Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Planet Computers' Cosmo Communicator

The Cosmo Communicator from Planet Computers is a very interesting device. A step back in time maybe. A niche product for a very specific user maybe. A productivity tool extraordinaire maybe. An alternative approach to communication - and what we have long accepted now as the mobile phone form factor maybe. One thing's for sure - it's a step up from their first attempt with the Gemini.

Sadly, it's taken us all this time to get hold of a review unit here at Phones Show Chat, so late in coming is it that the next generation is in the works with the promise of the next step, in the shape of the Astro Slide. You can watch Steve Litchfield's brief introduction to the Cosmo and basic comparison with the Gemini in The Phones Show Episode 380 from about a year ago now.


The box is as interesting a creation as the phone itself - in the same style as the Gemini, I seem to recall. It's very nicely presented with a magnetic lid reflecting the action of the Cosmo itself. Flip it open and you're presented with the top opening flap housing a picture of the device open and the bottom flap, the keyboard. Just like you've opened the device! Inside, there's the Cosmo and the usual array of leaflets, start-guide, pokey-hole tool, stickers, cleaning-cloth, a 'fast charging' plug and USB-C to USB-A cable. No case or earphones. Apparently there's a slip-on cover in the retail box and maybe even an HDMI adapter (more on that later) too in some regions. There was also (not here) a screen-protector, factory-fitted which many users didn't realise was there, but once removed improves the screen brightness, colour and reliability of touch, although does make it even more of a fingerprint magnet.


The first impression when the Cosmo is retrieved from the box is that it's a huge, heavy lump of a device! Probably the biggest phone I've ever had in for review and the reason clearly is, that it's no ordinary phone. It's much more a pocket-computer than a phone, with the phone functionality very much secondary. However, responding to complaints from Gemini users, the functionality on the outside of the device (when closed) has been significantly enhanced which means that it can indeed be used much more easily as a phone without having to open it up to do pretty much anything, like with the Gemini.


The Cosmo is really well made. It feels like a brick or something with which nails could be hammered! The hinge mechanism is solid-feeling and when the clamshell is opened up it takes some effort to start the movement - when closing, if left with no human intervention, clamps shut with the speed of a Venus Fly Trap - but with a loud clunk! Watch out for your fingers around the hinge though as it's very sharp and has drawn blood on many occasions. On the bottom there's nothing much, on the left end is a 3.5mm audio-out socket, USB-C port, SIM-Card Tray, microphone and the left stereo speaker. On the right is the other one, another USB-C port, more microphones and a power button. The back is taken up completely by the sturdy hinge mechanism and on the front there's nothing to get in the way of your fingers pulling the shell apart!


The top is where the new fun starts and a 1.91" AMOLED display. Flanking this in symmetry are two islands, one the camera/flash unit and the other a multi-function button, LED display and fingerprint scanner. There's a 'smart speaker' at each end so that the user can take phone calls with the unit either way up, top being then the active one. The design is pleasing to the eye overall but could be classified as 'industrial' in the same way that Motorola used to produce early Android devices. Oh, and it's grey/black. No green/red options for business-users allowed!


The rest of the fun starts when you open up the device and are presented with the 'Psion 5' keyboard. It's so very reminiscent of that device except that the keyboard doesn't slide forward - they're moving further that way with the Astro. The keyboard is oodles better than the Gemini keyboard, though to be fair, the Gemini I had in-hand was a very first generation one with noted keyboard problems - and the unit eventually did have a new one placed onto it. The keys 'float' around a central pivot and 'click' reassuringly when pressed. This is no 'chicklet' style keyboard like the Nokia Communicator line or recently, the F(x)tec Pro1.


The 5-row keyboard is nicely designed with an offset array rather than 'square' blocks of keys, just like a 'proper' keyboard. There are big, dedicated cursor-control keys, a decent-enough size return key and full-sized back-space and Escape. The Tab key could be bigger, but not without something giving elsewhere. There's a numeric row up-top, same full-size as the others and a decently sized space-bar which appears to execute the command wherever it is struck, an improvement over the Gemini again.


Then there's 101 Fn actions with a secondary function assigned to pretty-much every key! All sorts of controls, well assigned, arranged and thought out. Example being Fn/Alt which opens the phone. The user will get used to the location of these, even if they have not come from a Gemini upgrading, or even a Psion 5. Take into account all the functions splayed out from the Alt key, Sym and Emoji, the world really is your oyster! Special mention for the secondary function for the Alt/Menu key and Enter, being phone call/hang-ups and also the space-bar as a quick route to the Assistant in use.


An even more special mention for the fact that the keyboard can be backlit on a sliding scale in Settings with the light glowing around each key and through the white letter/number/icon on each screen. It stays on even when the screen times out, which seems a bit odd - only shutting off when the lid is closed. Maybe that's so that the user can still see to change audio-settings, volume etc. It's a nice improvement over the Gemini but we've yet to see what it might do to the battery!


The screen facing the user is clearly designed for landscape use and it might be pretty difficult to use in any other way, for most things, which makes it this unique take on Android with difficulties of design along the way, rather depending on App developers to make sure their offerings work in landscape too. Which, as we know from Android Tablet use, they often don't. But the screen is very nice indeed. A bright and colourful 5.99" 1080p AMOLED with an 18:9 ratio and return of 403ppi. There's 'scratch resistant glass' on offer but I guess it's highly unlikely to get scratched inside there anyway.


The Cosmo is powered by a MediaTek Helio P70, which seems to compare by those who know about these things to a SnapDragon 660. I have had various phones over the last couple of years running that chipset and have seen no problems. Speed around the UI here seems fast enough, opening/switching between apps good, the 6GB RAM plenty. Don't let others tell you it is not!


A disappointment to find that Android 9 is still running things, particularly now that Android 11 is out there, making this two generations of the Android OS behind. In practice, the main missing elements for me are the Dark Mode stuff to be honest. But then when you are using a device that feels so far removed from 'ordinary' phones anyway, it detracts much less than it would for a mainstream offering. Looking at you, Motorola!


More of a concern for some users might be that the Google Security patches are only available here to April 2020. The device can also dual boot with Linux (and even Sailfish, I think) but this really is beyond me and best left to the serious geeky nerds out there! I really can't review that or comment.


Communication options are great with 4G excellent for calls and data. Not a glitch - clearly good components. Same is true of the GPS with Maps and Weather apps and so forth locking on quickly and hanging on well, reflecting movements and so on. NFC is present so Google Pay should work, though I also can't test that just now I'm afraid. Other reviewers report it working well though and certainly other NFC communication duties work as they should. The sensor for this is around the camera island so well placed. Wifi hooks up strongly and maintains a hold very well with 2.4 or 5GHz available. Incidentally, there's space for 2 SIM Cards (and an e-SIM if you like) but if you want to use a microSD Card, this takes one of the physical slots.


Talking of microSD, there's a slot and it's playing nicely with my 512GB card reading and writing fast enough by far, so no speed issues here often noticed with some phones I have tested with specs less than flagship level. There's 128GB storage on the phone as well, which is just great - 64GB away with you! Plugging in my 2TB Extreme SSD for USB OTG was not a success. It crashed the phone, twice, when plugged into the USB-C port on both sides. I was disappointed with this as almost all modern phones can handle this these days. More surprising was that HDMI-Out is not working. I was convinced that this was a selling-feature for businesspeople on the move and yet, it doesn't seem to work at all. On further investigation it seems that it will work, but only if you use the specially designed adapter sold by Planet Computers. The MediaTek chipset apparently prevents the use of any other so-called universal adapter and solution. I wasn't supplied with one, so can't test it. Planet want another £40 for that!


The two USB-C ports can be used for other peripherals, however, for those not using Bluetooth, including a mouse, bigger keyboard, cable to a computer for data exchange or whatever really. They can also be used to charge the unit, which I seem to remember is a change from the Gemini where one of them was for data only. Apparently, the right-hand USB-C port only trickle-charges the battery - and then only if the screen is on. Odd.


The replaceable battery in the Cosmo is a 4,220mAh unit and seems to be a regular complaint generator from Cosmo users. As always, battery life is going to depend on usage and options including the backlit keyboard and AoD on the outside screen. I have everything turned on full here and have found that the battery life is not as good as a businessperson might hope using it as a mini-laptop out and about, doing presentations and relying on the unit as their workhorse. I have tested this over an average day here and found that over a 12 hour day with 5 hours screen-on-time I'm down to about 30%. Another test I performed was to fully charge it, leave it switched on but closed for 24hrs, no SIM Card in but connected to WiFi - and when the 24hrs were up the battery was all-but dead. So, in use with care, maybe it'll just about get to the end of a busy day but I would suggest that people carry a powerbank or spare battery - at least you can!


The stereo speakers are really nasty. Tinny but reasonably loud. They are alright for casual listening and phone calls, voice stuff I guess, but it's a grimace-inducing exercise to play music or watch film/video. I managed to tweak the output to some degree for music by using a player app with its own equaliser, as usual, at the expense of volume - but there's no system-wide controls for sound output so I suggest you use apps which have those controls. Furthermore, my Whatever Works and Better Before co-host Aidan Bell has discovered that the speakers output content out of phase. This reduces volume and quality significantly and may or may not be a problem, depending on how much of an audiophile the user is - and if the user is, I guess this probably isn't the device for them anyway!


Sound from the 3.5mm audio-out socket is tested here with a pair of AKG K701 reference headphones and I can report that the output is again perfectly good enough for most people, loud and with some bass and good tone. Bluetooth 4.2 is present and when hooked up via that method the experience, as usual with bluetooth, is transformed into the excellent category - however, this does always of course depend on the quality of the attached equipment. Pairing is fast and connection reliable.


There's a recording FM Radio app bundled which uses something plugged into the 3.5mm audio-out socket as an antenna in the usual way. Once rolling it can be switched to speakers and actually, sounds very reasonable in my tests. The connectivity is not as strong as some other devices, but as always this will depend very much on where you live and what signal you get with other devices. All I would say is that I have other devices in the same location which do better.


The outside screen is the big change over the Gemini, it could be argued and this small OLED panel which dynamically switches between landscape and portrait, shows time, date and day with various status icons for the likes of cellular strength, wifi, battery and below the clock, incoming notification icons. Tap on one of these and you get a sub-screen of information with a bit more about what it is and some tap-able options, usually leading the user to open up to see anything of any real use. Very handy for incoming SMS and seeing the first part at least of emails however. It's an improvement over a bunch of flashing LEDs which the Gemini user had to learn!


The user can also access a bunch of other control options with a press of the button including some limited Settings, Music Playing, Camera shooting, Video recording (both with the front-camera, which means that if you keep the Cosmo closed and the camera pointing away from you, you can't see what you're shooting), Torch control (LED flash) with timer, Phone function with dialpad, list of Contacts and recent calls and a Voice Memo function. It feels like a half-baked solution to be honest, with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 leading the way with a fully-functioning Android screen on the outside or Motorola's Fold. But then the focus and emphasis of this device is different. Very different. It's all about that keyboard.


The button on the front also acts as a fingerprint scanner but with the device closed, there doesn't seem much point. It unlocks the device, but with no benefit on the outer screen much at all, mainly the inner one - and when you then open it up, it wants the fingerprint scanner to be used again! So then you have to execute hand-gymnastics to fumble around to find the scanner round the back! I guess the user would get used to locating it 'blind' quickly enough, but yes, of limited use it seems beyond extra security.


The camera on the outside of the device is a 24MP f2.8 (read: very small aperture, only really suitable in good light) shooter alongside the aforementioned LED flash. When using it with the device closed the view is echoed on the tiny screen and refresh-rate is appallingly slow and clunky. Move the device and the image catches up with the move after a horribly long delay of about half a second. Doesn't sound much but really, it's not usable! Open up the phone and use the main screen inside to monitor and it's oodles better, just like any half-decent phone. The supplied camera app is very basic with Photo or Video as options, flash on/off, HDR control and a switch to the 5MP camera inside the unit for what really will be, for the target audience, the main use of the camera. Conferencing calls, Skype, Hangouts et al. There's face tracking going on too, so as you move around others will see you in focus. You can pinch-to-zoom up to 4x but of course that's all digital, noisy and nasty. Again, this business tool is not for taking pretty pictures with.


There's none of the usual Android Setup procedure expected with pretty much every Android phone these days. Just turn it on and there's the desktop. Accounts need to be signed into, including the near-obligatory Google one on most other devices. No invitation to sign into anything, Google nor Wifi. Very much like a Psion in fact - the user can, if they want to, use this device completely stand-alone with the Planet supplied software and tools and never go online!


The Planet Computers interface for Android is what's in use here and it is, in many ways, close to 'stock' Android. It's obviously in landscape orientation and the standard Back, Home and Recents control buttons are on the right (though can be switched to left or turned off). The software experience is very similar to the Gemini, though to be fair, I did have limited use of that. There's a pop-up menu with access to a bunch of Planet tools and apps - Airmail (email), Agenda (calendar), Notes, Ledison (controls for the outside LEDs flanking the fingerprint scanner), Data (Db) and Keyboard control. It is nice to have a very quick route back to the home screen with a dedicated keyboard key, to the left of the space-bar. The other Android controls are pretty much standard including the Notifications Shade and information across the top at rest. Because the screen is so wide in landscape, this can make the most of the notifications as they line up potentially in abundance!


Verdict

This is a beautifully made device which, for the right person will be a perfect solution. I see a businessperson on the road, or on a train. Papers spread in front of them as they draft a report. They really don't want to lug a laptop with them and they're OK with the smaller Psion 5 style keyboard to knock out their thoughts. When they're done, the very same device can be clacked closed and put into an inside jacket pocket and even whipped out to answer calls, locate their next meeting in mapping, fully connected in the same way as they would any phone in 2020.

The point and difference here is obviously the keyboard. It's what this is all about. The question is, would the user be prepared to live with the other compromises involved in order to only carry one device. One device that might just do all they need, even if not so well once the keyboard is finished with. Or is there another, better solution I wonder.

There's also a nostalgia angle for those of who adored our Psion devices - this is a fabulous step back in time, to a large degree, brought up to date. In other ways, feeling like it's still the 1990's. And then there's the other elephant in the room, the £799 it costs, even now, a year on with the Astro Slide successor en route.

The other issue is about this being one of very few options for people who want a truly pocketable device with a truly usable keyboard for productivity, even if it's a secondary unit for those on the move. Keyboarded devices tend to be niche, very niche. And so expensive on short runs and creative funding routes.

Personally, there's not enough here for me at this kind of cost. If it were half that price, I think it might well have. For others, sat on that train, making a living and still being as productive as they can be, this could well be the perfect connected solution. But let's not call it a phone - it's a pocket computer with phone functionality built-in.

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