Chumby Industries Chumby

A soft, cuddly, killing machine.

Chumby Industries Chumby
  • Chumby Industries Chumby
  • Chumby Industries Chumby
  • Chumby Industries Chumby
  • Expert Rating

    4.25 / 5

Pros

  • Easy to use, very capable hardware, open-source hardware and software, extremely hackable and expandable

Cons

  • Low resolution screen, touch screen is slightly unresponsive

Bottom Line

There’s room for improvement but the Chumby is a very capable device in its own right. However, software and hardware hacks from users will make the Chumby all the more fun and useful.

Would you buy this?

Until now Internet widgets have been shackled to the computer; they've generally been mildly amusing gimmicks that only occasionally prove useful. Chumby hopes to change this, freeing widgets from their PC overlord and making them an integral part of the user’s daily life at the bedside, in a lounge room or on a desk at the office. To a large extent, the Chumby succeeds; its success globally means there is a large, established developer community for Australian newcomers to plug into.

Covered in what looks like the left-over leather from Fonzie’s jacket, the Chumby isn’t very attractive at first glance. It retains a certain "cuddly factor" that makes the device more approachable, and its size makes it easy to place anywhere in the modern home without drawing too much attention. For those who can’t handle the Happy Days look, there are additional skins for the Chumby available for $39 each from Internode.

Under the unattractive leather, the Chumby’s guts are definitely capable. The unit boasts a touch screen and an accelerometer (cue iPhone comparisons), while the 802.11g Wi-Fi adapter supports most common security protocols, including WEP, WPA and WPA2 with AES encryption. A 350MHz processor drives the Chumby, with 64MB of storage for caching widgets. Two external USB ports allow users to plug in an iPod to charge and play or a USB drive to save settings.

The Chumby’s cuteness extends beyond its design and into its user interface. Set up and activation, for example, is a simplified process which uses a mini-game to sync the Chumby to the appropriate online account. Once done, the “chumbification” process begins through the Chumby Web site, which allows users to easily add or remove widgets, customise individual settings and create new “channels” in order to organise widgets into categories. Apart from widget deletion, which can be done on the Chumby itself, most configuration options are only available through the Web site, with the Chumby automatically or manually syncing to the server to reflect user changes.

The Chumby has some restrictive hardware specifications. It offers a hardware resolution of 320x240, which tends to affect detailed pictures when they are scaled down for the device. In particular, the ever-popular “I Can Has Cheezburger” widget suffers from this low resolution.

The touch screen is also slightly flawed. The screen seems optimised for use with a stylus, making regular use a chore for people with large fingers. There are exceptions — swiping across photos for example — where the touch screen is slightly more responsive to fingers, but in general users may become frustrated by having to push harder on the screen. Chumby Industries promises improvements in the 2009 hardware refresh of the Chumby, so late adopters may have a better experience.

While widgets are the star of the Chumby party, there is also plenty of integrated software to keep the user going. Apart from the obligatory alarm clock function, there is also a comprehensive music widget, which gives users access to music files on an iPod or USB flash drive, as well as the ability to access Internet radio stations and music discovery services like Pandora. These functions all worked well and were quite fast, though the iPod widget's lack of support for the iPhone 3G is disappointing.

The Chumby’s potential lies in the usefulness of the widgets available. Thankfully, with the device officially available in the US since February 2008, Australian’s aren’t stuck with a soft brick. Users can access an established database of useful widgets that serve any number of different purposes. Unsurprisingly, the amount of local content available is somewhat limited, but as the Chumby becomes widely available and garners support from users, the number of Australia-specific widgets is bound to grow.

It is hard to properly assess a device that is so dependent on the community for success. From what we’ve seen of the community at the moment, as well as its potential for even more growth, it is clear that the Chumby is more than a toy: it's a useful tool that is open to expansion.

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