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Can a $249 Android-Linux 'hacker's tablet' take flight?

Crave's Eric Mack has been testing a prototype of the fully open-source PengPod 1040, just now wrapping up its crowdfunding campaign, and he's reached a few conclusions about the underdog slate.

Is this the little Linux tablet that could? Or just another ill-fated hardware crowdfunding campaign?

We all love to root for an underdog, especially in tech, where revolutions have so often been launched from garages or dorm rooms. But the past few years, there's been little room for Cinderella stories in the world of tablets and mobile computing as massive monoliths like Apple, Google, and Samsung have come to dominate, and even well-established names like Microsoft and BlackBerry struggle to gain a foothold.

Perhaps this is why I was drawn to PengPod, a line of Android and Linux dual-booting tablets designed by a small Florida-based team, crowdfunded on Indiegogo, and manufactured in China with an Allwinner quad-core ARM-based processor at its heart. I'd like to think there's still room for a tiny startup with a dream of creating something fully open source for the Linux true believers out there who can also appreciate the elegance and ease of use of Android.

Last year, the PengPod team first caught my attention when it successfully raised more than $72,000 on Indiegogo for a 7- and 10-inch Android tablet capable of booting into Linux from an SD card. A small community has coalesced around the devices, but problems with a supplier led to the discontinuation of the two original models.

The team, led by developer Neal Peacock, regrouped and last month launched a second Indiegogo campaign for the 9.7-inch PengPod 1040, which improves upon the original design and allows for easy switching between multiple operating systems from its 16GB of internal flash storage -- no more need to create a bootable SD card.

With a new supplier lined up, Peacock says they'll be able to deliver the new PengPods by December to crowdfunders who pony up at least $249 ($294 if you're outside the US to cover shipping).

In the meantime, it's pretty tough to find these devices in the wild at the moment, but I was able to get my hands on a sample of the PengPod 1040, spend a few weeks with it, and come to a few conclusions.

Seeing the sausage get made

First off, it's important to point out that the device I've got here on my desk is basically a prototype. Compared to other review units I have from the likes of Samsung and Kyocera, it's not quite ready for prime time -- the big boys would never let a device get into the hands of a journalist that wasn't totally polished. In a sense, it's like test-driving whatever Apple's upcomingiPad looked like several months before Jony Ive and Tim Cook signed off on everything and fired up the Asian production machine.

Over the past two weeks, I've really become a de facto tester of the new PengPod. In my back-and-forth with Peacock, we've had to troubleshoot partition sizes and flash new images onto the device to boost its performance. We also seem to have determined, based on my troubles with Wi-Fi reception in my apartment, that the existing module in the prototype may need to be switched out for a chip with better noise resistance to nearby Wi-Fi networks.

Overall, the PengPod 1040 feels a little bit to me like a sports team in preseason -- all the key components are there, but they aren't quite working together perfectly just yet. I had trouble doing much of anything in Linaro (the ARM-compatible version of Linux that the PengPod comes loaded with) due to some apparent redraw problems and the aforementioned connectivity complications. Android worked pretty well after the partition size was adjusted, but was generally just a smidge more sluggish than your average consumer tablet.

However, my intuition tells me that the problems I had with the PengPod 1040 are not insurmountable, and if they are all worked out in the final device that ships -- presuming that its Indiegogo campaign quickly raises about $300,000 this week to reach its goal -- the target audience of hackers and open-source and privacy fanatics this tablet is designed for will find it easily worth $249.

"We offer an open-source device free of restrictions and NSA tracking," Peacock told me. "This allows consumers to do what they please with our device, also known as a hacker-friendly device."

Among the PengPod's better qualities is its vivid 2,048x1,536 display (equal to a Retina Display iPad) and solid build. Despite the bugs, the Linaro Linux desktop has been adapted for touch just about as well as can be expected, and the tablet can also run the fledgling Ubuntu Touch, Fedora, ArchLinux, and OpenSUSE. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is the current flavor that serves as the default OS for the PengPod 1040, but Peacock says 4.2 is in the works.

Open source and on time?

One thing that gives me pause, though, is the promise of delivering the tablets to donors by December. I'm really skeptical of that timeline, given some of the issues present in my sample unit and the countless examples of other crowdfunded hardware campaigns that have failed to meet similar targets.

I should also note that although I always root for the open-source army from a distance, I don't fall in the target demographic for the PengPod. I realized years ago that I couldn't fit being a proficient hacker into my life, and besides, I'm much better at being a hack in the journalistic sense. For quite awhile, I carried around a dual-booting Windows and Ubuntu netbook, and the PengPod 1040 appears to offer a similar suite of power, portability, and flexibility that should appeal to a certain niche of hackers on the go.

An open-source tablet is also proving to be useful in other places -- owners of the original models report using the slates as point-of-sale terminals and in the field for land boundary surveying, among other uses.

While it might not be for me, I'm still rooting for PengPod, an underdog device trying to push an open-source OS into the mobile generation. Check out the pitch video below, and let me know in the comments if you think a device like this has a chance at one day running with the big dogs.