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The new, new Psion is getting near production. Here's what it looks like

Clamshell QWERTY has a few unique tricks

By Andrew Orlowski, 11 Sep 2017

World Exclusive Last week Gemini, the venture that re-invents the Psion 5 design for the 21st century, took delivery of pre-production units. Planet Computing invited us to see how the project is progressing.

Since the final Psion pocket computer design (the Revo) appeared 18 years ago, the device category has died; there's nothing with a touch typing QWERTY that comfortably fits in an inside jacket pocket.

While technology produces modern wonders, this particular form factor has been shunned. Planet Computing teamed up with the original Psion industrial designer Martin Riddiford to create a new clamshell case and a new keyboard, launching on Indiegogo in March. That campaign raised $680,218 or almost three times the target.

Gemini certainly looks the part: it's uncanny how close it is to the Psion Series 5MX keyboard and ethos, but in a much slimmer housing than the original (135mm vs 220mm). And obviously it's much more powerful: even at this stage I used Gemini for Skype and live video streaming from YouTube. There's lots of work to do on the software front giving it a unique launcher at this stage: the team is using Debian and AOSP Android, although it says it's talked to Google and doesn't expect any problems with giving owners an Android with the full Google Play services.

Before we get into detail, Planet Computing stressed these are "pre production" prototypes and the keyboard isn't working yet, although we could inspect the mechanism. The clamshell device also had to stay open. The idea is to use these designs to specify tooling, then ramp up the first production runs in October or November. But Planet Computing's Janko Mrsic-Flogel said the project needed to get the hardware right.

Let's have a look at the outsides and the guts of the new machine.

"Expect to see an app launcher bar that might look something like this

Magnets depress the keys when the case closes. When open, the keys have plenty of travel

The back of the Gemini

A closeup of the Gemini hinge. The hinge folds out to ensure it's really stable when on a flat surface (it is)

The two big Riddiford design contributions are the new hinge and the new keyboard. The hinge is simplicity itself: it folds out to expand the footprint of the machine. It does leave an odd looking air gap, though. The keyboard on this prototype lacked the membrane needed for a good workout: it shouldn't work at all, actually, but a definitive conclusion wasn't possible yet. But Riddiford's track record in delivering mechanical QWERTY keyboards - in both the Psion Series 3 and Series 5 - gives some confidence.

The keyboard doesn't slide out like that of the Series 5, but it has got its own Riddiford conjuring trick: the keys raise from a depressed position when the clamshell is opened, thanks to magnets. It's actually so subtle I didn't notice it at first.

You'll see from the photos that it's uncannily close to the Series 5, but with a few additional modifiers. The "Planet" key doesn't do a lot in Android, but it is fairly mandatory in Linux. Note the call and end call alt-key options, and the emoji.

Global shortcuts in Android include Fn-D for desktop, Fn-A for the apps switcher, Fn-Del to invoke settings, and Fn-F for flight mode. You can also control audio playback and volume using the Fn key. Neat.

The good news is that the machine has got an upgrade since the Indiegogo announcement: it will use Mediatek's Helio X27 10-core (2+4+4) SoC, rather than the Helio X25 from 2015. The newer chipset has better power consumption.

The Gemini blasts out stereo audio and can already stream over Bluetooth to remote speakers. There's a front facing camera that worked for Skype calls. Mrsic-Flogel told me that Indiegogo supporters were fairly evenly split on whether Gemini should include a rear facing camera. So the team has left a slot on the motherboard for a camera module and will sell it remotely. It should be five minutes work to pop off the back and install it, the team says.

The side button doubles up as a voice controller. The goal is to marry this to Google's voice assistant, so you'll be able to control the device without taking it (too far) out of your pocket, the team hopes.

The Gemini will also have rubber feet to secure it. Embedded in the hinge are five programmable LEDs - more on that later.

On to the software

The most frequently asked question I get asked about the project is "does it dual-boot?" It does. You hold down two keys as the machine boots and choose whether you want Android or Debian GNU/Linux. Both look pretty raw, with work needed to bring them up to the capabilities of the display. But the incentive is certainly there - the 2160 x 1080 screen is terrific - and various projects such as Meego and Ubuntu have demonstrated that mobile Linux can be made to work very well indeed.

Janko told me that they'd prefer the Android buttons to be on the left rather than the right. Ideally, I'd like the keyboard to be the kind of capacitive, touch-sensitive design we've seen in the BlackBerry Passport and KeyOne, so for editing and navigation, your hands never leave the keyboard. That's one for a future design, though.

What would you like to see in the Gemini Android launcher? An integrated file manager like the EPOC Series 5? Or something closer to a modern Mac or Windows desktop? For now, the team is including a popup launch bar, but the potential here is great: it's still a unique device.

Gemini will come in SIM and non-SIM versions, although all models support an eSIM.

The instance of Excel you see below was being driven by a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. In this prototype USB-C was already working, and a USB-C to HDMI cable was being tested. There's a picture of that below.

A fun feature is the programmable LEDs - reminiscent of the BeBox's "Das Blinken Lights" - embedded into the hinge. The idea is you can identify notifications such as a specific caller or a specific alert, without having to open up the case.

The bad news is that the "double sized" 8000mAh battery hoped for on the IndieGogo launch page will actually be a 4220mAh model: the 8000 mAh wouldn't fit. The team is aware that some buyers will be disappointed so is examining the feasibility of a clip-on battery shell that fits under the device. That's a great idea.

Android is the default, and there's lots of work to do on the Launcher

El Reg in the default AOSP browser

Proof of concept Skype call. Note the Arabic keyboard

Running Debian Linux

El Reg on Firefox on Debian

Or, if you prefer, you can run Microsoft apps like Excel on Android. Gemini supports an external keyboard and mouse, and as you can see from the cursor, it's already working. The display was mirrored to an external monitor

Gemini's HDMI out cable in very prototype form

The back cover embeds five LED lights, which can be programmed to respond to certain notifications, like incoming calls. Here's how you'll program them

Here's one LED lit

The Gemini motherboard

And that big honking white thing? The battery

The plan from here is to nail down the tooling and get into production - dependent on whether glitches come up, the Christmas New Year period should see the first deliveries.

The device will be on display at MWC Americas this week and specifications should be formally confirmed today. ®

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