Crunchtime for JooJoo – the £319 12″ MID

It’s funny how one product can change everyone’s perceptions of what’s feasible on the marketplace. Nearly two years in gestation, the JooJoo’s origins are a hybrid of UMPC/MID and netbook thinking – netbook class hardware in a UMPC shell, but with the MID’s cut-down OS theory. With a stripped-bare UI, large, colourful multitouch screen and accessible x86 hardware, what started out as a gadget-geek’s fantasyevolved into a little bit of a commercial nightmare for the manufacturers and developers at Fusion Garage. None of which has any bearing, ultimately, on what you get for your cash when you find a JooJoo.

Wild JooJoos are pretty hard to find, few made it into the hands of journalists or end users but if you want your own you may track them down on eBay and the like.

(This was originally written in June/July 2010)

Revisiting a review first penned in 2010, and never published as JooJoo, quite rightly had they been able to deliver on their plans, wanted to avoid the negative publicity of their distinctly beta implementation. Rushed to market to try to beat the iPad’s announcement, the JooJoo was pioneering in the tablet wars pushed into the mainstream by Apple’s “Magical” iPad – and a troubled gestation was nothing compared to the difficult childhood and possibly premature demise it suffered.

JooJoo's Software never progressed further.

I took the decision to hold back on this review to give them a chance to work out the bugs – even though I felt it was a fair, and objective report on the system. A year later, with the JooJoo tablet as was a mere memory and no sign of the announced Android tablets, I think Fusion Garage’s flawed attempt at entering the tablet market deserves an airing.

This is a geek and tech site above all else; the actual hardware you get inside the JooJoo is of just as much interest as the overall package. We buy all manner of stuff, just to throw away the hard work of the developers and the considerations of the marketplace in an endeavour to force it to do something it shouldn’t. If you look at the JooJoo as components for your money, your £319 is pretty well spent:

Browsing with multiple windows.

Atom N270 CPU at 1.6GHz, paired to an Nvidia ION chipset (GeForce 3400M and DDR3 memory).
The motherboard and components are high-quality items, well designed, with a good cooling setup given the available space.
12.1″ 1366 x 768 colour LED-backlit display with multitouch capacitive ‘glass’ touchscreen (not sure if it is actually glass yet).
Mini-SATA interface, provided with a 4GB drive. Whether others will work is another matter.
802.11b/g WiFi (the card also provides bluetooth, but the JooJoo has no way of using it with the current OS)
One USB 2.0 port
Webcam
One free Mini-PCIe slot, with associated SIM card slot – destined for 3G upgrades
1GB of memory, in a 200-pin SODIMM – upgradeable to 2GB, 4GB will leave 3.7GB (or less) available to the user but is technically feasible.
What appears to be an EFI BIOS.

Flash-based sites were supported.

You also get a decent capacity battery, stereo speakers, a solid plastic chassis with a thin metal backing plate, and JooJoo OS.

Thin metal chassis hides netbook-class hardware.

Unfortunately, what you don’t get yet is the user interface maturity that makes other platforms appealing. The JooJoo OS makes sense in some regards, but what the user experiences is lacking too much; it’s gone from stripped-down, to “featureless” – a concept that Chandra, the CEO of Fusion Garage, would probably argue was a feature in itself. It’s the most literal description of wrapping hardware around a web browser I’ve seen yet, but it lacks the immediacy and consistency that would make this a good thing. It’s early days, but like most startups the early days may be the only days they get; the iPad was in gestation for six years and the first iteration of what is now named iOS – the original iPhone – came in for a lot of criticism for the choices made. It took Apple two years after launch to get the iPhone (and as such the iPad) fully featured enough to be a genuinely solid product that appealed across the board; if anyone else had launched the 2G iPhone it would have sunk without trace and taken the iPad project with it.

Browser-based UI

With the iPhone however, users saw the potential in the OS and the hardware, and worked to break Apple’s limitations and make it fit what they wanted it to do. With the JooJoo, users see the potential in the hardware and throw away the OS, leaving yet another Atom-based unit struggling under the weight of Mac OS or a full-fat Linux distro – or even Windows crammed into that 4GB SSD. All of which are invariably flawed, slow and pointless exercises in the real world. Fusion Garage is heading in the right direction but it hasn’t had time to get there yet.

The concept is pretty much sound – the iPad has demonstrated that with the right environment, an unfamiliar OS can be intuitive and powerful under the hood without having to be slow. The hardware is easily good enough, this combination should turn in a Geekbench score into the high 800s easily – almost three times the iPad’s benchmark. What needs to be addressed is the way the software has been assembled. Currently, the JooJoo’s OS is essentially a Linux distro that only runs a full-page web browser; even the UI as we see it is a locally-generated website (and an unresponsive one at that); with features like a webcam and bluetooth yet no applications to use them it’s hard to believe that what Fusion Garage have shipped is anything other than a browser-based facsimile of the OS they want to deliver.

Onscreen keyboard is inefficient.

Now, that becomes an interesting question. What if that status bar were actually a status bar, which resized the web page when it came down? What if the JooJoo menu were genuinely the OS’ UI, and the little squares a genuine OS UI element linking directly to websites with an efficient, dedicated webkit browser, perhaps one with an API which would allow JooJoo specific “apps” to be developed in much the same way as Apple intended with the original iPhone release? Knowing that Apple were working on the iPad concept long before the iPhone, let alone the pad launched it’s hard to see how Fusion Garage can really catch up to this level of polish with a dev team numbered in tens rather than hundreds, without billions in cash reserves – yet anyone who indulges in slightly left-field projects can confirm that sometimes great, consumer-product based beating systems can be designed on a shoestring and developed on a near-hobbyist basis. I’d personally hold XBMC, Xbox Media Centre, as a shining example of what can be achieved. Of course, XBMC happened slowly, and didn’t have a commercial product launch and VCI in the background hungry for returns, but the results made a £99 console into one of the best home multimedia devices available at the time.

A stylish way of concealing a real USB port.

Chandra’s determination to bring JooJoo to market has to be admired, and geeks everywhere should be looking to this technology as a great opportunity. As someone with a long history and interest in this segment however, I already know that your opportunity to buy a JooJoo is limited. FG’s eagerness to put this device in the hands of consumers, to offer them the choice between a mature concept and an unknown quantity in such a blatant fashion has dealt a knockout blow to JooJoo in Western markets where the MID has failed, repeatedly, to get a foothold. American and European customers want “computers”, an easy web-browsing experience is nice but simply not enough for a market that understands what they are buying beyond the appliance level. It’s the same entrenched market identity that will see China and India leading the way with alternative-energy transport, a new generation of consumers that simply see a useful appliance and have fewer preconceptions about what a “car” is.

JooJoo runs out of power.

JooJoo is down, make no mistake, but the count is still ongoing. At this stage Fusion Garage needs to offer consumers a choice; bring to the system a mature, slow and familiar OS (be it Windows 7 Home Premium with the correct multi-touch drivers, and a 32GB SSD, for the cost of a 16GB iPad – a big ask given the cost of the licenses but one Microsoft may well support – or a Linux distribution) and continue development of JooJoo OS in the background either as a commercial undertaking ready to launch a lower cost, lighter and longer-lived JooJoo V2 (at this stage, dual-core ARM systems being an ideal target for such a system) or as OSS, potentially bringing a developer team of thousands on board.

As long as the myth of the web browser-based UI continues to deliver poor battery life and a substandard user experience, the excellent hardware platform will be little more than a footnote in computing history’s latest saga.

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