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To begin with, the crate is just a safe, secure location for the puppy to sleep/relax or go to when you can't watch him. A place where he can't get into trouble/destroy things. That's the primary purpose of a crate but, an X-pen or any other confined area that is safe will work.
The 'added benefit' of a crate, or other very small area, is that dogs don't like to soil themselves or their sleeping area.
Here's the tricky part: if the puppy is in the crate AND AWAKE...he needs to go out every hour for potty. If he's sleeping, he can go longer without having to go potty (body functions slow down during sleep). Some folks take the pup out every hour no matter what to prevent accidents.
Personally, I would not wait for the puppy to let you know. That 'letting you know' usually comes later in the potty training once the puppy understands the housetraining.
 
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