Services & Software

Chumby hands-on: What fun

I don't need it. But I want it.

Valentine's Day saw a sweet gadget arrive at Webware HQ: The Chumby. It's a little touch-screen Web appliance that can display a changing lineup of personalized widgets for you: Clocks, photo galleries, Twitter feeds, and so on.

The Chumby gets its data over Wi-Fi, and you control what widgets it displays on the site. Setup is a snap (unless your Wi-Fi access point requires a Web-based log-in, in which case forget it), and the site makes choosing widgets easy.

Chumby says: Better run. Rafe Needleman / CNET

I quickly set up my Chumby at home to display the time, local weather forecast, the minutes until the next bus arrives at the local stop, a photo gallery from Picasa Web Albums, a list of upcoming appointments via Google Calendar, social feeds from Twitter and Facebook, and the CNET feed. Configured this way, it's a great companion at my breakfast table.

Chumby also has an alarm clock and an Internet Radio. It will wake you up to Internet music and podcasts. There's even a dark "night mode" if you want to use it as a clock radio. Which it would be great at, if a bit expensive for the purpose.

Physically, the device is just plain cute. The 3.5 inch display is enclosed in a padded leather beanbag that can be smushed to sit at different angles. In addition to the touch screen, there's one switch at the top and a 3D accelerometer in the unit, which some games use. The device also has two USB ports, for users who want to hack it; the BIOS and schematics are open source and the product is based on Linux. The Chumby site even encourages people to take apart their unit and reassemble it in new ways.

On the downside, there's as yet no way to easily advance through the widgets in your lineup; each displays for a set amount of time and then the next comes up. There's no browser, either, which isn't a terrible omission until you need one to authenticate to a corporate Wi-Fi network. Finally, despite the device's expense, it's still advertising-supported: You get widgets you didn't ask for in your lineup. They're what pays for the bandwidth, the Chumby site says. On the flip side, there's no recurring fee, like there was on those ridiculous SPOT watches from a few years ago.

At $179, the Chumby is not an unreasonable purchase for a geek looking for a fun Web-based toy, and real nerds might have fun hacking at its hardware and software. See also: Bug Labs: The Lego of gadgets.

It's not a must-have device, but few gadgets I've used are as delightful.

The Chumby is available now, although the official launch isn't until later this month. CNET gadget guru Donald Bell is working on a full CNET review.

Managing widgets is done from