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.

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