A $300 Choice: Netbook or CrunchPad?

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TechCrunch has more information available about their web tablet prototype, which is now known as the CrunchPad. They’ve built a working prototype and offer up two videos that show what state the project is at. Built on a VIA Nano chipset, the slate currently uses a full build of Ubuntu Linux, but eventually, the plan is to strip the OS to nothing more than a browser. What they’ve built is no doubt impressive, but it also raises a few questions.

Size and weight – The screen is a 1024×768 display which is a solid resolution for surfing the web. But it’s a 12-inch display. That makes this bigger and heavier than I’d like to see for a portable web browser. Obviously, any device is a series of compromises and the TC team wants a positive viewing experience. A display that size will certainly offer that, but the prototype weighs three-pounds now. I’m sure they can get that to two-pounds in a final version, but that’s still a bit much to tote around in addition to another computer. An eight-inch slate is more appealing to me.

Touch – Keeping costs down is key on a device like this and to help do that, the CrunchPad is using a resistive touchscreen. While the videos show a prototype, you can see why I think that’s a mistake. Resistive technology is inferior to capacitive and not solely from a multi-touch perspective. They¬† provide a much more enjoyable experience and are far more accurate.

Battery life – I haven’t seen any battery life figures yet, but the prototype uses a four-cell battery. There’s mention of each cell offering 2200 mAh capacity, but that sounds high to me. The CrunchPad uses a VIA Nano chipset, although there’s no specifics as to which is used. I’m wondering why a C7-M or Atom isn’t under the hood: either would use less power. The Nano might be a better performer but for surfing the web, you don’t need a powerhouse. Perhaps this choice was made with the expectation that high-quality video consumption would be a top use case?

Webcam – Why is it there? Believe me, I like more features over less, but if the device is meant to consume content on the web, why add the component at all? There are Flash-clients that support web conferencing, so there’s a software option for the webcam, but that’s also going to hit the battery hard. My recommendation? Drop the webcam and focus on the primary purpose of the device: content consumption.

Input – Like the many UMPCs and MIDs before it, the CrunchPad is using a virtual keyboard for input. While that method works, it’s clunky and inelegant. Folks will likely clamor for Bluetooth so they can pair a wireless keyboard. That’s more “feature creep” and some additional, albeit minor, cost.

It might sound like I’m not appreciating what the CrunchPad project has done. That’s not the case at all. I’m very impressed with the project and I commend the effort. But I see more questions than answers here and the biggest one of all is this: If I’m going to spend $300 for a CrunchPad, why wouldn’t I just spend the same $300 for a netbook? One could argue that the two devices are intended for different scenarios and purposes; I see that point.

My take is this: what value-add am I getting from such a slate? A bigger display and slightly higher resolution for sure. And what am I giving up over a netbook for that minimal value add? Functionality, limited locations where it works and ease of input immediately come to mind. Would the CrunchPad be fun to use at a kitchen table, in bed, on the couch and such? Sure it would! My netbook is too, so I again get stuck at the “what is the value add?” question. $300 for a content consumption device vs. $300 for a content consumption and creation device is the crossroads for me at this price point. Essentially, I’m wondering if such a slate fills a need in the market or if other devices at this price point already fill the need… and then some. A year or two ago, I wouldn’t be asking that question. Thoughts?

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