A whole two years after becoming a cult hit in the US, the Chumby internet terminal has finally arrived in the UK. Quite why it took the manufacturers so long to slip a three-point plug in the box and despatch it across the pond is anyone’s guess, but then that’s far from the only mystery that surrounds this brilliantly bizarre little device.
First, what on earth does it do? The Chumby is essentially a touchscreen display for a series of bespoke internet widgets that display anything from your Gmail inbox, through the latest BBC News video bulletin, to live departure boards from your local train station.
The 1,000+ widgets are largely created by a devoted developer community, which seems to value the esoteric as much as the utilitarian. So alongside the RSS readers and Facebook status updates, you’ll find widgets running slideshows of Chuck Norris’s pearls of wisdom and ‘the human clock’.
Many of the widgets are naturally US-focused, and we can only hope that international shipping will encourage the development of more Brit-oriented apps. (Read our pick of the ten best Chumby apps for Brits). They-re installed via your PC on the Chumby website, using a process that’s so pleasingly simple and well designed that it would bring a heart-warming smile to even Gordon Brown’s rictus face.
The esoteric widgets aren’t the only sign of eccentricity: the impressively sharp and bright 3.5in LCD display is wrapped in a cushioned leather casing, which has a bean-bag base. At first, you’re not sure whether you’re meant to watch, cuddle or throw the thing, but it’s safe to say the Chumby should survive the odd knock and its quirky looks are certainly a conversation starter.
The touchscreen itself lacks both responsiveness and accuracy when dabbed with a finger. Too often when attempting to select an email, we found ourselves accidentally opening the wrong message as the ‘fat finger’ effect came into play.
The touchscreen isn’t the only hardware deficiency: the ageing 802.11b receiver struggles to hold a fast enough connection for video playback when it’s not in the same room as the wireless router, rendering the otherwise impressive video widgets redundant if you want the Chumby in the kitchen or an upstairs bedroom.
The power cord also has an annoying tendency to fall out of the back of the unit, a clear failing in a device that’s obviously intended to be picked up and handled, given that it contains both a ‘squeeze sensor’ and accelerometer for playing games.
Yet, the Chumby makes up for these irritations with its versatility. Two USB ports on the rear of the device allow you to plug in iPods or other MP3 players and use the Chumby as an audio dock. The sound is a bit bass heavy and rattly, but it’s good and loud enough for a kitchen or office. The device can also be used as an internet radio, podcast player and media streamer (using both built-in software and third-party widgets).
In short, the Chumby is whatever you want it to be: a high-tech alarm clock (it has a special night mode that dims the screen and a basic clock), a kitchen media player or a secondary screen to sit alongside your PC, spitting out news and email alerts. Just check there are enough widgets that pique your interest from the Chumby website before ordering (and note the £25 or so duty you’ll be charged too), or it could also be a very expensive electric cushion.