April 7, 2011 11:26 pm

An alternative to the norm



Work on this week’s personal technology column has been constantly interrupted while I checked Charlie Sheen’s latest utterances, some cute cat photos from I Can Has Cheezeburger?, local surfing conditions, the time, the weather, sports scores, news headlines, tech headlines, Facebook, my e-mail, calendar, horoscope, Twitter, the time again, Flickr photos, Groupon’s daily deal, and then all of the above, all over again.

The reason for all this procrastination? I have a Chumby8 on my desk. It was launched on Tuesday. It’s like a digital photo frame except that, along with photos, it cycles automatically through different channels of content on its 8in screen.

Oh, look! – a picture of delicious-looking orange pecan French toast, and if I tap on the touchscreen I get the recipe. Ah, I see Apple shares are down today. “I don’t understand what I did wrong except live a life that everybody is jealous of,” says the Charlie Sheen quote app.

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, the Chumby8 is a summation of all the digital distractions we face in an increasingly connected world, which is giving us the attention spans of three-year-olds.

The Chumby8 should get your attention if you are looking for a digital photo frame or an internet radio or a bedside alarm or a tablet with a built-in kickstand that plugs into the mains and feeds information and entertainment with the minimum of interaction. The Chumby8 does all these things and more.

We spend most of our days moving from one information display to another, from waking in the morning to the alarm clock to cornflakes in front of the television screen, checking our watches, phones, tablets, laptops, the scrolling ad at the bus stop as we commute, computer screens all day at work, then home to more TV.

The Chumby8 is maybe a screen too far, but I can imagine staring at it on a nightstand when I am putting off getting out of bed, or studying it while peeling potatoes in the kitchen.

It is a slightly different and wackier beast than other stationary screens that have seen fit to add apps, such as Pure’s Sensia internet radio and digital photo frames from the likes of Kodak and Motorola.

It also takes me back to how news headlines and information were served up in a similar way by a service called PointCast in the 1990s. It popped up as a screensaver on your computer monitor when you had stopped playing Solitaire or Minesweeper for a few minutes.

The original Chumby, a 3.5in screen stuck, rather imaginatively, on a beanbag, came along in 2006, when it was launched at a camp for hackers. Running a version of the open source Linux operating system and offering internet widgets built using Adobe’s Flash software, it garnered a community of geek fans who developed their own mini-programs for it.

This was before iPhone apps and the renaissance of tablets led by Apple. The Chumby was followed by a more powerful Chumby One but got its big break when Sony decided to develop a version, with Chumby Industries’ help on the software, called the Dash. Sony called it a Personal Internet Viewer and launched it at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2010. It sold well enough for Sony to announce that it will bring out two new versions later this year.

The Chumby8 seeks to match the hardware of the Dash and some of its services, while remaining open for hackers to add their services and functions. It costs $200 (£123, €140), has a responsive 8in touchscreen, decent stereo speakers, a headphone jack and microphone. Two USB ports and two memory card slots allow sticks and cards storing personal music, photos and videos to be inserted.

The device has built-in Wi-Fi and it connected easily to my home network in the set-up process. The home screen’s main menu options offer access to channels, an app store, music widgets, alarms and photos and videos. The music section includes the Napster subscription service and Pandora streaming radio. I could set an alarm to wake up to internet radio.

Once I had activated my Chumby8 and set up an account, I found it easier to set up personalised channels by using its online browser-based service, rather than doing it on the device.

There are more than 1,500 widgets to choose from and customise. While the design is often rough at the edges and formatting and resolution can be imperfect, I was impressed and often amused by a lot of the content.

Reuters news headlines scrolled automatically at a pace I could easily read, as did the stories when I tapped on them, while links in tweets could be followed with the Chumby8’s built-in browser. I liked viewing David Letterman’s Top Ten lists, but the video was in a small box rather than full-screen.

Quirkier widgets that I also enjoyed were a lava lamp effect, wind chimes played by touch, the old BBC test card (without the evocative muzak, sadly) and all manner of fancy clocks.

Chumby’s service could be seen just as easily on a smartphone, TV screen or a tablet and that is where it is heading – I was able to install a Chumby app on my Android phone and availability on other devices is planned.

It will compete with FrameChannel, a similar service available on digital photo frames, TV set-top boxes and as an iPad app. FrameChannel seems to be aimed more at the big screen, with bite-sized information and no ability to go to the full story.

While it is easy to see Chumby existing just as a service, it is also hard to imagine tying up a more functional phone, TV or tablet with it for long, suggesting that the charming Chumby8 and its six-legged octopus logo could still find a place in the home. But well away from anywhere that serious work must be done.


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