Wake up to versatile, Web-based Chumby

The Internet has spawned plenty of innovation in a relatively short period of time. One of the more interesting developments—at least from a gadget perspective—is the ongoing push for an Internet that doesn’t need a computer to connect.

We’ve seen this trend blossom primarily through mobile phones, but it’s also happening with music players—the iPod touch is practically a pocket computer—and TVs and Blu-ray players that can play content direct from websites such as Pandora and Netflix.

Still, there’s another category of connected gadgets that are useful and fun. Devices in this category are sometimes called “Internet appliances” because they can be sprinkled strategically about the house to serve as a mini-gateway to the Web.

Examples of this new generation of Web-enabled appliances include media devices like the Livio Radio ($199)or the family of Internet radio players from Pure (pure.com/us), which use the Web to find thousands of Internet radio stations.

Then there are devices such as the Liveboard scoreboard ($199), a single-use gadget for baseball fans. This device is essentially a replica of an old-school ballpark stadium that displays scores from Major League Baseball games and uses its wireless Internet connection to update scores as they come in.

Still, none of these connected devices is like either of the two devices Chumby Industries have on the market. Almost identical in function, the Chumby Classic ($150-$200) and the Chumby One ($120) are versatile Internet appliances. Although they can be used throughout the home—in the bedroom, kitchen, living room, home office, etc.—some people have called the Chumby “an alarm clock on steroids.”

You can use a Chumby to wake up in the morning to your favorite Web-based radio station (and create alarms for different days of the week) and when it wakes you up, the Chumby will have last night’s baseball scores, your Google calendar, news headlines or an array of your favorite photos from Flickr ready for you.

You choose what you want to see—and there are a lot of choices. My kids love the PandaCam, an app that streams video from a webcam in the Panda habitat at the San Diego Zoo.

The original Chumby was released two years ago. Now called the Chumby Classic, it has a soft exterior and is available in four colors. The second generation Chumby One was released last fall with a hard exterior and a dial for volume control but it isn’t as cute-looking. Both models have a 3.5-inch touch-screen display, built-in speakers and a headphone jack, but the Chumby Classic has two USB ports, while the Chumby One has, um, one.

There are about 1,500 widgets or apps for the Chumby, according to the company—far short of what you can get on the iPod touch or iPhone, but certainly enough for a device that sits on top of a table. The widgets are displayed one at a time, as if you’re watching the channels change on a tiny TV, and rotate to give the Chumby a fresh face every 30 seconds or so.

You can set the widgets to display for longer or shorter periods of time if there’s something you particularly like. Take PandaCam, for example: If the panda is being especially cute one morning, we can tap the app so the kids can watch for as long as they want.

Essentially, the Chumby Classic and Chumby One are always-on, always-connected devices that provide as much or as little content as you want. Each widget is a portal to different Web-based activity: Just tap on the Chumby’s touch-screen to open the application, or leave it alone and let the appliance cycle through the widgets you’ve programmed it to display.

I put 57 widgets on the Chumby One I have set up in my kitchen. It has been programmed with a recipe widget (if an interesting recipe pops up, I can tap the Chumby One’s screen for more details) and a weather widget, too, that allows me to glance at the day’s forecast while I prepare breakfast in the morning and pack the kids’ lunches for school. There’s also a YouTube widget and ones that stream news headlines from The New York Times and tech blog TechCrunch, among others.

One of my favorite widgets offers the monologue from the previous night’s episode of The Late Late Show. Although I can rarely stay awake late enough to watch Craig Ferguson, I can tap on my Chumby One the next morning to see his spiel from the night before.

Both Chumbys automatically download software upgrades so there’s no worry that either device will become outdated any time soon, but a new Chumby-like device is about to hit stores and give the devices a run for its—or in this case, consumers’—money.

Sony showed off its Chumby-like device, the Dash, at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. At 7 inches, its touch-screen display is twice as big as the Chumby’s. In fact, it looks more like a digital picture frame than a tabletop media machine.

Like the Chumby, the Dash offers an array of widgets—but it can display more than one widget at a time, making it potentially more useful. This means the weather can be displayed on part of the screen, next to streaming news headlines, your Twitter feed, and clips from YouTube.

If the device sounds familiar, it’s because Sony licensed the Chumby software to operate the Dash—so the Dash is, at its core, a bigger, multi-tasking Chumby. Sony is expected to release the Dash next month, priced at about $200.

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