TechCrunch Tablet Update: Prototype B

It’s time for an update on the progress we’ve made on the low cost touch screen tablet that I first wrote about in July 2008 when I asked for a dead simple touch screen web tablet that boots right to the browser. Here’s our first post on the tablet, which we’re now calling the CrunchPad internally.

The idea is to get a new type of device into people’s hands for as cheap as possible (we were aiming for $200, it looks like $299 is more realistic). It fits perfectly on your lap while you are sitting in front of the TV, so you can look up stuff on Wikipedia or IMDB as you channel surf. It plays Flash video flawlessly so you can watch movies and TV shows on Hulu or Joost or wherever. Or listen to music on MySpace Music. Or use TokBox to have a video chat with your parents. Then check email and call it a day. Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Hulu, Wikipedia, Google Docs and Gmail are the killer apps for this device.

Because the device skips the resource-sucking parts of the operating system and focuses on one application – the browser – very low end hardware can be used and still give users a desktop-like Internet browsing experience.

We built a working but very humble Prototype A in August. It barely booted, but once it did it was a working touch screen web tablet built on very low end hardware. And when I surfed the web with it, I knew I wanted one that worked properly.

Since August a lot has happened. First, we now have a team lead – Louis Monier. Louis, formerly the founder/CTO of AltaVista (he is credited with building one of the first Internet search engines), has also spent time at eBay (head of the Advanced Technology Group), Google and Cuil. Louis left Cuil in the Fall and has been spending his spare time working with outside teams to build the new prototype. He’s in love with the project, and we’re lucky to get his time.

Second, we’ve completed Prototype B of the CrunchPad and are ready to show it to you. I include pictures and video to show it in action.

CrunchPad Prototype B

The device has a 12-inch touchscreen with a 4:3 aspect ratio (which is ideal for web browsing in my opinion). It is powered with a Via Nano processor, which has performed at par with the Intel Atom in our testing. 1 GB of ram (its more than we need) and a 4 GB flash drive to store the OS and browser and any cache. Resolution is 1024×768, which means the vast majority of websites are viewed in full width without scrolling. The device also has wifi, an accelerometer (so when you turn the screen on its side you can view more of a web page), a camera and a four cell battery. Total cost of the device, when we include estimates for the case, codecs and other miscellaneous items, is just over $200. Prototype B is actually much less expensive because the screen we used isn’t very good. The price estimate includes a much better, more expensive LCD.

The case, which was designed and built by David Yarnell and Greg Lalier from Dynacept, is 12.5″ x 9.7″ x 1.3″. It’s about twice as thick as is needs to be without further engineering – we just built in a safety thickness in case of heat or other issues. The device weighs three pounds, partially due to the extra batteries we’ve stuffed into it to see how long we can run it without power. Still, the device weighs in at 2 oz less than the 10″ eeePC.

The software: currently we’re running a full install of Ubuntu Linux on the prototype with a custom Webkit browser. A lot of the work done to date has been on the drivers and the virtual keyboard, which you can see in the videos. The software has been created by Singapore-based Fusion Garage, who continue to work with Louis on the feature set and user experience.

More pictures:

Here are the videos:

What’s next?

We’ve completed our original goal of building a “dead simple and dirt cheap touch screen web tablet to surf the web.” The hardware is nearing lockdown. Software development is rolling. And we’ve spent very little money to get to this point.

We’ve received thousands of comments and emails from people who want this device right now. We’ve had tremendous support from the community in helping us build the prototypes, and Via has been flat out amazing with their support of the project.

We’ve also gotten quite a bit of interest from the investment community. The real question for us is whether this project has legs and should go forward towards production units, which is a very big step from a working prototype. That would require spinning the company off from the blog and building a team around Louis. It’s a decision we haven’t made yet.