Hands-on with the retail version of the Chumby

So just what is a Chumby? Well, it's a Chumby, of course: a plush ball with a touchscreen, WiFi, accelerometer, squeeze sensor, and USB ports. Any attempt to shoehorn this device into an existing category of consumer electronics will be met with at least some amount of resistance. The basic idea is to combine some of the best ideas in glanceable information and entertainment -- an alarm clock, digital picture frame, bite-sized web clippings, and an iPod dock, for example -- with an utterly unique design (when's the last time you wanted to hug your alarm clock?) and an open, hackable architecture. Like other projects of recent memory, the success of the Chumby will depend as much on the participation of the user community in creating, rating, and discussing widgets as it will depend on Chumby Industries' own efforts -- not to downplay the importance of the hardware, naturally. Read on for some quick impressions.

Update: We're happy to report that Chumby Industries contacted us regarding the white specks along the Chumby's side, and like many of our commenters have reported, they've never seen this issue before; they're expressing a new unit our way, so we expect a pristine bezel next time around. Chumby would also like to remind everyone that the units currently being sold are being coined an "Insider's Release" for a reason -- the software isn't complete and won't be until early '08 -- so just make sure you're cool with possible bugs, incomplete features, and frequent updates if you pop for an order in the meantime (though for what it's worth, we've seen zero issues so far with the software build we're running)!


The darned thing comes in a pretty high quality canvas bag, how cool is that? Even the power adapter comes in a smaller canvas bag stuffed inside the big one.

Basically, the way this works is that you can buy a production quality Chumby now but with the big, fat asterisk that it's running prerelease software. The company doesn't expect a gold release until early '08, so in the meanwhile, "Insider's Release" buyers get hooked up with periodic beta builds of the Chumby's Linux-based software stack. It's been rock solid for us so far; it connected to our WPA2 network effortlessly, downloaded and installed an upgrade, and a few seconds later we were up and running with some widgets we picked off the website. The widgets rotate in sequence among those selected to display in the currently configured "channel," and users can create as many channels as they like. We were a little disheartened by the number and variety of widgets available (seriously, only 26 clocks to choose from?) but again, the device's success all comes down to user-generated content as units start to proliferate among the populace.

We're less than impressed with the build and the quality of the Chumby's materials -- check out these indelible white speckles along the bezel's side, for example -- but on the other hand, it does a heck of a lot for the $179 asking price (and with any luck, it'll only get better with time as new widgets get created and uploaded). The object is mass production here, not necessarily perfection; we're sure the company would've loved to have been able to offer these for $99 or even $69, but the manufacturing costs just aren't there yet. Down the road, assuming these little buggers take off, we could see space in the product lineup for two or even three different models of various luxury and capability.