PLANET ASTRO SLIDE 5G
With the exception of high-end, high-fidelity sound systems, British consumer technology isn’t often fantastic. In technology as a whole, the country punches well above its weight, but when it comes to neat stuff for people to buy in stores, not so much.
What’s British and works well tends to look either cheap or utilitarian, while what looks beautiful is too often quirky to the point of being simply unreliable. This is not just the view of famously self-deprecating Brits. The grimly funny scene in Mad Men in which the British character Lane Pryce attempts suicide in his E-Type Jaguar only to find it won’t start shows how the brand’s reputation at that time for flakiness crossed the Atlantic.
This just-launched British computer the size of a hefty (nearly three-quarters of an inch thick) smartphone but incorporating a quite ingenious keyboard with proper, mechanical keys falls into the works-well-but-no-beauty side of things.
Planet Computers’ Astro Slide is an almost magical design with its slide-up keyboard, but still has a nearly Soviet-era aesthetic. It is also beyond niche; a limited number of people will feel a need for a fully featured, pocket-size P.C. that doubles as an Android smartphone. A limited number of that small cohort will ever hear about the Astro Slide 5G. And even of that small number, some, we suspect, will balk—even if just subliminally—at its being British.
In the late 1990s, this columnist used an early ancestor of the Astro Slide on flights in the U.S. and was often asked where it came from. When told it was from a small company in England, inquirers would visibly shut down. Even pre-BlackBerry and pre-iPhone, Americans felt safer typing on the move with a PalmPilot, which was about as useful for writing a document as a miniature chalkboard.
The machine in question back then was the Series 5 from a now extinct U.K. company, Psion, and the wonderfully ergonomic and comfortable little keyboard in the new Astro Slide is the same one. In the Astro Slide, however, it is backlit—essential for writing on night flights.
Permission to evolve the original Psion keyboard was acquired by an Imperial College, London IT neural networks researcher, Dr Janko Mrsic-Flogel, who left academia to build small, pocketable computers.
The idea of keeping a pocket P.C. in a vest or jeans pocket to capture your great thoughts wherever you are does seem to attract mature academics, and not just in the U.K. This columnist knows a professor of medicine in New York who as recently as 10 years ago wrote his books on benches in Central Park using a refurbished Psion 5 sourced from the U.K.
Young hipsters, on the other hand, seem to have remained impervious to the charms of pocket P.C.’s thus far.
Retro as it may be, the Astro Slide 5G is, as you would expect, far more advanced than the Psion, which died out soon after 2000 as the BlackBerry, with its original physical keyboard, became the predominant device for writing on the go, until the iPhone appeared, in 2007.
The Astro Slide runs 5G, has some 17 hours of battery life, the ability to hitch up to a big screen, is video-call ready, and has a ton of nice hardware features (including keyboards in several languages), plus useful proprietary software, such as an e-mail application called “Airmail”—hey!
A unique, extremely clever machine fantastic for writers or anyone who just wants to be more productive. You do need to spend time learning its sometimes quirky British ways, though.
AIRTHINGS VIEW PLUS
“The air, the air is everywhere,” sang the cast of the musical Hair, which debuted in 1967. It was, perhaps, a statement of the obvious, but back then “the environment” referred more to the area close to where you lived than to, you know, the environment. So, any acknowledgement that air wasn’t necessarily good—Welcome, sulfur dioxide; hello, carbon monoxide—was a progressive sentiment.
Today, we’re more interested than ever in knowing more about what we’re breathing, especially when we are told by the E.P.A. that indoor air can be two to five times as polluted as the air outdoors.
What better to monitor the stuff, then, than a home pollution meter from Norway, with its implicit hint of crystalline fjord air?
Airthings has been working on indoor-pollution monitors since 2008, when its founders, scientists at CERN—the European Organization for Nuclear Research—realized there was no simple way for homeowners to detect a radioactive pollutant, radon, which would likely not have been on the radar of Hair’s lyricists.
Colorless and odorless radon, we know today, is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers. It is formed by the decay of uranium that occurs naturally in all rocks and soils, and is said to be above danger level in a small but significant proportion of homes, commercial buildings, and schools.
Airthings set out to develop a domestic radon detector from scratch and succeeded after a few years. Now, like everything else, their detectors are app-connected to give warnings, remote readings, and so on.
This latest model, the View Plus, provides a royal flush of peace of mind (or, just possibly, paranoia), sniffing out as it does not only radon but particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, carbon dioxide, humidity, air temperature, and air pressure.
The View Plus is battery-operated, with up to two years of battery life, and you can see what it has to say by looking at the low-power, e-paper screen, or in more detail and color by checking out the app. The super-geeky can rig it up to, say, turn on a humidifier when the air gets dry, while the super-anxious can link it to smart-home systems such as Alexa to be warned by voice about the air. Which, as we know from the song, is indeed everywhere.
JBL L75MS INTEGRATED MUSIC SYSTEM
We are big fans around here of the old, established Los Angeles audio company JBL. Respected by both sound professionals and regular music-lovers, their products, from sub-$100 headphones to P.A. systems and large cinema-speaker arrays, are exemplary.
Nonetheless, we took a while to warm to their new integrated music system, the L75MS. In fact, we took a while to turn it on because the pre-production sample we tried came minus any indication of how to use it, and the controls alone aren’t the most intuitive.
Additionally, the sizable machine is quite heroically ugly, in spite of its “satin walnut furniture-grade wood veneer finish,” as the publicity material describes its bulky presence. The cumbersome thing took some installing, and proceeded to glower unused from its shelf for weeks, its fascia like a giant toothless, wide-open robot mouth.
One evening, nonetheless, we decided to try it in its most basic mode, Bluetooth-ing music from an iPhone. Serious machines like this really need, for top quality, to stream directly from a site like Tidal, but without a manual or (at the time, pre-launch) any backup on the JBL site, that wasn’t possible.
No matter, the result was spectacular. The L75MS is a monster—in a good way. The sound, even using a non-optimal wireless connection, was huge and of fabulous quality, filling a very large room with vivid stereo, right across the range of highs, mids, and, especially, lows. The first piece we listened to happened to have some extremely deep, dark organ notes, and it felt like being in a great cathedral, your very pancreas rattling.
None of this made the L75MS any less biliousness-inducing to look at. We thought its appearance would grow on us, but it didn’t happen. Even if you remove the magnetically attached decorative sponge front grille, exposing a line of five almost menacing speaker drivers, it’s still a pig.
So, unless you like its looks, inexplicable, but we guess it could happen, the JBL is one for a den or basement, where it could have a kind of an ironic-caveman visual charm. It is, nonetheless, the best of these popular one-box stereo systems we’ve heard in a long time, possibly ever.
From 1768 until 1901, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was a major British institution, based in Edinburgh. From then on, it became a major American institution, albeit one that defiantly retained British spelling.
Even before the Digital Age, however, Britannica was losing its appeal. It passed like a hot potato—or, more accurately, a cold potato—from owner to owner. Parents who bought into its 32-volume, 32,640-page, 40-million-word eloquence to enhance their children’s education often regretted it.
After the Web got going, and, specifically, Wikipedia, in 2001, Britannica didn’t stand a chance. Ten years ago, Britannica dropped the printed version.
Britannicas became many households’ preferred method for flattening screwed-up documents and pressing flowers. Getting rid of them became difficult: thrift shops often wouldn’t take them. They are offered for next to nothing on eBay and rarely bid on.
But the company, now based in Chicago, has done an admirable job in keeping Britannica going. We have to be honest and admit we were barely aware that britannica.com existed until they offered AIR MAIL a trial subscription, as part of what seems to be a relaunch campaign. Even then, we were not filled with excitement.
However, getting into the online version of this venerable flower press, and its companion app, has been an eye-opener. It’s really good. The articles are of sensible length, compared to the prolixity of the Internet. There are extremely useful two-minute summaries of most subjects, along with multi-media links.
Best of all, you can see who wrote the article you’re referring to, which is far preferable to suspecting it was some strange person somewhere with an axe to grind.
Not to be sneezed at at all, the revived Britannica. It’s hard to know in an age when facts are not exactly sacred if it will survive against a prime competitor which is free. But the current owners are making a commendable job of it.
Based in London and New York, AIR MAIL’s tech columnist, Jonathan Margolis, spent more than two decades as a technology writer for the Financial Times. He is also the author of A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book on the history of futurology