Fusion Garage has just been showing us its brand-new Grid10 tablet. It's based loosely on the Google Android operating system and has an open-source ethos that appeals, but it’s similarity with Identikit 10.1in Android slates is little more than a passing nod.
In fact, says company representatives, these are the very attributes that should make the Grid10 a compelling alternative to an Android. The price tag of £259 including VAT for the 16GB Wi-Fi model is also likely to make Android tablet makers stare: despite price cuts for some of the big-name versions, a 16GB 10in Android slate is still routinely north of £300. The Grid-10 3G+Wi-Fi model will cost £359 inc VAT and will also have 16GB of onboard memory. Fusion Garage does not intend to offer a larger capacity version. CEO Chandra Rathakrishnan points instead to the microSD Card slot, which accepts media cards up to 64GB.
The Grid-10 has a 1366x768-pixel display and has a 16:9 aspect ratio. Again, this distinguishes it from the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Motorola Xoom. It’s light like the Tab 10.1, with a curved plastic rear. This makes it seem slimmer than its 14mm. Equipped with 512MB of RAM and a 1GHz nVidia Tegra 2 processor, the Grid-10 has limited ports and connections. An HDMI port and USB 2.0 join the microSD card slot and charging point.
Everything else is handled via the 10.1in capacitive touchscreen. This includes a virtual volume dial and navigating from app to app and back to Home. There’s no physical Home button; instead, Fusion Garage offers a fully touch-controlled display requiring the user to swipe back from the righthand side in order to go back a screen.
Apps and content type are grouped onscreen by ‘cluster’. To move from cluster to cluster, the user can swipe up and down across the screen or use a preview pane at the top right that looks for all the world like an overview of where your troops are stationed in a game of strategy. Click on a group of dots to dive into that cluster. The screen moves constantly behind you, creating the feeling of flying across the screen. Navigation is nimble, which adds to this effect.
Rathakrishnan describes the interface as offering "motion picture-class animations". The interface is slick, but getting around it isn’t as immediately obvious as it might be. We spent only a few minutes trying it out ourselves, so it’s unfair to judge, but the Grid OS setup seems a little less straightforward than on the similar-in-concept BlackBerry Playbook.
Rather than going the obvious route and offering the Google Android Marketplace for app downloads, Fusion Garage proffers the Amazon appstore. Microsoft Bing is installed as the default browser in preference to Google Chrome. Browsing is nonetheless described as a “chromeless” experience as web pages fill the screen from edge to edge.
Apps you launch are held in a “seamless state” when not in use. This means you can launch a game, indulge in some idle Twitter banter, check your email, browse through your photos and then return to your game at the point at which you left off and continue playing. Rathakrishnan says limitless apps can be opened and resumed in this fashion. The state of suspense also works across devices.
A Grid-4 smartphone based on the same Grid OS is set for launch towards Christmas and seamlessly synchronises with a Grid-10 tablet with which it’s associated. Assuming the two devices have been able to synchronise their current state between the user putting one of them down and picking up the other, the experience of using the two should be the same. Browser tabs and open apps are mirrored across the two. All that’s required is an active Wi-Fi (or 3G) connection, Rathakrishnan explains.
The interface and its points of difference from a standard Android tablet are what he really wants to show, however. We weren’t entirely convinced by how well the intelligent word recognition feature performed, but could see it’s potential. Here, a highlighted word can be cut, pasted, edited and moved, as per most devices. In addition, it acts as a context-based leaping off point for web-based supplementary information. Dictionary and Wikipedia entries, film reviews, video clips, news stories and other related content can all be accessed by clicking on one of the drop-down menu options that appears if you click a symbol above and to the right of the highlighted word.
Context information is also available on maps and if you are travelling from place to place. Travel information and a map appear if select an address some distance away. Restaurant suggestions and reviews, local points of interest, images and news feeds can all be delivered: the customisable nature of the Grid OS means the user chooses which feeds are provided.
Contacts and media content also come connected. Bring up a friend’s details and you’ll see their Facebook photos, for example, as well as any recent updates to linked social networks. Music libraries are searchable but also automatically organised into alphabetical groups by artist, album or track. Album artwork is preserved.
Photo galleries can be scrolled through as a linear series of thumbnails or a 3D stack. One impressive feature here is that you can zoom in on an image, pull gridlines across it and select any idea to crop into. We were also impressed by the auto-dimming feature that kicks in when you start reading a book on the preinstalled Amazon Kindle reader. Pages automatically reorientate themselves (as they should, but this isn’t the case on all Android tablets) and show either one long vertical page or facing pages in landscape mode.
Fusion Garage is clearly expecting big things of the Grid-10. This is its second tablet. The first, the JooJoo Internet Tablet, had some clever touchscreen navigation ideas, but they weren’t sufficiently well implemented, especially by comparison with the Apple iPad, which launched soon after.
Fusion thinks the Grid-10 will help continue to expand the tablet market, but will also lure some potential customers away from Android. In the US, the 10in tablet is on preorder and will ship on 1 October. The $399 Grid-4 smartphone based around a Hummingbird processor will also launch in the US in October. It will be sold unlocked rather than through an operator.
UK plans for the smartphone have yet to be finalised, but preorders taken for the tablet here will be fulfilled from 24 October. The tablet will be sold unlocked via Amazon and the Fusion Garage website. The company is also in discussions with retailers regarding distribution.