The Chumby ($179) is a plush, softball-size Linux computer that includes a 3.5-inch touch screen, speakers, and Wi-Fi. An adorable little machine for hosting music, photos, videos, and Web applications, the Chumby distinguishes itself from the world of ultramobile PCs and portable video players with its deliberately simplified scope and approachable, durable design.
With its beanbag shape and soft exterior, the Chumby resembles a computer designed by Teddy Ruxpin. Measuring 5 inches wide by 4 inches tall by 3 inches deep, the Chumby feels like the perfect gadget to place under your arm and take around the house, if it weren't for the fact that it needs to be plugged in to operate. It's tragic that a gadget with all the cuddly appeal of a newborn puppy must be leashed to a wall-wart at all times, but we expect the Chumby's socket-dependence to be undone soon. In fact, the manufacturers include an "unsupported" empty battery terminal in the guts of the Chumby, which industrious hackers have already spliced batteries to.
Gazing at the Chumby's face, you'll find a color touch-screen LCD, a small metal grommet for personalizing your Chumby with decorative charms (a few are included), and three pinhole openings below the screen that conceal a small microphone. Like most computers, all the geek stuff is located on the back of the Chumby, including a 3.5mm headphone jack; power switch; power adapter input; two USB ports; and a pair of stereo speakers. The top of the Chumby is visually bare, except for a dime-size marking that covers a multipurpose button beneath the leather upholstery.
The biggest hurdle Chumby faces is its ambiguous purpose. We love that the Chumby can be used as an RSS reader, an Internet radio, an alarm clock, an iPod speaker dock, a photo frame, an IPTV, and countless other things--but it's hard to decide exactly where it belongs in the house. Whatever use you find for the Chumby, its essential features can be divided into three basic camps: clock, audio, and widgets.
Given its small size, legible display, and the snooze-worthy button on its top, the Chumby's suitability as a bedside alarm clock is unmistakable. Putting the Chumby in Night mode dims the LCD and displays the current time in oversize digits. Alarm options range from basic beeps to customizable snooze durations and audio sources (including Internet radio). The Chumby's Achilles' heel as an alarm clock, however, is that should the power or Internet connection give out during the night, your morning alarm may be in jeopardy.
As an Internet radio, Chumby offers an ever-growing list of listening options, including AOL's Shoutcast, RadioFree Chumby, MediaFly podcast channels, or the capability to directly enter the URL of an audio stream. If you want to listen to your own music collection, you can connect an iPod or MP3-filled memory stick (OGG, WAV, FLAC or M4A files will also work) into one of the two USB ports on the back of the Chumby, or stream music from any networked computer in your home.
The most novel of all of Chumby's features is its Internet widget functionality. As with the customizable Web applications you may have used on Google, Facebook, or your own PC, the Chumby can host a growing assortment of Web-based utilities, ranging from practical newsreaders to absurd flying pig screensavers.