TabCo’s Grid Phone and Tablet Look Like Train Wrecks Already

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Over the last few months, an unknown company called TabCo has teased a mystery product by posting cryptic videos to YouTube, hiring a skywriter to write “forget the fruit” outside an Apple developer conference and by sending pizza to journalists. Turns out, Tabco is a reboot of Fusion Garage, whose JooJoo tablet was an utter failure, and the company’s new products are the Grid 10 tablet and Grid 4 smartphone.

The good news is that if you bought a JooJoo for some reason, Fusion Garage will give you a Grid 10 for free. The bad news is that these Grid products are just as doomed as their predecessor.

Fusion Garage’s Grid operating system is based on Android, but it’s an extreme variant that arranges apps in a colossal, free-form grid on the home screen. Why this is better than a tightly-organized list of apps and folders is unclear. The OS has some other bells and whistles, like a notification menu that shows coupons and upcoming appointments, and a menu with context-sensitive commands such as IMDB movie search.

For hardware, the Grid 10 tablet has a 10-inch, 1366 x 768 resolution display, a dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 16 GB of storage with microSD expansion, a front-facing camera and supposedly up to 8 hours of battery life. It’ll cost $499 for a Wi-Fi version and $599 for a version with unlocked 3G. The Grid 4 smartphone has a 4-inch display, 1 GHz processor, 16 GB of storage with microSD expansion, a 5-megapixel rear camera and a 0.3-megapixel front-facing camera. It’ll cost $399 unlocked.

So why are Fusion Garage’s Grid tablet and phone doomed from the start? First, there’s the company’s track record with the JooJoo, which was a buggy, sluggish mess when it shipped in March 2010. The Grid 10 isn’t doing much better in its pre-release state; Technologizer’s Harry McCracken said he couldn’t get the thing to work in a brief demo. I’ll be shocked if Fusion Garage’s phone and tablet are glitch-free when they launch in September.

I’m also skeptical of any startup with big plans to launch its own app store. Fusion Garage says the Grid OS will run Android apps from the Amazon Appstore — how these apps perform on a heavily modified Android branch is another concern — but will have its own third-party apps designed specifically for the Grid platform. Another startup, Notion Ink, made similar promises with its Adam tablet, but neither that product nor its app store have gotten any traction.

But the biggest problem for Fusion Garage, particularly for the Grid 10, is that it doesn’t confidently answer the question that most tablet makers now face: Why should someone buy this instead of an iPad? The Grid website is full of empty adjectives, like “groundbreaking” and “innovative” and “stunning,” but doesn’t back its words up with examples. Sure, the Grid features some handy user interface tweaks, but so does every modified version of Android on the market today. What actual tasks can I do with these products that aren’t possible on an iPad, Android tablet or HP TouchPad? The answer, like TabCo until very recently, is still a mystery.

(MORE: Tablets: ‘Why Should Somebody Buy This Instead of an iPad?’)