The first 5G phone with a full physical keyboard is going to ship to crowdfunding backers in June this year, though some buyers feel misled after manufacturer Planet Computers revealed that the final specs differ from the initial pledge.
The Astro Slide 5G was announced last spring with an Indiegogo campaign, where it joined Planet Computers’ previous two phones: the Gemini PDA and Cosmo Communicator. Like those phones it features a full mechanical keyboard, though thanks to a novel sliding hinge mechanism it also offers a traditional portrait form factor.
In a little under a year the campaign has raised over a million pounds from backers, but not all of them are pleased with the final spec. The biggest frustration is the core chipset – originally expected to be the MediaTek Dimensity 1000, but now replaced with the Dimensity 800 after Planet Computers failed to license the more premium chip.
The 800 lacks a few specific features – Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth Low Energy Audio primarily – but the bigger concern for most will be a reduction in performance across the board. Planet Computers has offset that somewhat by upping the RAM allocation from 6GB to 8GB, and there are upgrades elsewhere – the promised 5Mp selfie camera has ended up at 13Mp for example.
Some specs the company was cautious not to commit to have also ended up impressive. The display is AMOLED (albeit a smidge smaller at 6.39in, rather than 6.54in) and encased in Gorilla Glass 3; wireless charging has been built in; and the rear camera will use the 48Mp Sony IMX586 sensor – a little long in the tooth, but a very capable sensor found in phones like the OnePlus 7 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S10 Lite.
It’s clear that the company is listening to fans. After teasing the final specs last week, which included a battery downgrade from 4000mAh to 3500mAh, the company has already walked that decision back and promises that the final phones will still ship with 4000mAh cells – which combined with the lower power Dimensity 800 chip should actually mean a net battery life increase relative to the initial plans.
The company hasn’t completed final tests yet, but CEO Dr. Janko Mrsic-Flogel told Tech Advisor that he expects the Astro Slide 5G to last over a day, even with 5G usage factored in.
As for why the chip change in the first place? Mrsic-Flogel was reluctant to blame the ongoing Covid crisis, but instead suggested that market pressures may have shaped MediaTek’s decision not to license the flagship.
“Could be market politics, some chips being primarily aimed at China and not the rest of the world,” he said.
Planet Computers has a specific appeal to the technically savvy, with returning features like dual USB-C ports and the option to dual-boot into both Android 11 and Linux (though Linux support won’t roll out until after the first units ship in June). Software features like a granular backup tool that works with microSD, USB, and even NAS drives complete the impression.
It’s that hardcore productivity & tech focus that Mrsic-Flogel believes will help the company stave off the threat of big-screen devices like the Galaxy Z Fold line, which may suit multi-tasking well, but lack the same software customisability – not to mention the reliability and tactility of a mechanical keyboard
“Our strength and our uniqueness is the keyboard, and the way that the keyboard actually works and feels,” he said. “Obviously we’re watching the space of foldable displays, and I don’t feel that the current range of foldable displays… [are] hitting the spot yet.”
“We would love to have a bigger display while keeping the keyboard,” he added though, pointing towards the extendable screens seen in the LG Rollable and TCL’s rollable display tech as one space Planet Computers is keeping an eye on.
As for competition closer to home, Mrsic-Flogel seemed equally unfazed by the imminent return of the BlackBerry brand to the market, with a new phone expected to arrive this year with a physical keyboard in tow.
“I’m welcoming other people coming into the market,” he noted, before adding with a smile: “The BlackBerry brand’s OK, we could also probably license it, but it’s not something that we really entertained.”
The Astro Slide 5G is still available to back on Indiegogo, starting from €529 (about £470/$640), with the first phones shipping in June. It will then be more widely available from September 2021.