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Cuddly Wi-Fi device brings useful—and not so useful—information to life.
A stitched-and-stuffed leather Wi-Fi pal, the Chumby is a virtual companion, chock-full of useful and amusing information. It’s somehow still cuddly, even with a 3.5-inch touch-sensitive LCD screen mounted to its face, but its Internet-enabled widgets demand to be taken seriously. Because it’s essentially a small, Internet-connected computer, the Chumby is equal parts digital-picture frame, weather forecaster, New York Times reader, alarm clock, Internet radio, and game platform. Depending on your needs, it could be something completely different. While we found some flaws, its casual, fun nature—and surprisingly handy tools—enable it to blend into any home.
The Chumby never connects to your Mac. Instead, this Internet appliance pulls everything in through your wireless network. We had no problem tapping its onscreen interface to make that Wi-Fi connection. And back on a computer, we easily logged into the Chumby website to pick from hundreds of widgets, which were then beamed to the critter.
Since the device initially launched to a limited audience of geeks and developers, hundreds of tools and toys are available. A Twitter widget cycles through updates from your friends. Another gives the day’s newest LOLcats from icanhascheezburger.com/tag/lolcat/. An eBay widget watches auctions, and a Woot.com widget shows Woot’s deal of the day. The Today show, the New York Times, Cnet, the BBC, Slate, and many other outlets can send video or text stories directly to your Chumby. And while we wouldn’t read long articles on the 320x240-pixel screen, short video clips look good, even at the maximum speed of 12 frames per second.
Each widget is typically suited to just one task, but you can program a series into a “channel,” even choosing between multiple channels for work or play. The Chumby will then cycle through the channel, staying on each widget for the duration you set. We most often picked a single widget, making it stay active until we manually moved to another.
Beyond the Internet, the Chumby’s USB ports let you attach a flash drive or iPod, and then built-in speakers play the songs. The Chumby served as an adequate iPod dock, playing lo-fi but loud sound, although song navigation is clumsy. A headphone jack lets you connect bigger speakers or earbuds, which is ideal for using the device as an Internet radio. Streaming Wi-Fi music can run in the background, and any of these audio options works as an alarm.
A motion sensor adds another option for developers. We played a motion-sensitive game, Chumball, by tilting the screen to steer a marble. It worked well, although at press time, only a few widgets take advantage of this capability. We wished we could shake the Chumby to snooze a morning alarm, or otherwise push the interface beyond screen taps.
The simple interface is usually intuitive, but deeper corners—including music and alarm controls—can be confusing. And occasional advertising widgets wormed their way onto our Chumby. These are mandatory widgets that can be erased, but a new ad will take its place. Chumby Industries says these keep the service free of a subscription fee.
The Chumby’s design is surprisingly cuddly, but its power cord gets in the way. It’s hard to play games with the Chumby tethered to the wall, especially with the end of the cord sticking out. A cradle and rechargeable battery would be ideal, but we’d settle for a battery that lasts long enough to carry Chumby to another room without restarting.