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Switched On: Channeling Chumby (Part 2)


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

Continued from last week's Switched On.

The Chumby control panel is activated by pressing a subcutaneous button and provides options for manually browsing widgets and keeping one on the screen or switching among channels. Most widgets have limited configuration options but you can add multiple widgets to a channel to compensate for this. For example, one horoscope widget can be set to Libra while another is set to Aries. Currently, only one channel can be active at a time. However, it can be time-consuming to get to a particular widget, particularly if it's not in the active channel.

The control panel also includes a "Night" button" which puts Chumby on its lower brightness setting and turns the screen black except for a very faint clock. Chumby has a built-in dual alarm clock application and can play iPod playlists if the digital music player is connected to one of its two rear-mounted USB ports. This charges the iPod, unlike the line-in jacks of many "MP3-compatible" alarm clocks. Chumby would benefit from a way to specify certain widgets as favorites. Holding down its top-mounted button could bring up a thumbnail grid that would streamline the process.

Clearly, the value of Chumby is dependent on its content. The company offers the versatile widget player for $179; probably the closest comparable product is a midrange iPod dock with which it compares favorably in terms of value. Chumby also costs $120 less than Nabaztag, the Wi-Fi-enabled digital rabbit that features light patterns and moving ears..However, there's little on the network today that would be considered critical information and even the Chumby Web site concedes that there's nothing on the network that isn't accessible via a PC. Chumby Industries notes that it is still selling mostly to opt-in "insiders" and will expand its content offerings next year beyond today's slide shows while beefing up the content offerings.

One advantage Chumby has going for it is that, unlike the MSN Direct watches, it doesn't compete as directly with cell phones. In fact, while Chumby would appear to be the most overengineered alarm clock ever created, it is a good fit for the night stand, providing updates such as weather and traffic that you might want to see at a glance before pulling the cell phone from its charger. According to Chumby Industries, about two-thirds of its early adopters have the device on their nightstand, which is fueling development of more robust alarm features. Most of the rest have it next to their work PC as a second screen for updates during the day.

Also, unlike for MSN Direct watches, there's no service fee connected with Chumby. However, Chumby Industries will insert promotional widgets into channels to help pay for the cost of running its network. Given the closer tie to revenue, it's understandable why Chumby is focused on playing back Internet-based content. However, as a Wi-Fi device, there are opportunities to integrate more with local resources; streaming music or photos from home PCs would be a welcome addition; Chumby can already stream Flickr feeds, one of its most popular widgets.

In addition to the Facebook error, there are some other minor channel glitches in Chumby's early days, most of them HTML formatting errors. Overall, though, there were no major issues with its operation and the device provides a good out-of-box experience. It's a good gift idea for the tech enthusiast who has everything. Better yet, buy it for your Flash developers, and allow them to create a gift for their fellow Chumby owners.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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