirely on the Gemini and even when offline.
It's possible, but difficult, to use LibreOffice on the Gemini from the keyboard and touchscreen. It's a lot easier with an external mouse.
There's a limited official LibreOffice Viewer for Android. As its name suggests, it's intended for viewing or minor editing of existing files. For full LibreOffice functionality in Android, you need the version of LibreOffice included in the Androports suite. This is the full LibreOffice suite, bundled with an overlay that emulates a mouse (including left and right clicks) and enables the use on a device with only a touchscreen of applications designed for a PC with a mouse or trackpad.
Androports is remarkable, and remarkably little known. It seems to be stable and well-maintained, with regular version updates for the last several years. It's available in both English and Japanese, which is important for the Gemini in light of the large percentage of Gemini buyers who are in Japan.
(The default lock screen image in Linux on the Gemini is a world map that I believe shows the distribution by country of initial Indiegogo backers of the Gemini project. To unlock the screen, just type your Linux password and then press "Enter". You don't need to press any key before the password.)
Androports has been considered for inclusion in the F-Droid repository of open-source Android apps, but was rejected because it's not clear whether the Androports overlay is open source, or where the sources are.
For now, you have to install Google Play Services to install Androports on your Gemini. Given the critical importance of Androports for Gemini users, Planetcom has a strong interest in getting it added to F-Droid or licensing it for inclusion in a Planetcom repository for Gemini Android users.
Planetcom's own Android apps for the Gemini are also currently available only through the Google Play Store, and should be made available through F-Droid or a repository that Gemini users can access through F-Droid or other package managers without having to go through the Google Play Store.
[Update: Mathias advises on Twitter that he was able to install the "Agenda" app from an .apk on the Planetcom Web site, but it wouldn't run, even under Google OS, without registering the Gemini with a Google account.]
Gemini-specific Android apps from Planetcom include a toolbar linked to the "Planet" key, an "Agenda" app, a "Notes" app, and a "LEDison" app for assigning combinations of the colored indicator lights on the top of the Gemini case to system events, notifications, or favorite callers.
The Planet toolbar app is actually quite useful, although not as much so as the Psion "menu" key. I recommend turning off the "force landscape mode" option, which is enabled by default. Most of the portrait-mode Android smartphone apps I tried that don't natively support landscape mode became unuseable when forced into landscape mode.
I used the Psion Agenda app as my primary calendar for several years, and it's the best calendar app I've ever used on any device. The Gemini Android "Agenda" app is only vaguely inspired by the Psion Agenda app, and I don't find it nearly as quick and easy. You may or may not prefer it to any of the other calendar apps available for Android or Linux.
The Gemini Android "Notes" app is designed for taking and organizing a database of short notes, not for drafting or editing longer documents. I haven't used it enough to say how it compares with other note-taking apps.
I don't see much point to the indicator lights on the Gemini, and I haven't tried to use the "LEDison" app to customize them.
Today Planetcom announced that they also plan an Android app for the Gemini inspired by the Psion EPOC "Data" app. That's interesting, but another unwarranted digression from the necessary focus on implementing cellular support in open-source Android and Linux.
If you want to keep your own backups or transfer data between your Gemini and another computer, you can use QtADB from Linux to back up or transfer files to and from an Android device over a cable connection. MyPhoneExplorer (Android client) is much easier to use, and works over WiFi or Bluetooth as well as cable connections, but only from Windows.
A variety of cross-platform remote access and remote control packages including the many implementations of vnc and its competitors allow you to access and control othger computers remotely from a Gemini (or vice versa). You'll probably need to connect an external wired or Bluetooth wireless mouse to control a machine with a much larger display than that of the Gemini, since toolbars and icons on the shrunken Gemini mirror of the larger display are likely to be too small to tap on accurately.
Synergy is a cross-platform keyboard and mouse sharing application available in the default Debian Linux repositories for the Gemini. There are Synergy client and server packages for Windows and MacOS as well as Linux. Synergy allows you to to use the Gemini to control the keyboard and mouse on another computer (or vice versa), which would enable you to use the Gemini as an (expensive) wireless presentation remote with a keyboard.
The Gemini is available in a WiFi-only version and a 4G-plus-WiFi version. I got the 4G version, not because I expect to use the Gemini much, if at all, as a cellphone, but because I want to be able to use cellular wireless Internet connectivity. I suspect that's typical. The debate about how useable the Gemini is as a phone (see above) misses the point that the real value of the 4G module in the Gemini is mobile data, not voice calling. WiFi Internet connectivity is often unavailable or unreliable on trains and buses or when travelling by car.
The Gemini is an unlocked multi-band GSM, 2G, 3G, and 4G device that can be used with a SIM card from any carrier. It should work almost anywhere in the world, including in the USA and Japan (the two countries which used to use nonstandard cellphone protocols).
Whether to get a voice SIM (possibly handy but probably unnecessary, especially if you also carry another cellphone) or a data-only SIM for your 4G Gemini is likely to be driven by cellular data and voice costs in your country or the places you expect to travel.
If you already have a cellphone on a monthly plan with T-Mobile USA, you can add a data-only SIM for a Gemini (or other device) to your account for US$20 per month, all in. That price includes unmetered roaming data in much of the world, as long as you don't spend more than 3 months at a stretch outside the USA.
If you have a cellphone on any T-Mobile USA plan, you can also use the buggy but useful T-Mobile Digits app to make and receive voice calls and send and receive SMS messages over WiFi from any Android device, even if it has no SIM or a SIM with a different carrier, that are billed and appear on caller ID as though you were calling out from the T-Mobile network in the USA. (FWIW, there are also T-Mobile Digits apps that do the same thing from Windows or MacOS laptops or desktops.)
Keep in mind that you don't need a voice SIM for voice calling. You can use Signal (or Skype, WhatsApp, etc.) for text, audio, or video calling between smartphones over WiFi. For WiFi calls out to cellphones or landlines, you can buy prepaid credit with Skype (although Skype call quality and reliability has declined dramatically since it was bought by Microsoft) or any SIP provider.
I've had a prepaid SIP account for more than ten years with Diamondcard. I can use the same account with a hardware SIP adapter at home, or with SIP clients for Windows, Linux, and Android on my laptop, smartphone, and Gemini. It's much cheaper for international calling than making calls from my landline or my smartphone, and more reliable than T-Mobile Digits, so I often use SIP over cellular data while travelling abroad.
There are a variety of SIP clients for Linux and Android. I've tested Twinkle in Linux (available in the default Debian repositories) and Linphone and CSipSimple in Android (available in F-Droid and the F-Droid Archive) on the Gemini.
As soon as got my Gemini I put in an order to DealExtreme.com in China for a collection of small accessories. DealExtreme is generally reliable, but delivery can be slow. You can find similar items elsewhere, of course. I've linked to these as examples of the items:
- Miniature USB mouse with ultralight retractable cable (alternate model shown above with mini USB-C adapter)
- Miniature USB-A to USB-C adapters (These are so small and cheap that you can leave one inserted all the time in any USB device that you use only with the Gemini. The mouse in the photo above is shown with one of these installed.)
- USB-A to USB-C adapter (this one is a little larger and easier to insert and remove than the one above; I carry one for USB devices I only sometimes use with the Gemini)
- USB flash card reader (This model has slots for SD and Micro-SD cards, USB and mini-USB plugs on one end, and a USB-C plug on the other end. I use it for transferring files manually between my laptop, phone, and Gemini)
The most unexpectedly useful accessory for the Gemini is a miniature wired USB mouse. I've tried several similar versions with slightly different shapes. My current favorite as included in the photo above is this model available from several sellers on eBay, which has a comfortable (for me) grip and seems a little more sturdily made than the one from DealExtreme.com. A USB mouse (with a USB-A to USB-C adapter) works out of the box with the Gemini under both Android and Linux. Wireless bluetooth mice are much larger and heavier, and would drain the Gemini's batteries more quickly.
Some sort of self-adhesive non-slip pads are almost essential, especially if you want to use your Gemini on a tray table on a moving train. Egrips are a bit expensive but have worked perfectly for me, both on the back and the edge of the Gemini:
If you need an Ethernet adapter, this one (described as "5 in 1 USB C Hub 3.0 Type-C Adapter Data Sync Card Reader RJ45 Ethernet LAN" from eBay seller "mydesigngo" in Shenzhen) works out of the box with the Gemini in Android. I've been in big-city hotel rooms, within the last year, that had fast Ethernet ports but no WiFi, slow WiFi, or unreliable WiFi.
The Gemini doesn't really need a case, and you may not want one if you are carrying it in your pocket or purse. A case is useful, however, to pack the Gemini, charger (remember, you only get fast charging with the proprietary Gemini charger), and other accessories:
There are only a few cases made specifically for the Gemini. Most of them are made for the Japanese market, expensive, and not to my taste.
Cases made for the Anker PowerCore 20100mAh power bank and its charger will fit the Gemini and its accessories, like so:
What's the competition for the Gemini PDA?
If you want an (always-connected, if you buy the 4G version) mobile device with a keyboard, what are your choices? Here are some of the alternatives to Gemini, from smallest to larget:
- A Blackberry is still the canonical smartphone-with-a-keyboard. It's easier than the Gemini to type on (or use for reading, navigation, or making calls) while standing or walking, but the Gemini has a better keyboard for typing while seated, and the advantage of a larger display and full-featured Linux applications.
- The GPD Pocket is similar in size and price to a Gemini, and can dual-boot Windows and Linux, but it has a vastly inferior keyboard, can't run Android apps, and lacks built-in cellular data. How important is keyboard feel or cellular data? Are you more likely to want or need to run Windows apps (GPD Pocket), or Android apps (Gemini PDA)?
- The Microsoft Surface Go is a big step larger and heavier than the Gemini. It fits in a purse but not a pocket. The display is larger, and the key-spacing is closer to "full-sized" than on the Gemini. Some other small tablets with detachable keyboards are cheaper, but they tend to have worse keyboards. None of these devices have built-in cellular data like the 4G+WiFi Gemini version.
- Even the smallest full-powered laptop is another step larger and heavier than a tablet with a keyboard, although not by much. My current laptop, the latest in a series of mini-laptops that included a Psion netBook 20 years ago, is a dual-boot Windows/Linux Panasonic "Let's Note" CF-J10 the size of a netbook but much more powerful, purchased used from a surplus dealer in China through a Taobao buying agent for a little less than the price of my Gemini.
Is the Gemini PDA for you?
The decision of whether to buy a Gemini PDA is likely to be based on whether (or how often and how well) it will replace one or another of the digital devices you already have and would otherwise bring with you when you travel.
Will it replace your smartphone? Probably not. Even if you use Google Voice to make or answer calls, you can't really use the Gemini for many tasks that have become routine for smartphone users, like reading and responding to text messages or consulting digital maps while standing or walking. And unless you get the optional outward-facing camera module for your Gemini, or carry a camera separate from your phone, you'll probably still want to carry a separate camera-phone. I suspect that most people who carry a Gemini will also be carrying a smartphone.
So it comes down to whether a Gemini will be a sufficient replacement for a larger device that you can leave your laptop or tablet at home when you travel.
The answer, for me, is "sometimes". Often enough, I think, to make it worth having a Gemini in my array of devices.
If I know I'm going to be spending a lot of time writing, editing, or working online, or if I expect that I might have to use some specific Windows application (rare these days, but it still sometimes happens), I'll still want to bring my laptop.
But if I'm going on a pleasure trip and don't plan to do a lot of work, but might have to work, I might bring only my Gemini. Ditto if I'm going to meetings or a conference for a the day, or for a few days, and don't plan to be doing much writing other than taking notes and/or answering e-mail.
I think there are a lot of people who want to leave their office -- and their laptop -- behind when they go on vacation, but don't quite feel they can. Unless their work requires using proprietary Windows applications, a Gemini might be the ticket to a less burdened holiday.
A Gemini is also the ideal tool for commuters, travelling salespeople, tradespeople, and others who want to blog on the bus, deal with their e-mail on the commuter train, or do other similar work in transit, but who don't want to carry a laptop back and forth to work every day. (This niche is probably a smaller portion of the population in the US than in countries where a larger percentage of people commute by mass transit.)
Bicycle travellers, backpackers, and weight weenies are among those most likely to prefer a Gemini to a mini-laptop or small tablet.
It might also be attractive to people living under authoritarian regimes who want to keep their private data physically secured or on their person.
Last but not least, programmers, system administrators, and anyone else who lives their life on the command line will find the Gemini an invaluable pocket tool.
Gemini PDA Resources
- Official Gemini PDA resources from Planet Computers Ltd.:
- Other Gemini PDA resources:
- Application for FCC Registration (Search for "2AO7Q" as "grantee code" for all Gemini versions. The full FCC IDs are 2AO7Q-X600M1 for the 4G version and 2AO7Q-X600W1 for the WiFi-only version. See the "details" for exhibits including technical specifications and photos. It isn't possible to link directly to FCC search results, but they are mirrored or redirected from other sites including those below.)
- Gemini source code on GitHub: