How do you rate something so utterly familiar and so utterly unique in almost the same breath? In a world of fixed-plate smartphones, the idea of a foldable phone is hard to accept, but not insurmountable, especially if you’re simply considering folding as a way to get a bigger screen.
It gets more interesting when the form factor changes the way a smartphone can turn into a mobile device. Microsoft Surface Duo is a good example of this. It’s close enough to a foldable smartphone that it feels like it should work like a phone, but to really unlock it you need to focus on the multitasking aspect and remind yourself it’s two screens.
That leads me to Planet Computers. I’ve spent time with the Astro Slide, the UK manufacturer’s third mobile device, and it makes a fascinating choice that defines the whole device; below the screen is a full moving qwerty keyboard that spans the entire width of the device.
In a way, the specs of the Astro Slide are an important but secondary point. With a Mediatek Dimensity 800, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of onboard storage, it’s clear where the Astro puts itself in terms of performance…more than enough performance for the vast majority of users, but a tad below the ultimate flagship performance that’s you could order.
I am aware that Planet Computers, as a small company with a small portfolio, does not have the economies of scale that Samsung or Honor might have, nor the comfort of high expected sales that other manufacturers naturally have. I’m also aware that this is the company’s third device, so something is working in the retail market.
One of the biggest advantages of Planet Computers is that the company has found a niche that has a clear idea of what it wants from a mobile device. In this case, it’s a pocket-sized device, with a large screen, as close to a full-sized keyboard as possible, with the flexibility offered by an almost limitless catalog of software.
The Astro Slide delivers on all these points. It’s not perfect, but for many it’s good enough.
The biggest weakness in the package has to be Android itself. While Google is working on improving how Android handles larger screen Android devices, including tablets and Android 12L foldable, the Astro Slide’s letterbox aspect ratio isn’t the easiest Android window size to scale to. The nature of many mobile apps is that they have a vertically scrolling information ribbon, with status bars at the top and navigation at the bottom. Unless developers have made a conscious choice to incorporate a UI in this space, things can get tricky.
This is compensated by the fact that the Astro Slide works like a ‘normal’ Android smartphone when closed. Thanks to the unique sliding and lifting hinge, the main screen remains accessible when the device is closed and you have a normal Android experience, albeit with a relatively bulky and heavy device. The design allows the screen to wobble a little when closed and you can feel the two halves shifting in your hand. There is a small detent that you have to push through to open the clamshell, wish this had been a lot closer to the closed position to reduce the wobbly feeling when holding the Astro Slide. That would give more confidence in the physicality of the device.
When using the device in its open “laptop” form factor and you notice that everything feels stable and locked, you can tap the screen with a reasonable amount of force and the Astro Slide will not tilt, the screen never feels loose and there is no shift when typing on a desk or solid surface.
The keyboard is of course the number one USP of the Astro Slide, and I’m happy to say that it works as advertised. Planet Computers has improved the quality of the keyboard with each iteration of its mobile devices. The big win here is a backlit keyboard, which greatly helps to work on the device. The key action is firm enough, but there are times when I type quickly and feel the keys shift under my fingers.
With a smaller keyboard, touch typing will be impossible unless you have smaller fingers and hands, but you can get decent speed with the index and middle fingers of each hand. It’s worth it, because the Astro Slide is all about text entry, at speed, over a long period of time.
Like the Surface Duo platform, the key to the Astro Slide is to stop trying to force it to be something it isn’t. This is complicated, because when everything closes, the Astro Slide is the smartphone you might expect. But the Astro Slide doesn’t want to be a miracle record, it wants to be a laptop.
It should come as absolutely no surprise that the Astro Slide shines when you use the included software from Planet Computers. While your home screen replaces the concept of a desktop, the Planet Computers button on the keyboard slides up a launch bar of icons and menu options in a clean and unobtrusive way. The Calendar application offers multiple views of your calendars optimized for the landscape screen (the “looks like two pages in a journal” is my personal favorite. There is a flat database application for storing all kinds of information in your own formats. The e-mail application has room to breathe in breadth.
All Planet Computers offer a single stylized user interface and a consistent experience. You can get a lot done in just these apps, at least from a productivity standpoint. It’s only when you switch to Android, as mentioned above, that things start to feel clunky. I’d rather be clumsy than not at all, so it’s an obvious and necessary compromise.
The Astro Slide from Planet Computers is not an all-rounder. Nor does it try to pretend. This is a mobile device whose use case is clear to the consumer. The vast majority go and look at the Astro Slide and think it’s a great idea, but not for them. That’s fine, because those who look at the Astro Slide and think “yes, that’s what I need” will understand its purpose, get around the Android problems and have one of the most unique productivity devices on the market.
Now read about the brave British company that defeated Apple in the PDA crown in 1991…