Hands-on with the JooJoo

Formerly know as the CrunchPad, this Web slate is a really cool device everyone will want, but it's far too expensive.

Chandra Rathakrishnan and his baby, the JooJoo. Rafe Needleman/CNET

CNET snagged the first journalists' demo of the new JooJoo (formerly CrunchPad) Web slate on Fusion Garage CEO Chandra Rathakrishnan's San Francisco media tour. Quick impressions: yeah, this is a really cool device. Everyone reading a tech site like CNET will want one. But will they pay the $499 going price for it? We don't think so.

The JooJoo Web slate is based around a 12.1-inch diagonal 720p capacitive touch screen. The specs include: 1366x768-pixel resolution, a built-in camera, mic, and speakers, one USB port, and a card slot. There's 4GB of cache memory. What's the processor? Rathakrishnan wouldn't say. He also won't say who makes the touch screen.

The hardware is slim and pleasing to hold. The screen is gorgeous, and huge, and the plastic back is gently curved. The unit is very slim, thinner than a MacBook Air. There are no buttons on the device, save the single power switch.

The JooJoo runs a proprietary Linux-based operating system whose only purpose is to run the device's browser, based on Webkit but again a custom job by the developer. The browser supports Flash and other standard HTML extensions, but it won't run non-Web apps. No Skype for you.

Also missing: a user-accessible file system and printer drivers. This is one focused device. It browses the Web. That's it.

But it looks like it will do that job quite well. While the demo we saw was running on unfinished code, we found the device a very attractive integrated experience. The hardware is sleek and simple, and a pleasure to hold, and the user interface on the browser is simple and clear, although we expect it will get a bit more cluttered as necessary functions are added in before ship.

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Upon booting the device, which really does take only nine seconds, you get a big display of tiles: Your Web bookmarks. The WiFi-only device loads up pages reasonably quickly and you can scroll through pages by dragging your finger on the screen. A pinch out (or "zoom") gesture takes you back the home screen. From the home screen, pinching in shows you your open Web sites. Missing from the current pre-production code is a navigate back gesture (it will be a two-finger swipe), a bookmark gesture (which will be like turning down a page corner), and other functions, like closing a browser window and page zoom.

From the home screen you can use the on-screen keyboard to enter a Web address or a search term. Once you type something in, you can use it as a Web address or a Google text or video search term.

The JooJoo works best when held in your hands like a book, I think, although the on-screen keyboard ends up positioned poorly. You can easily hold the device with one hand, but then you can only tap out words with one finger. There will be an optional easel stand, and the JooJoo will support USB and Bluetooth keyboards.

The JooJoo is designed in part as a video viewing device, but unfortunately in the demo we got, the Wi-Fi network we were on wasn't robust enough to support the video Rathakrishnan wanted to display. The few seconds of video we saw before the system stopped to buffer looked great, but if users buy this device expecting to be able to watch HD video in their hotel rooms all the time, we recommend that they either reset their expectations or avoid hotels like San Francisco's St. Regis, which apparently doesn't give its guests sufficient bandwidth.

Rathakrishnan says he's done no market research to verify that there's consumer support for this product, although he does note that people in TechCrunch audience have been supportive of the product. Of course, that was back when Michael Arrington was throwing around the concept at a $200 or $300 price point. At $500 it's a very different market, and the cabal of TechCrunch fans is not representative of consumer demand.

Rathakrishnan did say he's talking to several potential partners about the device--media companies, for the most part. A subsidized model is a possibility, he said.

The JooJoo with its pint-size inspiration, the iPhone. Rafe Needleman/CNET

The product will be hitting reviewers' hands this month, we're told, and will be shipping in eight to ten weeks.

Is the JooJoo a great device? Yes, it is. But at the $499 price point, we don't think it will be a success. It does less than a Netbook--it won't run productivity apps that aren't browser-based--and it's helpless when away from a Wi-Fi connection. It's a great computer for browsing the Web from the couch, but at its current price it's a luxury item, an indulgence. It's hard to justify its purchase in the way buyers can rationalize an iPhone or a Kindle. It's not a product we'd recommend to anyone who needs their computers for productivity. It's not a device for students, or workers, nor is it a good family room computer (the keyboard isn't good enough). You can get a capable laptop for $500 that does much more than the JooJoo.

If you have money to burn, though, go for it. It's pleasing to use and will be a great toy for your living room. At least until Apple figures out how to tackle this category.

Like so many other tech gadgets out there, in other words, many people will really want a JooJoo. But I doubt they will pay for it.

Previously: CrunchPad reborn as JooJoo .

 

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