O.K., first of all, what’s up with the name Chumby?
It seems deliberately calculated to make this $180 appliance sound endearing, as though it’s the spiritual descendant of the Gumby and the Furby.
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 (in this case, from The New York Times; tap a headline to read the whole article).
Because Chumby widgets are relatively easy for programmers to create, they’re proliferating like rabbits. So far, there are 700 of them; about 25 new ones sprout up on Chumby.com each week. They vary in sophistication and polish, as you’d expect, but there are flashes of brilliance.
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 320-by-240-pixel color 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.) Another widget offers you the video of each day’s David Letterman Top 10 List.
The Email Viewer widget lists your incoming e-mail 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 (and may well be more interesting than reading the cereal box).
You can also install the Dailio widget, which provides your Chumby with its own e-mail address. Any photo you send to it appears in the widget rotation, turning your Chumby into the world’s most convenient digital frame.
Other widgets show you the pictures from your favorite Flickr, Facebook or MySpace pages, or the status of eBay auctions you’re tracking, news parodies from the Onion, or your Netflix movie-rental queue.
Some widgets let you draw right on the screen with your fingernail, either as a Note to Self (“pick up Dad”) 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 have to visit that Web site to choose and configure your widgets. 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 (via Shoutcast and other station collections) or podcasts. With some difficulty, you can also plug in the addresses of sources that aren’t already on the list.
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 U.S.B. jacks. (The Chumby can also play music on most iPod models, although not as a wake-up sound.)
Alas, the Chumby still doesn’t let you simply tap in the digits of your wake-up time as you would on a touch-tone phone — an alarm-clock idea I’ve dreamed about for years. You still have to tap frustrating little up/down buttons. It doesn’t offer a drift-to-sleep timer, either.
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.
For example, there are tilt sensors in the Chumby; one game, called Chumball, requires you to roll a marble along a series of catwalks (by tilting the Chumby in your hands) without losing it off the edge.
Otherwise, though, these sensors are mostly unexploited. Somebody should write a program that lets you switch to the next widget just by tilting or slapping the Chumby; at the moment, you can change widgets only by waiting 30 seconds or by opening the Chumby’s control-panel screen and paging through 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.
Maybe that’s why a good chunk of its appeal is aimed at geeks. A Linux heart beats within the Chumby, and the Chumby Web site is full of tips, tricks and commands that let the hackers among us open a command line and modify the software in delightfully wicked ways. What other company would advertise an invitation like this on its Web site? “If you’re a hacker and don’t mind voiding the warranty, you can probably find a way to make a mouse or keyboard work with a Chumby.”
The Chumby also has a lot of room for improvement. It’s so small and wireless and squeezable, it seems almost ridiculous that it has to remain plugged into a wall outlet. It practically screams out for a rechargeable battery.
The standard volume levels of YouTube videos and Internet radio stations vary widely. It would be awfully nice, therefore, if you could adjust the volume without having to burrow two screens deep into the menus.
The Chumby’s touch screen is also sometimes finicky; the instructions propose that you use the edge of your fingernail on the screen, which seems a bit much.
The screen, however, is not as cranky as the Chumby’s wireless circuitry. It seems to cause grief for just about everybody sooner or later. Even 10 feet from my wireless base station, the Chumby didn’t list my network; I had to tap in the network’s name manually. Even then, the Chumby has a relatively short wireless range and periodically drops the connection.
Nevertheless, there’s something brilliant about the Chumby’s core notion. Widgets are a delicious, useful and convenient delivery mechanism for Web material; why should they be locked inside a thousand-dollar, power-hungry computer? Liberating them to the care of a sweet, squishy pet rock of a gadget that’s dead simple to operate makes all the sense in the world.
In fact, Chumby widgets are actually superior to the Mac/PC/iPhone widgets, for one simple reason: you don’t have to summon them explicitly. Even though you open Mac or PC widgets with only a keystroke, you still have to think to do that — and weeks might go by in the meantime. But Chumby widgets are always there, waiting only for your glance, quietly filling you in on what’s going on in the world (and the world of your friends). The net effect on your life is completely different.
So how, then, do you define the Chumby?
Nobody quite knows, but it sure is a lot of fun.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.