Makers of tablets based on Google’s Android operating system have had trouble both in making inroads against Apple’s popular iPad, and in differentiating their products from one another. But the tablet market is young, and companies are still tinkering with ways to alter the template laid down by Apple.
I’ve been testing a new, 10-inch Android-based tablet that tries to make a splash with a radical new software design and a dramatically lower price. It’s called the Grid 10, and comes from a small, privately held, Singapore-based company called Fusion Garage.
The Grid 10 has demoted Android to just an underlying software technology. It looks and works very differently from other Android tablets, because it uses its own software system on top of Android, something called the GridOS, which runs custom-designed Grid apps as well as many standard Android apps. Instead of being tied into Google’s standard apps, app store and other services, the Grid relies on other companies, such as Bing for its default search, and Amazon for app downloads and music purchases.
Grid 10′s main screen arranges apps and functions in grids, like this one for Social.
Also, the Grid 10 is going after Apple on price. The base Wi-Fi-only model, with 16 gigabytes of memory, costs $299, a full $200 less than the comparable Apple model. A 16GB model with cellular data included is priced at $399, versus $629 for a comparable iPad. The Grid 10 just became available on the company’s own website, fusiongarage.com.
I found the Grid 10 to be a mixed bag, and I can only comfortably recommend it for people who either are looking for a bargain or who enjoy using cutting-edge, but unproven, designs. The Grid software is clever and innovative in many ways, but rough around the edges and hobbled by glitches.
The hardware, while attractive, turned in the worst battery-life performance in my tests of any full-size tablet I’ve reviewed, exhibiting less than half the staying power of the iPad. It was slow to respond to swiping too often. And it lacks a rear camera.
Selecting a word on a Web page calls up a dial that offers various options, like looking it up somewhere else.
There are two other caveats I feel compelled to mention. First, Fusion Garage built an earlier, much-hyped tablet, the joojoo, which failed and was embroiled in a legal dispute with a partner. The company—which also plans a smartphone—says it is well funded by private investors and has more than 100 employees, but its track record isn’t exactly sterling.
Second, Fusion Garage has been scrambling to issue multiple large software updates in recent days to fix bugs. While these have mostly worked, making such large and frequent changes so close to shipping doesn’t inspire confidence, and gave me the distinct feeling that the product, whatever its strengths, might be premature.
I admired some of the design innovations in the Grid 10. It has a sharp, high-resolution screen and a bold design that uses gestures, not physical buttons or standard Android icons, for such functions as getting to the home screen or moving back to a previous screen. For instance, you get to the home screen by swiping down from the top with two fingers and you go back with a two-finger swipe from the right edge.
An entry for a new contact with touch-screen keyboard.
Instead of multiple pages of icons, the main screen is one huge virtual sheet, larger than the screen itself, with the icons for apps and functions arranged in checkerboard-like grids—one for Media, one for News, one for Social and so forth. Users can configure these. To move among them, you just keep moving the whole board around with a finger.
Instead of a physical volume button, there is a software dial that pops down from the top right of a thin status bar at the top that also displays things like notifications of new messages, battery life and wireless connection.
Similar dial-like controls appear elsewhere when needed. For instance, in the built-in video player, you can move ahead and back, or change the volume, by moving your finger along two dials that appear with a tap. And, in the browser, a swipe from the bottom left brings up a dial that can be turned to show all the tabs you have open.
When you select a word on a Web page, a dial appears that offers various options, such as looking it up in Wikipedia. If you do, the browser screen splits and the Wikipedia page appears next to the page you were on.
To log onto the device, you can use a signature, after a brief training session. There is a backup typed password in case the signature fails.
There are a couple of other cool features. One, called Heartbeat, gathers all your notifications, running apps, new messages and event reminders in one place. It even notes the time and asks if you’d like to search for places to eat lunch or dinner. You can call up Heartbeat with a two-finger swipe from the left side.
The other is Search, which simultaneously shows results from the Web and from content on the device, and gives suggestions for further information in a section called Star. For example, when I searched for “Inception,” it showed me the movie on the device, many Web sites referring to the film, and in the Star section, a link for buying the DVD.
But I found plenty of downsides. For instance, several apps I use on other Android tablets, such as the popular game Words With Friends, weren’t available for the Grid 10. It won’t run Flash, at least at first. It’s easy to forget where you placed an app on the huge, single home screen. There is a small navigation window that shows the home screen in miniature, but I found it of little help.
The front camera seemed mediocre to me, and I found the sound to be too faint.
In addition, the screen sometimes seemed slow to respond to gestures, or failed to respond at all, which is especially bad for a device that relies so heavily on swiping. And the signature sign-in feature, while generally reliable, fails to work too often, which is annoying.
I found the browser to be slow, and it crashed on me multiple times, as did the email app. The popular Pandora music service wouldn’t run on the Grid 10 in my tests, even though it was featured on the home page of my test unit.
And then there’s the battery life. In my tests, in which I play video back to back with the screen at 75% brightness and the Wi-Fi on, the Grid 10 lasted a pathetic 4 hours and 21 minutes, versus about 10 hours for the iPad. Even in mixed use, it never lasted a full day for me.
The Grid 10 is packed with interesting design ideas and is priced attractively. But it needs work, and anyone buying it is betting it’ll get better.
Write to Walter S. Mossberg at email@example.com