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.
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. At the time of this writing, Chumby widgets number by the hundreds and mainstream content partners such as CBS and VH1 are just starting to come on board. It's also worth noting that fellow Chumby users can send widgets and customized eCards between each other, providing a means to share photos and information within your Chumby clan.
The Chumby's performance is dependent on the context of its use. For instance, it might not be the best way to read RSS newsfeeds, but it's probably the best RSS reader you can plug next to your coffeemaker. It's not 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 and browse The New York Times headlines upon waking up.
From an audio perspective, the Chumby makes no pretentions of high fidelity, and for the most part its multimedia performance is tied to the inherent restrictions of the Web content being streamed to it. The built-in 2-watt stereo speakers won't knock you over, or hold up under golden-ear scrutiny, but they'll certainly get you out of bed and meet the demands of YouTube soundtracks. 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 rather good, considering you're only working with a 3.5-inch screen. The Chumby's images are bright and colorful, although the screen's resolution is only average.
We can think of dozens of interesting uses for the Chumby: such as a breakfast table newsreader, an Internet radio alarm clock, or a digital photo frame. Unfortunately, despite the Chumby's adaptability, there's no one feature it can hang its hat on as a compelling default selling point. You're either convinced that all of the Chumby's little features add up to the final price, or you're not. A product like the iPod, for instance, includes an alarm clock, video playback, a calendar, games, and podcast support, but at the end of the day people buy it because they value its MP3 player above all its other features. It remains to be seen whether the world will find the Chumby's Internet widget-hosting capabilities to be its keystone feature, or a passing novelty. Of course, given the Chumby's open development platform (Adobe Flash Lite) and user-submitted widgets, it's possible that the killer app for Chumby just hasn't been written yet (we'll update this review as new features roll out).
As it stands now, the Chumby isn't the most practical device, but if you have a general love for the Web, digital music, and new technology, you'll have no problem finding a fun use for the Chumby in your home.