Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Chumby in your home

Chumby is essentially a cross between a clock radio, a Beanie Baby, a digital picture frame, a handheld game, and that elusive grail of the Web era, an Internet "appliance." Well, it does make for a good clock radio. Designed in part by Apple (AAPL) alumni,Chumby is soft all around except for its touchscreen and a rear panel with a power button and ports for USB connections and the power cord. On top, there's a button hidden under the soft leather that you squeeze to control certain functions.

Using Wi-Fi, Chumby will connect to your wireless Internet router and fetch all manner of content from the Web—so long as you decide in advance what sort of stuff you'd like. Forget spontaneity. Chumby is not designed for Web surfing or even basic two-way communication like e-mail and instant messaging. Instead, Chumby is all about an overblown Web 2.0 fascination with software widgets, open-source idealism, and building a new community around them. Chumby users are encouraged to customize the device by hacking software and hardware, and then gab about it with other Chumby enthusiasts on

With its beanbag shape and soft exterior, the Chumby resembles a computer designed by Teddy Ruxpin. Measuring 5 inches wide by 4 inches tall by 3 inches deep, the Chumby feels like the perfect gadget to place under your arm and take around the house, if it weren't for the fact that it needs to be plugged in to operate. It's tragic that a gadget with all the cuddly appeal of a newborn puppy must be leashed to a wall-wart at all times, but we expect the Chumby's socket-dependence to be undone soon. In fact, the manufacturers include an "unsupported" empty battery terminal in the guts of the Chumby, which industrious hackers have already spliced batteries to.

Gazing at the Chumby's face, you'll find a color touch-screen LCD, a small metal grommet for personalizing your Chumby with decorative charms (a few are included), and three pinhole openings below the screen that conceal a small microphone. Like most computers, all the geek stuff is located on the back of the Chumby, including a 3.5mm headphone jack; power switch; power adapter input; two USB ports; and a pair of stereo speakers. The top of the Chumby is visually bare, except for a dime-size marking that covers a multipurpose button beneath the leather upholstery.

Widget Windfall: These widgets, developed both internally and by Chumby hobbyists, serve up news, games, photo slide shows, video clips, live Webcams, and plenty of offbeat distractions, such as a belligerent cartoon bunny who'll insult you in French and a pug who licks the screen from inside. There's also a built-in music widget to play Web radio, podcasts, or music direct from your iPod, though not your copyright-protected iTunes.

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