Archive for March, 2008

Chumby Is Very Cool, But It’s Not Perfect

I received my Chumby yesterday and it is definitely a neat little device with a fair price tag. So when I say it’s not perfect, I mean exactly that.

According to a post on the Chumby forums by a Chumby employee, “the device has a 266MHz Freescale ARM9 with 133MHz bus, 32MB SDRAM and 64MB of NAND Flash.” It also has two external powered USB ports and a headphone jack on the rear of the unit, along with the power connector and a power button (be careful grabbing it by the back when moving it; I’ve turned it off accidentally once). Another interesting thing to note is that the unit’s wifi is actually a USB 802.11g dongle on the inside of the device, which means you can replace it if need be. There is also a second powered USB port on the inside which is not in use. Lots of room for expansion on this thing.

The other great thing about the Chumby, before we go into my personal experience with it, is that 100% of the software running the thing is either GPLv2 or LGPLv2.

Inside the shipping carton was a plastic sleeve sealed with a Chumby logo sticker, and inside that was the burlap or canvas bag that contained the Chumby and all its accessories.  The entire package has a “recycled materials” feel to it, from the coarse fabric bags that contain the product to the recycled paper manual. If you’re the sort of person who uses the phrase “carbon footprint” in normal conversation, you will likely be pleased at the packaging in which the Chumby arrives.

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Being the type of person I am, I immediately discovered a velcro-sealed pouch in the bottom of the unit that contained a connector for a 9V battery, one of which I happened to have laying on my desk. The Chumby powered up right away and I set about watching the introductory video that plays on first boot. Shortly thereafter the problems set in.

Now to be fair, I should say up front that I wasn’t thinking about some things. Like how a puny 9V battery isn’t going to power something with an LCD display for very long…and it didn’t. However, going back to my bedroom and plugging it in near the night stand that is now its permanent home, I was having a lot of trouble getting a wireless signal.

My wireless router is probably 30′ in a straight line from the Chumby and the signal has to go through one or two internal walls to reach the Chumby if my door is closed, which it usually is (roommates). It grabbed a signal and an IP address early on, but then would fail to reboot properly. Upon trying to regain connectivity, it would fail — over and over and over. I took the unit out to my work area and plugged it in so it was within a couple feet of the WAP, where it proceeded to function flawlessly (except when I had it on rapidly-draining 9V power only, when it would make awful stuttering static noises and shut down).

Eventually I got it to grab a signal from my bedroom and it hasn’t lost it again (about 25 hours now).  So just be aware that you may experience some issues when you first get it out of the box. Not sure if it just needs burn-in time or what, but it’s run beautifully since.

After you activate the Chumby, a process which consists of tapping the screen to replicate a pattern shown on the Chumby site, you can begin to have fun with it. There are several hundred widgets available already, including 67 clocks, and you can have multiple “channels” containing unique widgets. I currently have a “Clocks” channel with about 10 of my favorite clock designs (a bunch of BBC TV clocks from the 80s, a Nixie tube clock and some other retro stuff), a “Productivity” channel with a Google calendar applet and a mail checker, and the stock “Default” channel where I literally dump anything and everything that looks remotely interesting.

 “Neat, it’s a $179 clock. Big deal,” I hear you saying. It’s a bit more than that. Admittedly, I don’t use the news and RSS widgets as much as most people probably will. Why not? Well I usually have my MacBook sitting right here next to me, so I prefer to read news on the Mac’s larger screen. But I’ve been able to offload 100% of my internet radio needs to the Chumby. It has a built-in SHOUTcast browser, Mediafly podcasts, “Radio Free Chumby” which has a load of FM stations that broadcast via web and you can even plug your iPod directly into one of its two USB ports and play songs from it.

All of the widgets are Flash 7 movies, so it’s possible to author a widget with anything that can produce Flash, not just Macromedia’s proprietary (and usually Linux-hating) tools. This is good news, and I can’t congratulate the Chumby team enough for making such good choices when it came to licensing and implementation of widgets.

The unit can be converted to use wired ethernet with very little work and at least two particular models of 10/100 dongles, a Linksys and a Trendnet, are known to work with it. You can ssh into the unit easily enough, by activating what amounts to an easter egg, as well as perform all sorts of other hacks. These are detailed on Chumby’s own wiki. It runs its own webserver which can be accessed by entering its IP into a web browser, but the only content is a summary of wifi information.

Now, to delve into some of my complaints with Chumby:

The touch screen is a bit “meh.” It works, and it works well enough, but sometimes I find myself having to press a button five or six times before it finally registers, and this occurs whether I use my thumb or my forefinger, pad or fingernail. This seems to be exacerbated when I’m laying down (start using one, you’ll see what I mean) but sometimes even if I’m sitting up and holding it directly in front of me it still gets iffy. It works for the most part and you can recalibrate the touchscreen as and when necessary.

Centralized widget control is the other issue. All widgets for general consumption have to be approved by Chumby and placed on the Chumby Network. This isn’t so bad, but it smacks of Apple’s “all your iPhone applications are belong to us” nonsense they tried to pull (looks like they can’t really enforce this, however, which is good news). I like quality control, but I like choice, too.

“Seeing extra widgets on your chumby that aren’t shown in your channel above? These are added by Chumby Industries and content partners. Sharing these promotional widgets with you is how the Chumby Network stays FREE.”  That was a message that gave me some cause for concern. I understand that bandwidth isn’t free, but I did pay $180 for this thing. Having seen some of these nefarious widgets, I have to say that they’re really not so bad. The ad content disappears in under 30 seconds and you’re not forced to watch the advertisment videos…this is a good compromise and I’m certainly not begrudging Chumby Industries their meal ticket.

As you can see, my complaints with the device are minor. I was pleasantly surprised by how little about the thing irked me at all. Instead of having to grumble about ads, centralized control and a flaky touchscreen, I’ve just been enjoying the hell out of it instead. I think you will, too, if you get one. The only way to really experience it is to use one. I’m glad I bought mine. (4.5/5 rating)

You can find a bunch of videos of Chumby unboxings and other things that are probably way better than the one I tried to shoot on, where else, YouTube.

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