The year in crowdfunded PCs: Who succeeded? Who failed?

Slowing sales haven't kept manufacturers from trying to harness Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites to introduce new systems. Here's a rundown of how their projects have fared in 2017.
Written by Sean Portnoy, Contributor

Planet Computers Gemini PDA

The ever-maturing PC industry hasn't deterred manufacturers large and small from embracing crowdfunding as a method of bringing new systems to market, whether they need the funds to produce their new product, or just want to gain publicity and guarantee some upfront sales. Not every launch on Kickstarter or one of its rivals is a roaring success, but enough are to keep the campaigns coming.

It was no different in 2017, as several companies offered new devices for crowdfunding, although some of them were clearly drawing inspiration from the past. That includes the Gemini, which answers the question: What would a PDA look like in a world filled with smartphones that have essentially replaced it? That answer is a clam-shell handheld with a physical keyboard, 5.99-inch screen, and Android and Linux dual-boot capability (along with built-in Wi-Fi and 4G option to keep up with the times).

As unlikely as you might think such a device would be attractive in a world of iPhones, tablets, Chromebooks, and other portables, the company behind the Gemini, UK startup Planet Computers, easily surpassed its campaign target on IndieGogo, raising over $1.1 million. If you want to see how the Gemini matches up with one of its inspirations, the 20-year-old Psion Series 5 PDA, check out ZDNet's Sandra Vogel comparison from last month.

Another tiny computer, the GPD Pocket, doesn't look all that different from the Gemini, though it doesn't try to market itself specifically as a PDA. Instead, parent company GamePad Digital (or GPD) defines it as a 7-inch Windows laptop, complete with 8GB of RAM, 128GB solid-state drive, and full HD touchscreen. Like the Gemini, the Pocket ran its campaign on Indiegogo, and also like the Gemini, the Pocket blasted through its target fundraising goal, cashing in to the tune of more than $3.5 million.

While not as successful as the Gemini and the Pocket, French firm Miraxess doubled its campaign goal (again, on Indiegogo) for the Mirabook, which takes your smartphone out of your pocket and places it in a dock that turns it into a laptop. It's not the first, or the most successful, crowdfunded smartphone dock, but the Mirabook will offer a bigger display and claims higher battery life than the cheaper Sentio Superbook that earned more than $3 million on Kickstarter last year. The Mirabook is about to go into beta, and will have a presence at the upcoming CES, so we'll see if they can ride that momentum through to a final shipping product.

Actually getting a product into the hands of backers isn't always a guarantee with crowdfunded campaigns, and there have been some notable vaporware disasters that have burned customers over the years. Even if companies can produce a shipping device, there can be delays or limited supplies that can hamper future growth. One example of being a victim of its own crowdfunded success is Purism, a new laptop maker that raised $2.5 million for its privacy-focused Linux notebooks, the Librem 13 and 15. Its original batches were made to order, which required buyers to patiently wait for their systems to arrive, but 2017 saw Purism being able to stock up on inventory to slice the wait time for a Librem from months to weeks.

Then there's Tanoshi, which launched a Kickstarter campaign in September for a kid-friendly 2-in-1 Android laptop. By the middle of October, the campaign had raised less than 20 percent of its $50,000 goal and was canceled. That wasn't the end for the company, however, as its crew of Silicon Valley vets managed to carry on and place an order for its systems anyway, which it's currently pre-selling through its site.

The Tanoshi experience highlights one of the changes in crowdfunding over the years. Once the vast majority of campaigns required financial backers because the inventors didn't have access to money to produce, now there are many campaigns that established companies run just as an additional funding source and marketing tactic.

Such is the case with Chuwi, a Chinese PC maker that has turned to Indiegogo to crowdfund laptops, despite being in existence for over a decade. Then again, it's hard to argue with the success of its SurBook, a budget clone of Microsoft's Surface Pro tablet. It has raised over $1 million since launching its Indiegogo campaign, raising awareness in the U.S. that it probably couldn't have managed through more conventional means.

Finally, a highly anticipated crowdfunding campaign didn't wind up materializing in 2017. The resurrected Atari brand announced with great fanfare that it would be accepting preorders of its new Ataribox living room device, which combines retro console gaming with a Linux-based PC, via Indiegogo starting on December 14. However, the campaign was a no-show on that date, with the company blaming an unspecified snafu for the delay. Atari promises an updated launch plan soon, but the incident highlights the risks inherent with hitching your PC launch to a crowdfunding campaign. Expect more of the same -- smashing successes and puzzling stumbles -- in the year to come.

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