Pros: More compact shape than original model; lower price; now includes an FM radio and a volume knob
Cons: FM radio reception, even with wire antenna, is poor; few controls make changing settings cumbersome; occasionally lost Wi-Fi connection
Perhaps the people at Chumby Industries were simply tired of the question "What is it?" For the Chumby One, the latest incarnation, they added an FM radio and the matter was settled: it's a clock radio.
Except that it's not a clock radio. Sure, it includes a clock and a radio, but that's an oddly reductive handle to put on a gadget that does so much. Like the original Chumby, now called the Chumby Classic, the multi-purpose device can be loaded with any of over 1,500 apps, called widgets, available from the Chumby site. It can be a news reader, a gaming device, a social networking tool, or even a streaming Wi-Fi radio. It's whatever you want it to be and, since it's especially compact, can go wherever you want it to go.
When creating the next generation of Chumby, the designers knew to leave a good thing alone. The Chumby One is nearly identical to the Chumby Classic. Both offer 3.5-inch color touchscreens (although that of the Chumby Classic feels a hair wider) and both have a button on top that lets the user call up a control panel. If you've used the Chumby Classic, you won't have any problem here.
The differences mostly feel slight. The biggest is the casing. The original was a cozy bean bag clad in Italian leather, and was available in a range of casual hues. The Chumby One, on the other hand, looks like a miniature computer monitor. Where the Classic carried itself with wit, the One is all business.
Under the hood, the Chumby One has been given a real boost. It now has a 454-MHz ARM processor, instead of the Classic's 350-MHz version. It also has a big 2GB of storage on an internal microSD card, compared to the original's 64MB. Like the Classic, it has 64MB RAM, but now that's DDR SDRAM.
Along with the radio, the Chumby One has a volume knob, also new. To call up the FM radio interface, you'll need to tap the top button, tap the on-screen Music button, select FM radio from the list of sources, and hit Go To. The Chumby One comes with an attached wire antenna that you'll need to expand to get reception. In our testing, FM reception wasn't all that great, even with the wire antenna wrapped around a larger metal object. While in the FM radio interface, the screen changes to a neon blue lettering on black, perhaps so it's bedroom-friendly. It has scan buttons, but missed most of the stations in our area. There are manual tuning options, but no way to set presets.
The radio interface exposes some of the problems with the Chumby when it's trying to be anything other than a widget-viewer. The touchscreen isn't all that precise, so you end up tapping several times to get a result, and there are so few controls that it can be hard getting things done. The radio doesn't have presets because there's nowhere to put them. Simple tasks like changing the alarm setting require going through the main menu where everything is broken up into different areas. Setting a standard clock radio is much faster.
None of this mattered on the Chumby Classic because it felt like more of a fun device. You didn't expect as much of it. But when the Chumby gets serious and starts looking business, it's easy to expect more. We experienced occasional Wi-Fi dropouts during testing, but nothing that restarting didn't fix.
Our favorite way to use the Chumby One is simply to load up a bunch of fun widgets and let them scroll across the screen. The Chumby presents a kind of controlled randomness that's fun to have around. You first register your Chumby on the Web site and from there you can dive into the vast library of widgets. You can group them all together or divide them into channels. We prefer organizing them into channels. For example, we have a news channel full of our favorite news sources. Over morning coffee, it's a useful way to see what's going on. You can set up a photo channel that pulls from Flickr, even from your friends' accounts, and turn the Chumby into a digital photo frame with ever-changing content. You can even create a fun channel full of silly widgets, like a dog that comes out and licks the screen clean with his tongue. When you get tired on one channel, tap the button on the top to call up the menu screen and change it. All widgets are free, by the way, so once you've bought the device you can have any content you want, and everything loads via your home Wi-Fi network.
Speaking of cost, the Chumby One is $119.95, surprisingly much cheaper than the Chumby Classic at $199.95. The Classic is still in production, so if you feel like paying more for a soft-sided version with a slower processor, you can. We love the new price, though, because it makes the Chumby One an impulse buy, a decision much easier to justify. And something this playful should be a quick decision.
Troy is a regular contributor to StreamingMedia.com, Computer Shopper, Laptop Magazine, and PCMag's blogs. He also writes a weekly consumer technology column, which is published in the Jersey Journal newspaper. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/TDreier.