While the Apple iPad has risen as arguably the best tablet PC you'll find, it hasn't stopped competitors from releasing similar designs. We take a close look at the JooJoo tablet, a large Linux-based touchscreen internet device.

Apple’s secret tablet-PC project was an open secret long before the iPad was officially unveiled in January this year. But while Apple was polishing its design, getting ready to ignite this year’s worldwide renaissance in slate computing, a similar concept was being developed from an unusual source.

It was journalist and founder of TechCrunch website Michael Arrington who, in 2008, openly proposed a lightweight internet tablet. Like the original dream of netbook computing, it would be a low-cost, fast-booting portable PC, running a Linux OS and with solid-state storage rather than hard disk.

Unlike netbooks, the CrunchPad, as it became dubbed, would be a finger-friendy tablet with no keyboard or mouse.

The project was rocked by controversy when Arrington and manufacturing partner Fusion Garage went separate ways in November last year. It is Fusion Garage of Singapore that now markets and sells the final product, renamed JooJoo.

Like the Ubuntu operating system that Fusion Garage JooJoo is exploiting under its custom user interface, JooJoo is an African word, in this case meaning ‘magic’.

It’s no Apple iPad, but then the idea was not to copy something that Apple hadn’t even announced at the time. The Fusion Garage JooJoo was originally steered to be a handheld internet access device, based around a single web browser – entirely akin to Google Chrome OS.

A cursory look over the specifications could lead some to conclude that the Fusion Garage JooJoo has the better of the iPad, and all at a lower price. We spent some quality time with JooJoo to see if it’s true magic or more like alchemy at work.

Looks and specs

First glance shows the Fusion Garage JooJoo as something very similar to the iPad. Unlike early plastic-bodied prototypes, the production JooJoo now apes iPad’s satin-aluminium back panel, fronted by an edge-to-edge glossy screen with black border.

Build quality is average but somewhat tatty as soon as you compare it to an Apple iPad.

It sits heavily in the hands, its 1.1kg seemingly much heavier than the iPad’s 680g. Balance is not so even and holding for more than a few minutes can get quite fatiguing. It also gets a little warm; you can sense a cooling fan inside whirring to keep the processors cool.

The JooJoo as it appears now takes a high-resolution capacitive touch-sensitive screen sized at 1366x768 pixels. So immediately the JooJoo can claim high ground over iPad’s old-school 1024x768 and 4:3 palette.

But this panel is dimmer than iPad, with horribly limited viewing angles. Move your gaze much off-axis and you’re presented with a darkened blur. It’s also not especially evenly lit, with some dark and bright spots as you look carefully. Then there’s the way the screen deforms under finger pressure as you press its surface.

Inside the Fusion Garage JooJoo we have something that closely resembles an off-the-shelf netbook. It uses an Intel Atom N270 processor with 1GB RAM, adding 802.11b/g and Bluetooth networking. For storage it includes 4GB of flash memory. On one edge is a single USB port.

Not that you can do much with either the internal storage or USB. The former is to store the Linux OS rather than user files, while the latter is there to accept a keyboard or mouse, instead of expanding capacity or transferring data.

There’s a webcam built in, but no apps to use with it. Stereo speakers provide quite tinny sound.

Touch-based OS

Of course it’s the operating system that will make or break a computer. Over the Linux core is a touch-oriented interface centred on a web browser. There’s no app for playing music, nor video. No apps for reading books, or any of the other thousands of tricks currently available to Apple's iOS ecosystem.

Everything must be done through the browser (which ironically is based on Apple’s open-source WebKit engine). So you can watch some videos in a web page, for example, providing you have a fast and active internet connection.

This was not always a given though, especially since we found the Wi-Fi networking a little patchy. In our test lab, for example, the office wireless network is not particularly strong – but we never had a device refuse to connect until we met JooJoo. Moving outside by a few metres enabled a connection, which would then sometimes stay active when we returned.

The touch interface is primitive, with no pinch-to-zoom on web pages (or any zoom, come to mention it), and to scroll down a page requires two fingers. When you do scroll, it’s somewhat jerky.

To assist video playback, JooJoo uses an nVidia 9400M graphics chip, which combines with the first-generation Atom N270 chip to form the so-called nVidia Ion platform. We found limited hardware acceleration of video available though.

On the YouTube site, you’re sometimes presented with a choice of ‘JooJoo’ or ‘YouTube’ versions of the same clip. Essentially, if the site has an H.264 version available you can use nVidia acceleration for relatively smooth playback.

When that’s not there, you get a slow, stuttering version as the little Atom struggles to process video by itself.

On the Fusion Garage JooJoo's home screen are 15 buttons, actually shortcuts to webpages such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. There's no ability to customise these or delete unwanted bookmarks, which is a shame as some are for US-only services such as Hulu.

App Flashpoint

‘App store? We’ll show you an app store’. JooJoo cheekily claims to have the largest app store in the world. Read more closely and you see the company is alluding to the ability to play internet Flash applications.

But Flash on mobile platforms is still a no-go – if it works at all, it’s slow, drains the battery at twice the speed, is often unstable. And there’s no hardware acceleration to keep motion smooth.

When JooJoo claims ‘full screen high definition video playback from any site’, it’s being disingenuous on two levels. One, it only kinda plays Flash internet video. And when you do try full-screen HD video, be prepared for second-rate slideshows.

Even before grappling with Flash, battery life of JooJoo is, frankly, pitiful. We managed around three hours when not using the tablet; you get less when it’s actually put to use. And its power management leaves plenty to be desired too.

Stab its stubbornly stiff power button once to put into standby. In this state, it will wake from sleep in around seven seconds; but if you leave it in this mode overnight, don’t expect any juice to be available in the morning.

If you manage to press and hold the power button for several seconds, it will power down after a delay. Start-up time from cold is then around 10 seconds - very speedy compared to Windows, but a relative eternity set against the iPad's, or even Macs’, instant wake facility.

Charging requires an included power supply; there’s no chance to top-up over USB.

NEXT PAGE: The original PC World US review >>

SKIP TO PC ADVISOR'S VERDICT >>

Attractive and interesting, but not without its flaws. It's been one of the internet stories of the past week or so, but does the Fusion Garage JooJoo web-browsing tablet warrant your interest?

First, the JooJoo's specs. Fusion Garage CEO Chandrasekar Rathakrishnan was loathe to talk specs, insisting that to do so would draw comparisons to netbooks and the PC market (which is spec-obsessed) rather than an appliance like an Apple iPhone or an Amazon Kindle, where processor speed is less of a concern compared to the quality of the overall web browsing experience.

That said, the JooJoo has a 12-inch capacitive touchscreen display with a 1366 by 768 pixel resolution, 1GB of memory, a 4GB SSD (which is mostly used to store the OS and cache data, the user can't directly save files), and the processor is a 1.6GHz Atom with some kind of graphics chip assisting with HD video decoding.

The JooJoo also has one USB 2.0 port, Bluetooth support, a headphone and mic ports, built-in speakers, and a webcam with a mic. Internet connectivity comes from Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi only - no 3G internet here. Interestingly enough, the JooJoo preview model we used had an expansion slot, but they're going to block it up before it hits the market.

The JooJoo's form factor is sleek but not mind-blowing. It is light (a smidgin over 1kg) and fairly svelte (less than one inch thick), so it's not hard to hold one-handed or carry around, but it also isn't light enough or thin enough to be a tremendous selling point, either. It would fit perfectly in a backpack, suitcase, messenger bag, or even a large handbag, and it's lighter than the average laptop or netbook.

Fusion Garage claims that the JooJoo's battery lasts for five hours of uninterrupted use, and the device includes power management options to optimize battery use. It charges via an included power brick that's smaller than most laptop power bricks and can readily fit with the JooJoo in a typical briefcase or laptop bag.

Like any touchscreen device, the JooJoo keeps fingerprints like Scotland Year, and it comes only in black, so fingerprints and oil marks are more likely to show. Bring a cloth to wipe it down.

SEE ALSO: 5 reasons the Joo Joo (CrunchPad) will fail

JooJoo software: Make or Break?

Frankly, the software is going to make or break the JooJoo, and Chandrasekar was quick to remind us that the models we were using were nothing near ready for commercial release.

Upon pressing the On button, the JooJoo boots in around nine seconds to the home screen, which has a series of icons linking to different Web sites categorised under "reach out" (Twitter, Facebook, MySpace), "have fun" (IMDB, YouTube, Hulu), "be informed" (New York Times, CNN), and so on, as well as the date and time, a URL/search box in the upper left, and the settings tab in the lower left.

Users navigate the JooJoo by dragging a finger to scroll the display, tapping once to select a link or icon, and using the "pinch" and "zoom" gestures (familiar to anyone with an iPhone) to return to the home screen or go back to the browser.

This is where the JooJoo needs to make the most improvement between now and the shipping date; we had trouble using the touchscreen gestures to consistently navigate, switch tabs, or scroll. That said, Fusion Garage also had an even earlier pre-release JooJoo model available with a different touchscreen that wasn't nearly as usable as the current model, so if they can keep on improving at this rate these issues should be scarce by the ship date.

When you need to input text, the JooJoo brings up an onscreen keyboard layout. It's fairly roomy and easy to type, but don't expect the accuracy of a hardware keyboard or the assistance of a smartphone-esque auto-complete. Don't expect to do much typing other than the occasional tweet on the JooJoo and you'll be fine. If you're determined to buckle down and blog, the JooJoo does support a keyboard and mouse on the USB 2.0 port, so you could simply leave it where you work.

The browser itself is a WebKit browser (the same rendering engine that powers Apple's Safari and Google Chrome, among others) so it had no trouble rendering web pages, and it includes support for Microsoft Silverlight, Adobe Flash, and Java, so you won't be short on web applications here. Underneath the browser is a stripped-down Ubuntu build that is optimised to load the most basic drivers it can and boot up as quickly as possible.

Once you get to where you want to go, the JooJoo can present it fairly nicely. The screen is very readable, and an ambient light sensor adjusts the display brightness accordingly. Unlike most netbooks, the JooJoo can handle 720p and even 1080p video fairly well (they used the Avatar trailer on YouTube for the demo) though it will only display in fullscreen mode. Horizontal viewing angles were pretty good, but the vertical viewing angle seemed a little bit lacking

The JooJoo's accelerometer will also rotate the image when you rotate the display, if you're reading a blog or RSS feed that requires lots of scrolling, though this also took us a little doing. This is where the 12-inch widescreen dimensions get a little bit unusual; since it's almost twice as wide as it is long, it can get a little bit awkward with websites designed for a 4:3 aspect ratio.

If you're the kind of person who keeps a laptop or netbook around the house or office and uses it mostly for consuming web media (that is, not so much typing), you're exactly who the JooJoo is aiming for - it's a neat, lightweight device that has potential to do web browsing well, and if your work is in web apps then you'll be able to work from the JooJoo with just a keyboard and mouse. Don't expect it to replace any of your PCs, per se - it just might be nicer to use in certain situations where you're currently using a PC, like when you're catching up on the day's news or nosing through Hulu. Ultimately, the JooJoo is more like a litmus test for tablets: if you're tempted by a $500 (£306) device designed for web browsing, you should check out the JooJoo. The challenge will be for Fusion Garage to deliver a product that will not only carve out and establish the tablet market space, but also be able to hold on to it in case long-rumoured tablets from Apple or Microsoft come calling.

Patrick Miller

PCWorld.com

NEXT: The PC Advisor expert verdict >>

Fusion Garage JooJoo: Specs

  • Linux-based tablet PC
  • 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270
  • 12.1 (1368 x 768) 16:9 capacitive LCD touchscreen
  • nVidia 9400M graphics
  • 4GB flash storage
  • 1GB DDR2 RAM
  • 802.11b/g
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • 1 x USB 2.0
  • webcam
  • mic
  • headphone jack
  • stereo speakers
  • 325 x 199 x 19mm
  • 1141g tablet + 354g PSU
  • Linux-based tablet PC
  • 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270
  • 12.1 (1368 x 768) 16:9 capacitive LCD touchscreen
  • nVidia 9400M graphics
  • 4GB flash storage
  • 1GB DDR2 RAM
  • 802.11b/g
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • 1 x USB 2.0
  • webcam
  • mic
  • headphone jack
  • stereo speakers
  • 325 x 199 x 19mm
  • 1141g tablet + 354g PSU

OUR VERDICT

If you're the kind of person who keeps a laptop or netbook around the house or office and uses it mostly for consuming web media (that is, not so much typing), you're exactly who the JooJoo is aiming for - it's a neat, lightweight device that has potential to do web browsing well, and if your work is in web apps then you'll be able to work from the JooJoo with just a keyboard and mouse. Don't expect it to replace any of your PCs, per se - it just might be nicer to use in certain situations where you're currently using a PC, like when you're catching up on the day's news or nosing through Hulu. Ultimately, the JooJoo is more like a litmus test for tablets: if you're tempted by a $500 (£306) device designed for web browsing, you should check out the JooJoo. The challenge will be for Fusion Garage to deliver a product that will not only carve out and establish the tablet market space, but also be able to hold on to it in case long-rumoured tablets from Apple or Microsoft come calling.

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