The Astro Slide phone is a throwback you’ll want to throw away

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If you really want a smartphone with a physical keyboard, how much are you willing to forgive for the rest to get one? That’s the dilemma with Planet Computers’ Astro Slide 5G phone, as it sure has a slide-out mechanical keyboard, but the rest of the phone leaves a lot to be desired.

I tried it for a few days, and it turned out to be enough time for me, thanks.

Your new sidekick?

The Astro Slide 5G takes the same approach to a physical keyboard as the old one T-Mobile Sidekick, Nokia N900 and Motorola Droid/Milestone to name a few. The keyboard sits below the screen in a sliding section, ready to be deployed into action when you need it, but at all other times you use the touchscreen as you would on a phone without a keyboard.

I use this, the Planet Computers Astro Slide 5G.

What you see here, the way the keyboard slides in and out, is the only good thing about it. pic.twitter.com/XW0ciofQWW

—Andy Boxall (@AndyBoxall) June 1, 2022

The action is not automated, so you manually slide the keyboard yourself. It doesn’t take much effort, but there’s a lot of what I would call decant in motion. It lifts, it moves side to side, and when you reach near full extension, you need to give it a good pull before it starts to tilt and lock into place. It’s certainly not the most polished action, but it doesn’t feel like it’s about to break.

A set of rear supports extend when the keyboard is in place, and these ensure that it is very sturdy when placed on a desk. Rubber sections under the body keep it from moving, and even when pressing the screen in keyboard mode, it remains stable unless you really push it. You’re faced with a backlit keyboard that stretches almost the full length and depth of the device, giving you as much space as possible to type on. So how is it?

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

It’s a little embarrassing. I’ve been typing on the Astro Slide for a few days, including trying to type this whole article on it, but I just can’t get the keys to work. The movement isn’t precise or refined enough to type quickly, and the feel is inconsistent, which gets 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 do an effort to really make sure you squeeze them “right”. This is not a recipe for typing pleasure.

Then there is the layout. Planet Computers has made the keyboard available with 24 different layouts, with my review model in English and Japanese, which is great. However, no matter what regional options I select regarding layout, I couldn’t find 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 that shouldn’t happen on a straight-out device of the box.

Put it all together and typing on the Astro Slide 5G is a long, slow, endless affair. Yes, it does get a bit faster once you have the layout, but since it’s not intuitive and the keys are frustrating until you deliberately adapt to it, it doesn’t feel very inviting or inspiring.

Phone hardware is difficult

The Astro Slide 5G is made of plastic, measures 18.7mm thick in the hand and weighs 325 grams. The The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 is 16mm thick when folded and weighs 271 grams for comparison, and it’s made of aluminum. The back 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 bit cheap, like it’s still a work in progress.

The back of the Astro Slide 5G from Planet Computers.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The power key houses the fingerprint sensor, which is on the side of the screen section with the SIM tray, but the volume keys are on the opposite side, lower on the section of the keyboard. It’s not the most ergonomic solution, but what’s worse is the way the keys are flush with the case, making them difficult to locate without looking and slow to press.

The screen is a 6.39-inch AMOLED with a resolution of 2340 x 1080 pixels and it’s perfectly adequate, but the low 60Hz refresh rate makes it look old compared to even modestly priced Android phones today. . There are sizable bezels around the display, and once I noticed how the battery icon is pressed against its corner, while the clock on the opposite side isn’t, I didn’t couldn’t ignore it.

The Planet Computers Astro Slide 5G screen.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The phone is powered by a MediaTek Dimensity 800 with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage space, along with a MicroSD card slot in the dual SIM tray to extend that 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 with a 4,000mAh battery.

This is a productivity phone, so unsurprisingly the camera is a secondary feature, and of course it’s a solitary 48-megapixel camera on the back and a 13 MP 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 good, but there’s a lot of smoothness and very little detail, while it also has focus issues and HDR mode doesn’t seem to work at all. Here 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 budget Android phones today, let alone flagship phones like the iPhone 13, OnePlus 10 Pro and the Galaxy S22.

The software is also difficult

Android 11 is the OS of choice on the Astro Slide 5G, but in the future the plan is to ship a Debian Linux, Kali Linux, 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 weirdness begins when you go to set up the phone. Rather than the usual Android process of adding your account, setting up apps, and the like, the Astro Slide avoids all of that and instead offers a few custom setup screens.

I asked the Planet Computers reps and was told it was intentional, because apparently there are customers who don’t like using Google’s services, and he wants to provide the option not to not do it. This means that if you are using Google, there is no way to restore the phone from a backup. I signed in to Google in the main menu and was still able to use Google Play and Google’s other apps.

The software can be quite buggy, and in some places is clearly not optimized for the phone. Set up the fingerprint sensor and it tells you that 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 getting the games to run 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 appeared. Planet Computers installs some proprietary apps, including an email app, but when you open it, a Google alert tells you it’s not safe. The Google software update option does not work, but there is a Planet Computers update option that sometimes works, when it fails to connect to the update server. The screen doesn’t turn off when you swipe the keyboard, so you’re still switching or accidentally starting apps, and the camera app may crash if you use the shortcut from the lock screen.

Getting over the Astro Slide 5G’s design quirks and overall size is one thing, but dealing with day-to-day software bugs is another. I’m using the phone around the time it was released, and no software updates have come in during that time to fix anything, so expect it to be very close to what you will get if you order one.

Even nostalgia can’t save it

There’s something pleasantly nostalgic about sliding the keyboard on Planet Computers’ Astro Slide 5G phone. It’s not the smoothest move, but it’s well-designed and feels solid enough, and when open and sitting on a table, the design is quite attractive. However, when you start using the Astro Slide, it quickly becomes clear that the sliding keyboard action is the only good thing about it.

That’s disappointing a phone that costs $912 comes with buggy software, a plastic body, a single camera, an old processor, and a 60Hz display, but Planet Computers will no doubt say none of that matters importance because it is about the “joy” of typing on a physical keyboard. Give the PDA-starved what they want, it’ll probably scream. I agree, except that the Astro Slide’s physical keyboard isn’t very pleasant to type on.

The Astro Slide 5G started out as an Indiegogo campaign in 2020, so it’s surprising that the device I’m using doesn’t feel much more polished and fine, final. If I had been told there were still a few months to go before release I would give it a little break because there would be time to fix the software at least but since you can buy it now and probably have the same experience as I do, even nostalgia shouldn’t tempt you.

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