With a name that sounds more like a "Sesame Street" character than a sophisticated Internet media receiver, the Chumby One ($99) is a challenging product to describe to people. First, think of all the stuff you care about on the Internet: the news, photos, videos, weather, stocks, and music. Then, try imagining all that stuff squeezed into a device the size of a softball. That's the Chumby One.
If the idea of getting your Internet fix through little 3.5-inch touch screen seems more novel than useful, you're absolutely right. But at just $99, the Chumby One packs a whole lot of novelty for the price (especially compared to the $179 of the original Chumby). Hold one in your hands, and you're bound to think of some void in your life where the Internet has yet to penetrate. Next thing you know, you're using it to read New York Times headlines in your garage, viewing Flickr photos in your breakfast nook, or streaming Pandora Internet radio in the bathroom.
When the first-generation Chumby hit our desk in 2008, it looked like miniature television made for infants. The design was round, soft, and squeezable, stitched together from leather and rubber. The Chumby One keeps the toylike aesthetic of the original, but strips it down to a leaner, lighter, cheaper design. But even though the hand-stitched Italian leather of the original lost out to a generic-feeling ABS plastic, the new model benefits from a faster processor (454MHz RAM), a built-in FM radio, a dedicated volume knob, 2GB of microSD memory, and USB 2.0. They've finally made it portable, too, with an optional rechargeable lithium ion battery (Fujifilm NP-120) good for an hour of use.
What hasn't changed is the size, measuring around 3.5 inches tall, 4.5 inches wide, 3.5 inches deep, and looking right at home as a bedside alarm clock. The single built-in speaker fires a measly 2 watts out from the top, but a stereo audio output is included on the back for hooking up the Chumby One to a pair of external speakers. A relatively large, logo-embossed, 2.25-inch snooze/menu button sits in front of the speaker, perfectly situated for early morning abuse.
Another welcome addition to the Chumby One design is the oversize 1.5-inch volume knob located on the right side of the device. Compared with the touch-screen-only control of the original Chumby, the ability to quickly kill or boost the volume is a great feature.
The biggest hurdle the Chumby concept still faces is its ambiguous purpose. We love that the Chumby One 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: alarm clock, music, and widgets/apps.
Given its small size, legible display, and the snooze-worthy button on its top, the Chumby One's suitability as a bedside alarm clock is unmistakable. You get two alarm modes, including an uncomplicated Quick alarm and a Custom alarm that allows for multiple alarm profiles that can obey weekday or weekend schedules.
Putting the Chumby One in Night mode dims the LCD and displays the current time in oversize digits. While in night mode, an extra press of the screen renders the LCD completely black. Alarm options range from basic beeps to customizable snooze durations and audio sources (including Internet radio, such as Pandora). The Chumby One'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. To remedy this, the Chumby can default to a basic beeping alarm sound when an Internet connection goes haywire, and an investment in a compatible battery pack should be enough to carry the Chumby One through a temporary power outage.
In an ironic twist, we noticed that the FM radio built into the Chumby One is suspiciously absent from the list of available alarms. This is possibly a holdover from the original Chumby, which lacked an FM radio.
As an Internet radio, Chumby One offers an ever-growing list of listening options, including Pandora, AOL's Shoutcast, iHeart Radio, New York Times Podcasts, Blue Octy Radio, CBS podcasts, NOAA Radio, Squeezebox, 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 the USB port on the back of the Chumby One, or stream music from any networked computer in your home. If you feel like going primitive, the Chumby One also offers a basic digital FM radio tuner.
The most novel of all of Chumby's features is its Internet widget functionality. Just like the stable of Web-based utilities for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch, the Chumby can host a growing assortment of light apps, ranging from practical newsreaders to absurd flying pig screensavers.
The Chumby does not include a standalone Web browser, however, so configuring your Chumby's widgets has to be done by logging on to Chumby.com from a PC. The Chumby Web site includes a treasure trove of widgets for your Chumby, with categories such as News, Photos, Social Networks, Games, and Weird. Some of the more practical Chumby applications include a widget that displays your personal Flickr photo collection, Google apps such as Gmail and Calendar, eBay auction statistics, local weather, and a YouTube video browser. Chumby widgets number by the hundreds including apps from mainstream content partners such as CBS and VH1.
It's also worth noting that fellow Chumby users can send widgets and customized e-cards between each other, providing a means to share photos and information. Up until now, the prohibitive price of the Chumby made it difficult to find other people to share with. Hopefully, the new, lower price will result in a boost in the Chumby population and make the sharing feature more useful.
The Chumby One is a jack of all trades, but a master of none. We can think of several products that make for better Internet radios, alarm clocks, news readers, or
What the Chumby One really has going for it is a friendly design, a tantalizing price, and the unmatched flexibility to do a lot of things "good enough." For instance, it might not be the most ideal way to read news from the Web, but it's probably the best RSS newsreader you can plug next to your coffeemaker. Nor is it the gold standard for alarm clocks, but it is the best alarm clock we've seen that will also let you watch YouTube videos before going to bed, wake you with Pandora, and let you browse The New York Times headlines before brushing your teeth.
Speaking of Pandora, it's worth mentioning that the Chumby One's $99 price tag makes it one of the least expensive tabletop Pandora radios you can buy. The Chumby One's Pandora player delivers most of the features found on the Pandora Web site, including station creation, bookmarking, track skipping, and song voting. A closer look at the Chumby One's Pandora player can be found on CNET's MP3 Insider blog.
The Chumby One does a great job streaming music from the Web, but the stream of music going from the Chumby to your ear isn't so flattering. The built-in 2-watt mono speaker won't knock you over, but it will certainly get you out of bed. To fully take advantage of the Chumby's audio potential, you'll want to run audio from the stereo minijack output to a pair of headphones or external speakers.
The Chumby's visual performance as a photo frame and video player is decent for the price, but keep in mind you're still working with a relatively small 3.5-inch screen. Expect bright and colorful images, but abandon any delusions of high resolution.
The Chumby isn't the most practical device, but at $99, it's an incredibly fun tech toy and one of the least expensive ways to bring Pandora's popular Internet radio service into your home.