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Friday, February 1, 2008

Chumby Review

First the background of why I wanted something called a Chumby. There was a blurb in Popular Science about a consumer product in development what promised a Linux-powered mini-computer, always connected wirelessly to the internet, with a touch screen displaying user-created widgets, enclosed in a fabric pouch. On top of this coolness, iPods connect to one of the two powered USB jacks in the back, which allowed the iPod to recharge and be controlled through the Chumby. These specs piqued my interest, and I kept an eye on the official website through the long gestation process.

In the summer of 2007, a notice went up on their website to allow fans the chance to sign up on a mailing list for first chance to grab a prerelease Chumby. My email was added to the list and in October, I ordered one of the first available units. The little device arrived at my front door via UPS from China, I unpacked it, configured the network, and then disappointment hit like a brick.

To be fair, the Chumby acted exactly like it was advertised: The unit connected to my wifi network with ease and downloaded the widget I selected from the website. These widgets included a Flickr photo stream viewer, weather, little games, a flash video player, and alarm clocks. The widgets may have changed, and there are new ones since I owned the unit, but these thoughts are based on what was available at the time.

The Flickr widget sounded great in theory; a way to view random people’s pictures and see a little bit of the outside world. In practice, the stream presented a very limited number of photos, which cycled through very quickly. The weather widget worked fine, tough to mess that one up, and the alarm clock functionality was awful.

This is why: you can only choose two alarms, and each has standard rings for alarm tones. The only way to override this setting is to trim down MP3s of your own to fit the correct file size, rename them ‘alarm1’ and ‘alarm2’, and then make them override the built in sounds. I imagined being able to use the iPod as an alarm sound source, or even tuning into an internet radio station, because that makes sense. A mini-computer should have unlimited alarms, one for each day, and be customizable.

So the widgets were disappointing. Other failures I found: The touch screen looked nice, a little low-resolution, but no problems with color or clarity. The touch aspect was not so good, as it required a good jab to register a touch, each time felt like I was going to break it. The fabric casing was great; it helps to set this apart from the hard, industrial design much consumer electronics strive for. The speakers sounded fine, nice and clear for the size.

I did not experience one feature: advertising imbedded in the widget channels which help to support the network costs and allow the Chumby to be offered without any kind of monthly fees.

The novelty wore off within hours of setting the device up, and within two days it was the first-ever Chumby to be sold on eBay. There is nothing particularly wrong with the device, the features work as promised, and many people enjoy it. To me, it failed on a more basic level, that it is an unneeded device that brought nothing new to the table. You must use a computer to set up the widgets; it has to be plugged in, with no rechargeable battery offered. There is no internet memory available to load music, or anything on to, this much be done through the USB ports on the rear.

There have been updates to the operating system since I used a Chumby, and new widgets are popping up as the user base grows. These small fixes will not make the device suddenly relevant to most people. Give it a year, as the current devices feels much like a beta for sale to the general public. When (and if) the Chumby 2 comes out, we could be looking at a much better device.

If you must have something now that plays music, connects to the internet, and has a touch screen, spring for an iPod Touch with an alarm dock. It is a more expensive choice, but you get the added value back in spades.

Check out for the details of this product.

(All pictures come from the Chumby website unless otherwise noted. All right reserved.)

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