The Chumby 8 deserves a beer. As does Chumby Industries. After years of struggling through the growing pains of their beanbag years and an adolescent identity crisis under the Sony Dash and Insignia Infocast brands, both the company and its product have finally reached maturity.
Older and wiser, the $199 Chumby 8 is a lot easier to explain to people than it was in the pre-iPad era. With its 8-inch touch screen and selection of customizable applications, it's essentially a tablet without the benefit of portability. You load it up with your photos, music, and videos, sync it with your social networks and calendars, and use it as an easy little in-between device for accessing your favorite digital content. At least, that's the idea.
Unfortunately, the widespread use of high-end touch-screen devices has also led to increased expectations when it comes to speed and user interface. In spite of many improvements under the hood, the Chumby can still test your patience if there's something specific and immediate you want to accomplish.
Breaking away from its legacy as a touch-screen beanbag, the Chumby 8 cuts a trim figure with a modern photo-frame-like design that looks like a boomerang from the side. The device is 8.75 inches wide, 6.75 inches tall, and 5.5 inches deep, giving it a steady base against your touch-screen-jabbing finger.
On the left side you'll find a Tic-Tac-size power button near the top and a pair of memory card slots at the base that can accept SD, MMC, MS, and Compact Flash. There's a speaker grille on each side that can be used to crank your Internet radio or locally stored tunes loud enough to wake you up or keep you rockin' at your desk.
On the top edge, above the Chumby 8's antiglare 800x600-pixel-resolution, 8-inch screen, there's a proper inch-wide button affectionately called the "smash bar." It basically acts as a home button to take you back to the top of the main menu, but pulls double duty as an alarm clock snooze button, as well. Flip the Chumby 8 around, and you'll notice four sockets on the back: one for power, one for audio output, and two full-size USB ports for hosting music or photos.
Overall, the Chumby 8's design is sturdy, functional, and pleasing to the eye from just about every angle. Unlike the softball-size Chumby devices of the past, this latest model is a little large to work well as a glorified alarm clock. We picture the Chumby 8 more as a living room accessory for displaying photos, playing music, or showing headlines. But really, it's meant to be a multipurpose device, and its design is adaptable.
Like the Apple iPad, the Chumby 8 has a selection of core features and an app catalog for adding tons of third-party content (news, games, videos, social networks, and so on).
The main menu offers options for Channels, Apps, Music, Photos, and Alarms. The Channels option offers a selection of apps based on themes such as sports, news, comedy, and kid-friendliness. Within a channel, each app rotates out automatically after a predetermined amount of time or can be pinned to the screen temporarily.
To add more apps to your selected channel, you can dive into the Chumby catalog of more than 1,500 apps (all free and divided into useful categories) and add or delete them at your whim. The ability to browse and add apps directly from the Chumby's screen is a new feature that previously had to be accomplished using the browser on your computer. You still need a computer to set up and associate the Chumby 8 with a free registered Chumby account, but after that initial step, the rest of the Chumby experience can be tweaked directly from the device.
Another new feature for Chumby is an integrated Web browser for exploring content linked within apps, such as Twitter or Facebook. The browser is pretty bare bones, and can't be accessed as a standalone feature. It's just there for those times when an app (such as a news reader) links out to Web content. Once the browser is open, you can scroll pages and click other links on the page--but there's no bookmarking, no URL bar, and nothing approaching a standard browser experience. Still, it's better than nothing, and Chumby loyalists should be happy with the new addition and the added dimension it affords link-heavy apps such as Twitter and Facebook.
From the Music option on the main menu you can choose from a handful of killer streaming audio sources, including Pandora, Napster, Shoutcast, NYT Podcasts, and iHeartRadio. The Chumby also supports playback of local MP3, AAC, and WMA files via thumbdrive or memory card.
From the Photos menu option you can play locally stored files. Within the photo viewer you can use apps to stream photos from your online accounts, and you also have options for individually uploading images to a Photobucket account, sending them to fellow Chumby owners you're linked with, or sending them directly to an e-mail address.
The only thing the Chumby 8 is great at is being a Chumby. That is to say, it excels at being a device that does a little bit of everything, but nothing excellently.
Some of its best features are undermined by fundamental problems. For example, the Chumby's alarm clock offers a luxurious number of scheduling options and alarm types, but the internal battery backup won't keep your Chumby on in a power outage and there's no quick way to switch the alarm on and off without diving into touch-screen menus in the bleary hours of the night. Even putting all that aside, $199 is a lot to pay for an awesome alarm clock.
As a photo frame on steroids, the Chumby 8 fills its role nicely. The 8-inch antiglare screen can display photos or videos from USB drives, memory cards, or online sources such as Flickr or Photobucket. As mentioned above, you can even use the Chumby to upload media online, share it with other Chumby users, or send it over e-mail.
Where the Chumby falls short as a digital photo frame is its inability to work without an Internet connection. In fact, the Chumby won't do anything without first connecting to your Wi-Fi network. For Chumby's intended habitat in tech-savvy homes, a required Wi-Fi connection shouldn't be a big deal. But if you're unsure whether the Chumby 8 is going to live in your home or office or end up as a gift for Grandma, you should know that even tasks as basic as playing photos or music off a thumbdrive will require an Internet connection.
As an Internet radio receiver, the Chumby 8 offers decent (though tinny) sound for its size. The stream quality is good and the presentation of streaming content from Pandora, Shoutcast, NYT Podcasts and others is well-done and easy to navigate. That said, while the selection of streaming services is top-tier, it's still limited compared with the abundance of services available through any modern smartphone or a similarly priced iPod Touch.
The Chumby in all its incarnations will always have a place in my nerd heart. The 8-inch version is the company's best effort yet, offering more processor horsepower, more ports, and a sleeker design.
When the original Chumby made its debut in 2008, the world of all-in-one devices that bridge the gap between laptop and smartphone was thinly populated with expensive devices. In 2011, though, this territory is being overrun with connected TVs, set-top boxes, app-crazy tablets, giant smartphones, and inexpensive Android devices of every size.
The Chumby 8 fulfills the promise we saw years ago, but if you're seriously shopping for an Internet-connected screen with access to a dazzling selection of apps, there are better options out there. If you're just in the market for a fun new tech toy, the Chumby 8 doesn't disappoint.