Second chances aren't always easy to come by, and when Fusion Garage disappeared off the map following the unabashed failure of the JooJoo tablet, we certainly didn't expect those doors would be opening again. But open they did, swinging wide as the company treated itself to a product launch of the sort usually reserved for big-named companies with big-named devices.
This time it's the Grid10 tablet, a $299, 16GB, 10.1-inch slate that plays nice with Android while simultaneously thumbing its nose at the OS Google built, instead relying on the completely custom-built GridOS. This new challenger can run Android apps despite not actually running Android itself, purporting to give users another, better choice of armament in these tablet wars. Is it truly better, or is it just different? The answer is waiting for you just after the break.
Coming out of the box there's no reason to think the Grid10 is anything but a high-end device. While packing materials ultimately have no bearing on the overall quality of a given gadget, as the ticket for Fusion Garage's second chance the Grid10 makes a good first impression. The box is neatly embossed with a gloss logo on flat cardboard, while the tablet itself comes with a selection of crimson accessories that provide some contrast to the otherwise dark, monochrome surroundings.
The red power cord and USB cable rely on a proprietary port that's situated on the left side of the device. It's a bit narrower than Apple's own connector, but thicker and, ultimately, about a million times easier to plug something in to. Still, we'd have preferred plain 'ol micro-USB. Also, we'd like to point out right here that the USB cable is not included in the box, and will cost you a shocking $29 if you'd like one. Yes thirty bucks for a USB cable that you'll need if you want to push content right to your device.
Also on the left side you'll find the 3.5mm headphone jack and, below, the microSD slot. Using this you can augment the tablet's storage and (unlike the Sony Tablet S) you can actually use it for playing media and the like. Over on the right is where the diminutive power button lives, situated just above where the SIM can slot in for 3G-equipped versions.
Other than a pair of tiny (ineffective) speakers and a 1.3 megapixel webcam pointing back at you, stuck in the bezel above the LCD, that's all there is to set this apart. The back is a smoothly curved slice of matte metal that feels a bit like the Motorola Xoom to the touch and, surprisingly, the Grid10 is a bit thicker. It's .55-inches (14mm) at its thickest, at the middle, but that tapers off nicely on the top and the bottom resulting in a device that feels thinner than it really is.
That taper means there's no room for ports or toggles on the top or the bottom, and perhaps that's why the designers at Fusion Garage opted to leave out a volume rocker. Tweaking the output levels here requires you do it through software, which generally means exiting out of whatever app you're using at the moment. That, it must be said, is rather less than optimal.
Similarly, the tablet makes do without a rear-facing camera. That's less of a bother, since we're still not into our capturing holiday snaps on a 10-inch camera. Thankfully there is at least that front-facing sensor, situated above the 10.1-inch, 1,366 x 768 display, which we'll discuss in just a moment.
The tablet weighs 1.49 pounds (680 grams), which is about 10 percent more than the iPad 2 and a bit lighter than the Xoom. It feels reasonably light in the hand, but it certainly doesn't feel particularly comfortable. Each corner of the thing is square and so rather sharp, making it rather palm-unfriendly if you'd like to hold it at one of its four diagonal extents.
Hold it in the portrait orientation, with your hand in the middle, and that curving back becomes a bit of an issue as well. Yes, the tablet does fit nicely like this, but unless you have freakishly long fingers you'll be gripping something that's tapering away from your hand. That, combined with the smooth, matte backing, creates a device that constantly feels like it wants to leap to the floor -- and its doom.
With the Tablet S, Sony chose an interesting shape to make the thing more hand-friendly. There you wrap your fingers around the fat end and, thanks to an array of tiny marks that provide grip, you can comfortably and securely hold the thing in one hand. Here, both sides are effectively the skinny end, and there's nothing on there to help your hold. We never did send the thing flying while holding it one-handed, but neither did we exactly walk with confidence.
The Grid10 has the highest resolution display of any 10-inch consumer tablet, 1,366 x 768, and sadly we'd trade that in for something with lower pixel density but better overall performance. The LCD here isn't exactly bad, offering a reasonably good image, but it definitely suffers from off-axis viewing angles.
Stay head-on and you'll get yourself a decent picture, but twist the thing off on one side or another and the contrast quickly drops -- especially if you move to the right. This will definitely be an issue if you want to share a movie with a friend, or prop the thing on a tray in coach class. Unless you find a way to angle it just right your viewing experience is going to be unfortunately compromised.
So contrast is not its strong suit. Resolution, of course, is, and you are indeed able to make use of those extra pixels to display more stuff in any given webpage. Compared to other 10-inchers you'll see more of a post on our site, an extra paragraph or two in Wikipedia and in general spend a bit more time reading and a bit less time scrolling. But, this makes buttons and text-entry fields smaller too, so be prepared to do a little more pinch-zooming.
Performance and battery life
The Grid10 boots up in a respectable 35 seconds, but things go rather sadly downhill from there. It's running a Tegra 2 dual-core 1GHz processor, which should give it a reasonable amount of oomph, but it never feels snappy or responsive. Perhaps it's the 512MB of memory, half that of most 10-inch Honeycomb tablets, that's causing the hiccups. Whatever the reason, things just aren't as quick as they should be.
Using gestures to bring up dialogs is painfully slow, and it doesn't help that those gestures here are ignored far more often than they should be, often leaving our swipes unheeded and us feeling unfulfilled. When the system does react things happen with such a delay that you're left asking yourself "Did the thing get that, or should I swipe again?"
As if that weren't bad enough, the battery life here is genuinely atrocious. Fusion Garage promises seven hours of longevity on a charge, but we didn't come near that. Just idly surfing around and consuming all the best / worst that the internet has to offer will send the battery reserve plummeting, like the fuel gauge on a supercar. Start watching a video and things get even worse.
On our standard battery rundown test, a looping video with a fixed screen brightness and WiFi on but GPS and Bluetooth off, we scored a mere four hours and 24 minutes. That's an hour and a half worse than the original Galaxy Tab, and a full two hours short of the mark set by the Toshiba Thrive. This makes it far and away the least longevous 10-incher we've yet tested, and that's despite what should be a very healthy (non-removable) 5,800mAh battery.
Fusion Garage Grid10
Apple iPad 2
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Sony Tablet S
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook
Samsung Galaxy Tab
The main selling point of the Grid10 is the operating system that powers it: GridOS. It's said to be built atop the Android kernel (Froyo, version 2.2 if you're wondering) but everything from there up to the pixels you see is said to be custom. Without access to the source code we can't tell you for sure just where the Google ends and the Fusion Garage begins, but it is certainly odd that the Grid10 uses the same default notification sound as Honeycomb.
This foundation allows for the tablet to execute phone-friendly Android apps natively but freed Fusion Garage up to do its own thing on the UI. When we asked Fusion Garage CEO Chandra Rathakrishnan why they didn't simply build a skin atop Honeycomb, he said there's no point -- if they couldn't do something truly different they wouldn't bother.
And it is certainly different. The OS is made up of a grid, and that grid contains icons that can be optionally grouped into clusters. It's not fundamentally different than the wall of apps we're used to on the iPad or Android tablets, each icon tucked neatly into a cubby-hole, but we'd say that we do find this system more enjoyable to use -- even though it makes no room for widgets or other controls.
Instead of rigid pages that you can sweep left and right, here you have a full 2-D map that you scroll through, vertically or horizontally, even relying on a mini-map on the upper-right to jump from one cluster's encampment to another. It sounds a bit like a strategy videogame because that's what it feels like. RTS players will surely enjoy building a precise map that has games and media apps safely fortified from boring system and productivity stuff, but it can be a little hard to remember where you've left things. Those with questionable senses of direction, or anybody who had a hard time keeping track of their peons in Warcraft II, may find themselves losing their icons from time to time.
Should you really have a hard time finding that game you just downloaded you can use the operating system's Global Search. Tap the little globe at the top and then just type to get a list of things that match. Top of the list will be apps, but the system also searches through emails, calendars, contacts and, yes, the internet. (Via Bing, we might add.)
Task-switching is achieved through something called the Heartbeat. Two fingers swiping inward from the left bezel brings it out of hiding, but from time to time you'll see a hint of it, glowing from the left-most extent of the screen and letting you know that a download has completed or perhaps something else has happened you might want to check out.
Bring it to the fore and you'll see a row of ugly, badly compressed icons along the top that represent the currently running applications. Tap any of these and you'll jump back to that app. Below that is a grid of notifications, which might tell you that you have a new email, that someone said your name on Twitter or that you got tagged on a photo on Facebook.
There are other gestures, too. Two fingers swept up from the bottom acts like hitting the menu button (you can also swipe one finger up from a bottom corner), two fingers from the right is back and two fingers from the top takes you home. In other words: things pretty neatly correspond to the buttons found on Honeycomb, but here replaced by some clumsy gestures.
Now, if you read our PlayBook or TouchPad reviews you know that we actually really like well-implemented gestures, but here they're a bit of a hassle. For one thing, it seems the tablet only reacts to them about half of the time -- you'll be repeating yourself more often than you'd like. But, more annoyingly, almost all of the gestures require two fingers.
You wouldn't think this would be that much different than swiping with one finger from the bezel (as on the PlayBook), but it actually feels quite a bit more unweildy. Swiping from off the screen to on should be enough of an indicator to the tablet that you're issuing a command without having to throw an extra finger into the mix.
Still, despite all this, the system picks up your gestures as on-screen drags of the finger. For example: if you're at the main grid of icons and you swipe from the left to bring up the Heartbeat that grid of icons will actually scroll before the Heartbeat pops up -- it's recognizing your motion as a gesture and a drag of the finger. It should be one or the other.
The virtual keyboard hiding in GridOS is wide and reasonably well laid out, with each pressed key popping up and above your finger to let you know what you've hit. It also attempts to predict what word you're typing, including some simple corrections if you've mistyped. Mostly, though, you'll need to reach up and tap from the list of suggestions if you want it to go from "wont" to the more common "won't." This is helpful, but we do wish the list of suggestions was a bit larger.
Annoyingly, there's no hide button on the keyboard, and we often found it popping up and covering text entry fields or other areas of the screen we needed to see. This was a particular problem when working on a Google Doc in the browser, because tapping elsewhere on the windows doesn't get you away from a text field and, once the document was long enough, it spilled down below the keyboard.
Just for kicks, we tried replacing the stock keyboard with the Swiftkey X and were disappointed to find the thing only works with the phone version, not the stickier Honeycomb one (this is Android 2.2 at its core, remember). Suffice it to say the one intended for littler screens didn't fare well when blown up here.
The GridOS web browser has some neat tricks up its sleeve. It does, of course, display web pages and, as you'd expect, allows for multiple tabs. But, tabs here (up to eight) are selected through a fun little rotary dial in the lower-left. Open up a bunch and you can watch them flip around as you twist the virtual knob, an interaction that's visual and rewarding but occasionally so sluggish you'll wish for something a little less flashy.
The most interesting feature here is the selection wheel that pops up after you've highlighted text. A long press of the finger brings up a couple of carats that you can use to bracket some words. Once selected a wedge interface is displayed that enables copying or opening a new browser window to a few predefined targets, like searching directly on Wikipedia or hitting up Amazon for a little shopping.
What's interesting is that this new window splits the pane into two, so you have separate browser windows visible at the same time. This is a neat trick, but it's limiting in that you don't have full control over the new window that opens up. Sure, you can tap around and follow links from there, but you can't enter your own address on the left and truly be surfing two pages at once.
Messages is the email client that comes as part of GridOS, but it's much more than that. It also aggregates your Facebook and Twitter lists and lets you go between them very quickly. Or, we should say, very sluggishly. It's incredibly slow, but if you have patience it's a simple but usable interface with a list of messages in the middle of the screen. Tap any one to see the message contents and view attachments, reply to an email, etc.
There is, alas, no Google Maps to be had here, so you'll have to get by with Fusion Garage's replacement. Called Grid Maps it's a passable system, providing a quick lock on your location and a map view, a satellite view, or a hybrid combination of the two. You can pinch-zoom and even lower your perspective if you like to get a little closer to things.
Search results are generally returned quickly and, from the list of results, you can get more information on the POI and occasionally get a direct link to Yelp reviews. You can also get directions here, but we found inconsistent results with the performance. Usually we were on our way in just a second or two, but occasionally the app seemed to get stuck, sitting there and pondering for well over a minute before we got sick of waiting and just went out on our own.
In general Grid Maps is a decent online mapping service, but it certainly pales in comparison to Google's offering (no street-level views, no store hours, no integrated reviews, etc.).
There's not a lot to say about the Amazon Appstore except that it's your primary venue for downloading apps onto the tablet. (That said, side-loading is certainly possible.) Amazon's built this thing up so that it has a decent selection, but it's hardly as comprehensive as the proper Android Market, which you cannot use. For example, while you certainly have your selection of Angry Birds titles in either store, none of the popular Story games from Kairosoft are available here, nor are the premium navigation suites (CoPilot, TeleNav, etc.).
And, to be clear, you have no access to any of the main Google apps that tend to make Android so good. You know, Gmail, Google Maps, Calendar...
Again, there's only the front-facing webcam to worry about here. It's 1.3 megapixels and takes pictures of a decidedly mediocre quality, but should be good enough for video chat. That is, of course, assuming you can find a video chat application -- neither Skype or Qik is available via Amazon.
If you're going to go out of your way to bypass an established option like Honeycomb and do your own thing, your own thing had better be damned good. The Grid10 isn't even pretty good. It's borderline pretty bad. Software performance is sluggish, battery life is atrocious and we're left with a device that simply fails to beat the best of the Android tablets -- never mind the rest.
It's far, far better than the departed JooJoo, but still a huge disappointment for us. We like a good second-coming story as much as the next guy and were genuinely hopeful that the rough, early versions of GridOS we saw would be polished into something new and exciting, but what we have is still crude and clunky. We're always hopeful for the future, but we fear no amount of polish could make this thing shine.
So this, then, is a second-coming that shouldn't have been, leaving us shaking our heads in dismay yet again, wondering whether anybody else can step in and crack the kings at the top.