Hackit: Designing a web tablet for $200


TechCrunch is asking its readers to help them design a web tablet costing just under $200. They claim that there does not yet exist a cheap and usable web tablet designed for things like browsing, web conferencing, mail, chat, and VoIP. Here are some of the specs they are asking for:

  • thin as possible
  • touch screen (except for power button)
  • WiFi
  • video camera and low-end speakers
  • 4 Gigabyte hard drive
  • 1/2 Gigabyte of RAM
  • Linux and Firefox (in kiosk mode)
  • no desktop interface

We are not completely sure that this device does not exist in some form. Tablets have been around for a while and many cover most of these features. Consider the Nokia N800 or the Pepper Pad.

We also think the TechCrunch readers, who generally concern themselves with what they can buy rather than what they can make, are not really the best crowd for this job. Considering our reader’s abilities to do things on the cheap, we thought we would pose the question ourselves with our own spin. What old and cheap hardware could you re-purpose to create this product?

34 thoughts on “Hackit: Designing a web tablet for $200

  1. What’s missing here? Battery life! In fact hitting the $200 price point is going to be a major problem if the display is to be color and bigger than an iphone. I see the coolness of a doodad like this but it’s like I see the coolness of owning a pony too.

    Meanwhile, my own pet project is to retro a newer CPU board into a Tandy Model 100 and have 1/2 meg of RAM, 1/2 meg native flash, 2 gig external SD flash shared with a standard USB SD card reader for file transfers, and 80 hour continuous battery life on one charge PLUS 40 hours from four AA batteries, for truly durable word processing and note taking wherever you might find yourself. I’m working on the interface PCB’s now.

  2. This is pretty much a reduced functionality Nokia n8x0. It needs more memory (an 8 GB SD is really necessary) and the display size is rather large.

    I’ve got a Nokia n800 and it is a fantastic media player, GPS and so forth. It’s fine for basic surfing, but you really have to breakout a bluetooth keyboard to to serious surfing (heavy google and the like) (I usually switch to my EEE at that point).

    A big screen unit w/ the OS2008 Maemo system would be nice, but the battery capacity is wishful thinking.

  3. That touchscreen kit is half the price of the eeepc kit (http://jkkmobile.blogspot.com/2007/12/asus-eee-pc-with-touch-screen.html). What about mini usb and bluetooth headphones – Sony’s bt-22’s have good sound. It seems like mainstream off-the-shelf parts would be too pricey, and modding a 2G eeepc would end up being about twice the target pricepoint. If one could find a monitor for about $30, it would almost be do-able with gumstix:
    http://gumstix.com/store/catalog/product_info.php?cPath=31&products_id=125 – $20 adapter board
    http://gumstix.com/store/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=83 – $99

    Maybe cafeteria trays and Gorilla glue could make the case, but to make it that thin I don’t see any options but to use prismatic, coin cell, or superthin LiPoly batteries. (http://www.powerstream.com/li-pol.htm) That’ll blow the budget f’sure.

  4. That is only the digitiser, not the lcd that goes underneath it. Normally the digitiser is actually much cheeper than that…

    I would say it is probably possible to make something like this work, although it all depends on your definition of ‘thin’ ‘usably fast’ ‘acceptable battery life’… You can get a old th55 for about $150 that lets your surf the web over wifi, has cameras, mem stick for storage, etc, but loading a page takes about 5-30 seconds, too long for me… An alternative would be the hx4700 (or loox 620 if you insist on a camera) which has about 5x as much horsepower, but it still quite slow for web (although very usable).

  5. The old Fujitsu Lifebook B2610. It’s a 10″ screen (a bit big for a tablet) but it’s touchscreen, 1024×768 and could match the specs listed (minus the camera– but that’s an easy mod). They’re had for under $200 on eBay. With a newer battery the life is pretty good (won’t be all day but it’ll be a few hours).

  6. i cant come up with anything for under $200, but you could base it around a beagleboard ( http://beagleboard.org/ ) which will be $150, then just add a screen and battery.
    it has a pretty powerful arm cpu, 3d processor, dsp processor, sdhc slot, usb hub, dvi-d connector… all in a small package that uses very little battery power.

  7. “Tablets have been around for a while and many cover most of these features.”

    Yes, but the PepperPad is around $650. Yeesh.

    Also, they want a linux core to it- but no “desktop interface”. Seems like everyone wants something specific. Everyone has an ideal vision of what the mobile electronic experience should be. But the market plainly isn’t there yet in terms of variety. Personally, I’d like some shareware apps (emulators, divx players, eBook readers) with my mobile device. You can sacrifice those things for cheaper price, because the platform is less ‘computer’ and more proprietary. But then you get an iTunes app store, and everyone complains about the lack of openess. You have to hack it to “get it’s full usefullness,” etc etc

    So I believe there is legitimacy in this challenge, if purely by the fact that MIDs, UMPCs, Ultraportables, Smartphones and PDAs have STILL not managed to cover all the ground that the average consumer may need at the price point they are looking for, with the features they are demanding.

  8. We’re probably all too influenced by the iPhone’s success and abilities to think that getting this at $200 is an easy thing. In small quantities (maybe tens of thousands), I’d imagine the best price you could get to make one of these that fully matches the specs they want to be something on the order of maybe $600+ or so at best. Running YouTube or other sites with flash is not an easy thing (Apple still doesn’t do it, and I’d imagine part of the reason is simply that flash takes a heck of a lot of processor resources–remember back in the days when integrated graphics could barely handle flash pages well?). Also note that the YouTube on iPhones relies on video converted to the H.268 format, for which an iPhone has a hardware decoder.

    Controlling that many pixels is also not easy–you’re probably going to need a dedicated graphics processor for that (at least a pixel buffer on a fpga)–I don’t know of any easy way to control a 1024×768 screen, other than using a normal computer.

    You could jump to a “normal” computer (i.e. x86, etc. . .) but then you run into the problem of dissipating heat with something that thin (looks thinner than one of those apple air thingies in the pic) and additional complexity.

    I don’t want to discourage any further hacking, but honestly getting everything they’re asking for is basically not possible at that price point =(

  9. I’m assuming that bcause its only to be used as a browser it doesnt need a speedy cpu. If this is the case then theres about 6 old fujitsu stylistic tablets on ebay for £20-£30

  10. I just ordered an Atom Board for ~40$ directly from Intel. May be a nice platform, you can connect a Harddrive/CF directly to the Board…

  11. What about B&W displays? If you’re looking to do an eBook, that’s pretty much all you need. It might also fix the display matrixing issues that come with a full color display, and get your price-point down at the same time.

  12. re: N810
    The 810 cost too much to be practical. I bought one that does everything this ideal machine does; including 8gb SD, USB for key board. The most important thing is to have a machine that is small enough to fit into a pocket. The availability to use free wifi sites to make voip (video) calls is excellent. I would like to through away my cell. The best idea, as far as I am concerned, is to make the best use of technology. Happy Hacking!

  13. Fujitsu Stylistic 1000. Nifty piece. Won’t do it all but it works as a simple web browser. I picked mine up cheap at a show a few years back. Specs – 100mhx 486DX4 w/up to 24 meg of ram. Runs win 95 well, or maybe toss a linux distro on it if you need to.

  14. The only way i could think to achive that time of usage is either solar panels or a removable hand crank assambely for emergency charging.

  15. How about we say “Fixed drive” instead of “hard drive?” Any actual drive mechanism will destroy product-thinness and battery life. And flash media comes cheap nowadays.
    Buy:
    The N800 would fit the description, except for RAM. And it has extra buttons, which could be packaged out. Modify the OS and you get the other features. Oh, and buy a couple of 2GB SD or a single 4GB SDHC, whichever is cheapest at the moment. Interesting… as of this writing, the N810 is $299 at compusa.com and the N800 was $219 last week.
    Hack:
    Seriously, though, the most forward way to achieve this would be to retrofit a touchscreen to something like the eeepc or similar ultracheap laptop. If I were doing this, I would probably just reverse the screen on an old IBM laptop sitting in my closet and add an inexpensive touchscreen. Getting the right non-desktop interface up-and-running in Linux on the thing would probably be the most time-consuming task.
    Build from scratch:
    How the heck would we do this for production? The average user here won’t have access to volume discounting. I would probably use an atom processor board with breakouts for the essential functions. Probably supply the 4GB as a SDHC in a USB reader (under $20), RAM just a 512MB SODIMM (under $10). Video processor might be a pain. You can get 802.11g USB sticks for under $10 now.
    Eurotech-inc’s Atom-based catalyst module has video, usb and SD/MMC interface all included. I’m trying to get pricing right now. They want $3850 for the dev. kit. Hope the target board is cheaper.

  16. It is possible,

    Hack the EEE PC onto a pre-existing LCD screen.. add in a touchpanel, throw in a few of the established mods.. throw it all in a custom skinny case, fashion an lcd connector adapter (this is what I am having trouble with) connect it all together, and you can get a 1-2 hour battery life out of the original battery

  17. well, if your gonna build from scratch, i still think the AMD geode route would be a good way to go b/c it’s already designed to be about 3/4 of an inch think when assembled but still has an ok processor and is low power which means low heat, and i know you guys can get the thickness down even more. As for dealing with the heat for any of these applications, just make your back solid aluminum and use it as a heat sink for everything that needs cooling.

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