Chumby, the difficult alarm clock

I bought a Chumby. An “Insignia”, to be specific, from Best Buy for sale $50. Totally on a whim, but I bought two with the idea the other is a gift. What’s a Chumby? It’s an Internet-enabled alarm clock. Really it’s a tiny little hacker-friendly embedded system (Linux?) with WiFi, a 320×240 touchscreen, and a small form factor. It’s a toy.

Pretty bad user experience out of the box. Here’s the horror so far on first use. My goal was to see what time it is.

  • Plug it in, first thing you do is calibrate the touchscreen. Despite my dragging the little circle into the ring (visually), it doesn’t seem to register until the third try.
  • Second thing you do is set it up on your WiFi. It doesn’t see any networks. I type my SSID manually. It’s still lost. I type my WEP key in manually on the terrible touchscreen, unsure if it is even the kind of key it’s looking for. Press connect, 60 seconds later a timeout and no joy. Set up a second wifi network with no password. Chumby can’t find it either, even manually. Go online, read support, try rebooting the device. It finds the network! It’s online! Including a charmingly nerdy screen full of info about MAC addresses, Tx packet counts, etc. Lol.
  • Eager to move along my one page quick start manual, I find I’m not being asked to set the time. Which makes sense; it’s online afterall, but then why does the manual say it should?
  • Asked to register my device online. Have to create yet another @#*$#$ website account, with another username that’s unique, with another password, with another email verification step, with another “click here to not get spam” choice. I’m tired of Internet accounts. Fortunately, the device pairing goes smoothly, including a nice little AJAX notification in the browser.
  • Start the device. Maybe I can see a clock now? No, I get some headline scroll of TUAW feeds, including the word “RSS” prominently featured in the Chumby UI.
  • Stuck, not sure how to get to the clock, I randomly hit buttons. Suddenly presented with the option to upgrade the Chumby. OK, sure, and now for 5 minutes I’m being admonished “Do not disconnect the power at any time.”
  • Chumby finally reboots. I’m treated to a scrolling slideshow of apps I don’t want. What time is it?!
  • Find the button on top of the device (not the touchscreen), which lets me choose apps. Scroll through “featured apps” to 10 of 16, which is a clock. Find it’s 15 minutes after I started, then the app disappears.
  • Sometime later my Chumby starts scrolling apps again, including one to a page with ads selling me more crap from the manufacturer. Charming.

I think I’ll be setting up the other Chumby at home before presenting it as a gift. I like to troll my Apple-loving friends with how pretentious, closed, and expensive Apple devices are. But I’ll give Apple this, they have an excellent first-time user experience. OTOH their equivalent device, the iPod Touch, is 5x as expensive.

Snark aside, it’s not a bad device for $50. The main UI is “scroll through a bunch of Flash apps”. That doesn’t work for me, so I’ve set it to run a single app, the Flickr + clock app. It’s also able to play Internet radio streams in the background. That’s pretty slick.