If you really want a smartphone with a physical keyboard, just how much are you prepared to forgive about the rest of it to get one? That’s the dilemma with Planet Computers’ Astro Slide 5G phone, as sure enough it has a slide-out mechanical keyboard, but the rest of the phone leaves a lot to be desired.
I’ve given it a try for a few days, and that turned out to be quite enough time for me, thank you.
Your new sidekick?
The Astro Slide 5G takes the same approach to a physical keyboard as the old T-Mobile Sidekick, the Nokia N900, and the Motorola Droid/Milestone to name just a few. The keyboard lives below the screen in a slide-out section, ready to be deployed into action when you need it, but at all other times you use the touchscreen just as you would on a keyboard-less phone.
I've been using this, the Planet Computers Astro Slide 5G.
What you're seeing here, the way the keyboard slides in and out, is the one good thing about it. pic.twitter.com/XW0ciofQWW
— Andy Boxall (@AndyBoxall) June 1, 2022
The action isn’t automated so you manually slide the keyboard out yourself. It doesn’t require much effort, but there’s a lot of what I’d call slop in the motion. It lifts up, it moves from side to side, and when you reach almost full extension you have to give it quite a pull before it starts to tilt and lock into place. It’s definitely not the most refined action, but it doesn’t feel like it’s about to break.
A set of rear supports extends out when the keyboard is in place, and these ensure it’s very sturdy when placed on a desk. Rubber sections under the body keep it from moving around, and even when you tap the screen in keyboard mode it stays steady unless you really prod at it. You’re faced with a backlit keyboard that spans almost the entire length and depth of the device, giving you as much space as possible to type on. So what’s it like?
It’s a bit awkward. I’ve been typing on the Astro Slide for a few days, including making an attempt to type this entire article on it, but I just can’t get on with the keys. The motion isn’t precise or refined enough to type quickly, and the feel is inconsistent so it becomes frustrating. Pressing the Q, W, E, and A, S, and D keys returns a decent level of feedback, but the keys on the opposite side of the keyboard — I, O, P, K, and L — get caught unless you make an effort to really make sure you press them “right.” It’s not a recipe for typing enjoyment.
Then there’s the layout. Planet Computers has made the keyboard available with 24 different layouts, with my review model in both English and Japanese, which is excellent. However, no matter what regional options I select regarding layout, I haven’t figured out the right keys for punctuation or special characters. Spending minutes trying to find the question mark because it’s not attached to the key with the question mark symbol makes me rather angry, and it shouldn’t happen on a device straight out of the box.
Put all this together and typing on the Astro Slide 5G is a long, slow, drawn-out affair. Yes, it gets a little quicker once you’ve got the layout down, but because it’s not intuitive and the keys frustrate until you purposely adapt to them, it doesn’t feel very inviting or inspiring.
Phone hardware is hard
The Astro Slide 5G is made of plastic, measures a hand-stretching 18.7mm thick, and weighs a pocket-bothering 325 grams. The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 is 16mm at its thickest when folded and is 271 grams for comparison, plus it is made from aluminum. The rear of this phone has a ridged texture for grip, but the sides of the handset are smooth. The mix of plastic textures makes the phone feel a little cheap, like it’s still a work in progress.
The power key contains the fingerprint sensor, which is on the side of the screen section along with the SIM card tray, but the volume keys are on the opposite side set lower down on the keyboard section. It’s not the most ergonomic solution, but worse is the way the keys are flush with the case, making them awkward to locate without looking, and slow to press.
The screen is a 6.39-inch AMOLED with a 2340 x 1080 pixel resolution and it’s perfectly adequate, but the lowly 60Hz refresh rate makes it look old compared to even modestly priced Android phones today. There are sizable bezels around the screen, and once I noticed how the battery icon is squeezed right up against its corner, while the clock on the opposite side isn’t, I couldn’t ignore it.
Powering the phone is a MediaTek Dimensity 800 with 8GB of RAM and 128GB storage space, plus there’s a MicroSD cardholder in the dual SIM tray to expand this figure. The stereo speakers are decent, plus there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack on the body, and there’s NFC inside the phone for mobile payment systems along with a 4,000mAh battery.
This is a productivity phone so unsurprisingly the camera is very much a secondary feature, and sure enough, it’s a solitary 48-megapixel camera on the back, and a 13MP selfie camera on the front. Secondary feature or otherwise, it’s reasonable to expect it to take decent photos, but it doesn’t. Color balance is fine, but there’s a lot of smoothing and very little detail, while it also has trouble with focus and the HDR mode doesn’t seem to work at all. Below are some examples.
Make no mistake, the Astro Slide 5G is all about the keyboard, as the rest of the hardware has been left behind by most cheap Android phones today, let alone flagship phones like the iPhone 13, the OnePlus 10 Pro, and the Galaxy S22.
Software is also hard
Android 11 is the operating system of choice on the Astro Slide 5G, but in the future, the plan is to provide a Linux Debian, Linux Kali, or even a Sailfish (remember that?) alternative OS. Android 11 isn’t the latest version of Google’s software, but that’s the least of its problems. The oddness starts when you go to set up the phone. Rather than the usual Android process of adding your account, setting up apps, and so on, the Astro Slide sidesteps all this and has a couple of custom setup screens instead.
I questioned this with Planet Computers’ representatives and was told this is by design, as apparently it has customers who don’t like to use Google’s services, and it wants to provide the option of not doing so. What this means is if you do use Google, it’s impossible to restore the phone from a backup. I signed into Google in the main menu and could still use Google Play and Google’s other apps though.
The software can be quite buggy, and in some places is clearly not optimized for the phone. Set the fingerprint sensor up and it tells you the sensor is on the back of the phone, when it’s actually inside the power key on the side of the phone, for example. I also had trouble making games work properly. Asphalt 9: Legends refuses to recognize the touchscreen and wants me to use the physical keyboard to control the game, except there’s no obvious way to configure the keys. Not that it mattered much because the aging Dimensity 800 couldn’t keep up when things got really busy on screen.
The more I used it, the more problems showed up. Planet Computers installs some proprietary apps including an email app, but when you open it there’s a Google alert telling you it’s unsafe. The Google software update option doesn’t work, but there is a Planet Computers update option that does — sometimes, when it’s not failing to connect to the update server. The screen doesn’t disable when you are sliding the keyboard out, so you always accidentally swap or start apps, and the camera app can freeze if you use the shortcut from the lock screen.
Getting over the design quirks and overall size of the Astro Slide 5G is one thing, but dealing with software bugs on a daily basis is another. I’m using the phone at around the time of release, and no software update has arrived during this time to fix anything, so expect it to be very close to what you’ll get should you order one.
Not even nostalgia can save it
There is something pleasingly nostalgic about sliding out the keyboard on Planet Computers’ Astro Slide 5G phone. It’s not the smoothest motion, but it’s engineered well and seems sturdy enough, and when it’s open and sat on a table the design is quite attractive. However, when you start using the Astro Slide, it quickly becomes clear the action of the slide-out keyboard is the only good thing about it.
It’s disappointing that a phone that costs $912 comes with buggy software, a plastic body, a single camera, an old processor, and a 60Hz screen, but Planet Computers will undoubtedly say none of this matters because it’s all about the “joy” of typing on a physical keyboard. Give those who miss PDAs what they want, it’ll likely shout. I’d agree, except the Astro Slide’s physical keyboard isn’t that great to type on.
The Astro Slide 5G started as an Indiegogo campaign in 2020, so it’s surprising the device I’ve been using doesn’t feel a lot more polished and well, final. If I’d been told it was still some months away from release I’d give it a bit of a break as there would be time to fix the software at least, but as you can buy it right now and presumably have the same experience as I’m having, not even nostalgia should tempt you into it.