A couple of weeks ago I bought a Chumby – I bought it secondhand, but it had all the original packaging.

A Chumby is essentially a small internet-connected touchscreen and speakers. Yes, there’s more to it than that, but that’s what really matters. It displays little applications (“channels” in Chumby terms) and cycles through them. Some you can interact with via the touchscreen or by physically moving the Chumby. Others are just non-interactive and used to display information – weather, news headlines, or just the current time. Below is a “Virtual Chumby” which gives you an idea of what it looks like:

The electronics are housed in a soft plastic and leather exterior which is stuffed with padding to create a rounded, tactile, squishable device. It’s the antithesis of most modern electronic devices: the designers have gone out of their way not to create yet another hard, unfriendly lump of gadgetry, but instead to make an electronic device that is cute and cuddly – well, as cute and cuddly as anything with a flat, rectangular screen can be.

In use I’ve found the Chumby to be a real delight. I’ve got it on my desk at work, with an extensive collection of channels installed. It lets me keep track of recent headlines, view a variety of random images, and keep an eye on the time, all in the background without requiring a significant “context switch” (as would be needed if I wanted to track these things using a web browser on my PC).

A lot of people don’t “get it”. Comments range from “so it’s a fancy clock then” to “what’s the point?”. Unfortunately those people seem to be in the majority – which might explain the failure of the Audrey, a similar device launched a few years ago by 3Com. Chumby is likely to succeed where Audrey failed at least in part because the smaller size of Chumby Industries compared with 3Com means that they can get a way with less profit and a smaller market for the device.

If you’re the sort that does appreciate the niche that Chumby fills, however, I can thoroughly recommend it. I’m seriously considering whether I can justify buying a second one, and I know at least two other people who are also seriously considering buying one. If there was a UK distributor then the decision would be easy, but the vagaries of importing something into the UK make it a bit more of a financial gamble, which is enough to put people off.