Ok, first of all, what’s up with the name Chumby? It seems deliberately calculated to make this $180 appliance sound endearing. The Chumby looks endearing, too: it’s small, cute and—to use the technical term—squishy. Except for the 3.5-inch touch screen on the front, the Chumby’s vinyl skin (in black, gray or tan) is padded like a bean bag.
Next questions: What is the Chumby? What’s it for? That’s harder to answer, because this weird little invention is amorphous, flexible and freaky.
But here’s the basic idea. The Chumby sits on your desk, bedside table or kitchen counter, connected to a power outlet and to your wireless home network. Every 30 seconds or so, its screen changes to reveal another widget. Widgets on the Chumby are precisely the same thing as widgets on the Mac, in Windows Vista or on the iPhone: small, simple, single-purpose on-screen programs. Inevitably, the starter widgets include local weather, stock statistics, sports scores and news headlines.
There’s a YouTube widget that lets you kill time by paging through the most popular videos at the moment (video looks especially good on this 320x240-pixel colour screen, and the sound is clear and loud enough from the stereo speakers on the back. You can also connect the Chumby to bigger speakers).
The email viewer widget lists your incoming email or Gmail; tap a subject line to read the full message. No, you can’t reply on the Chumby. Still, it’s kind of cool, as you sit there eating your breakfast, to gird yourself for the day ahead by reading about the incoming crises before you get to work.
You can also install the Dailio widget, which provides your Chumby with its own email address. Any photo you send to it appears in the widget rotation, turning your Chumby into the world’s most convenient digital frame. Some widgets let you draw right on the screen with your fingernail, either as a “note to self” or just to doodle. There’s a Word-of-the-Day widget, a piano-teaching widget, 89 different clocks, 53 webcams, 50 games, 25 sports-stat widgets and on and on. Browse for yourself at Chumby.com. You can also subdivide them into subsets called “channels”, so that, for example, certain ones appear in the morning and others at night.
The Chumby doubles its desk and bedside-table worthiness by including an absolutely killer Internet radio feature. In fact, it may be the smallest stand-alone Internet radio ever made. You can choose from hundreds of ready-to-play Internet stations or podcasts.
Finally, the Chumby serves as an excellent alarm clock. You can set up multiple alarms—a different wake-up time each day, if you like, and each with a different snooze interval (you trigger the snooze function by swatting the top of the Chumby). You can also specify what audio source wakes you: various beeps, plus podcasts, Internet radio or MP3 music files on a flash drive attached to one of the Chumby’s two USB jacks.
The widgets are the biggest draw, though. So big, in fact, that the Chumby is filled with hardware features that pretty much do nothing at the moment.
They’re waiting for enterprising geeks to write widgets that exploit them. The built-in microphone is completely useless at the moment; so is the 9 volt battery connector in the bottom compartment. Clearly, this little gadget has a lot of untapped potential.
©2008/The New York Times