Some of you might recall a few years ago, a little device made its way onto the gadget scene that let you wirelessly connect to the web so that you could see stuff. All kinds of stuff. It had a touch screen and even a “squeeze sensor.” It was called the Chumby. It was 2008, the iPad was still 2 years away and the Chumby was a bizarre but charming hybrid between an iPod Touch and a beanbag.
Based on open-source software with an embedded version of Adobe’s Flash, the Chumby runs apps that appear on its diminutive screen in a never-ending slideshow of information. If you’ve ever looked up at one of those elevator screens that show you headlines, weather etc., you’ll get the concept. I was immediately taken by the idea and hounded the folks at Chumby to send me one. Sadly, they wouldn’t do it since the Chumby wasn’t eligible for sale outside of the U.S. In the end, I gave up on ever getting my hands on a Chumby and moved on to other things.
It’s now 2010 and here’s what’s been going on with the Chumby in the intervening years…
It seems I wasn’t the only one who saw lots of potential in the cuddly little web-viewer. It ended up being named by Wired Magazine as a top gadget for 2008. In 2009 Chumby Industries created the Chumby One – a cheaper version of the original Chumby encased in hard white plastic instead of the Italian-leather exterior of its older brother. The Chumby One lacks the original’s squeezable form factor but introduces a large volume knob on the side and an FM radio. But perhaps more interestingly, Sony took notice of the Chumby platform and began development of their own internet appliance, the HID-C10, otherwise known as the Sony Dash, which they debuted at this year’s CES show in January. If the Chumby One is retro-looking clock-radio with a touch-screen, the Dash is a thoroughly modern wide-screen HDTV. Yet both devices run the Chumby widget platform, and now – for the first time – both devices are available to Canadians which means the time is ripe for a comparison.
Before we dive in though, here’s how the Chumby/Dash devices work, in case everything I’ve written to this point has left you wondering what I’m rambling on about. Feel free to skip to the specs if you’ve heard this before…
Chumbys and Dashs use your Wi-Fi network to connect to the web. After some minor configurations steps on the devices themselves, you use your PC or Mac to customize the content that the gadgets display through a dedicated website. The site lets you choose from amongst the 1000+ Chumby apps that are freely available, which you can then organize into “channels”. Think of Chumby/Dash channels as TV channels – you choose the kind of programming you want on each channel. Once set, you can “change channel” anytime from the device itself. Most folks will likely stick to a single channel, but having the choice to view others is handy.
Each app comes with its own set of customizable features. The Picasa widget lets you choose a URL with your photos, while the Weather Channel lets you choose your city and preferred temperature display (Celsius or Fahrenheit), and the Facebook Newsfeed app lets you “like” or comment on your friends’ updates – the latter via an on-screen keyboard. Others only let you choose how long they will remain on the screen.
App content runs the gamut from News to Travel and everything in between, but some categories are more populated than others. “Clocks” for instance has over 200 apps, which I suppose isn’t surprising given that these devices are primarily intended as desktop or bedside table companions. There are even some games you can play using the touch-screen such as “Reversi” or “Pinball” but frankly neither the Dash nor the Chumby One are especially good gaming gadgets.
Personally, I’ve gotten the most out of a combination of news, Facebook updates & photos, and humour. That’s the channel I keep running during the day. But I’ve also got a channel that runs a single app: Flickr. It runs continuously and turns the Chumby into an ever-changing digital photo frame. It’s also a great way to discover new photos as the app lets you see public photos by keyword – my suggestion: use seasonal terms like “autumn.”
Okay now that you know a bit more about how these Chumby-driven devices work, let’s get back to the comparison with a look at the specs…
|Sony Dash||Chumby One|
|Price||$229 CDN||$119 USD|
|Video Playback|| Windows® Media Video 9 (up to MP@HL 1080p)
Microsoft VC-1 (up to AP@L3 720p)
MPEG 4.10/H.264 (up to MP@L4.0 1080p)
|Audio Playback||MP3, AAC, WMA||MP3, OGG, WAV, FLAC and M4A|
|Audio-out||Headphone jack||Headphone jack|
|Speakers||Stereo, 1W+1W||Mono, 2W|
|Power||A/C adapter||A/C Adapter with travel plugs or optional Li-ion rechargeable battery|
|USB||1 USB 2.0 port||1 USB 2.0 port|
|Ethernet over USB||No||Yes|
A few things jump out at you when you look at this list.
First, the Dash is twice the price of the Chumby One. Actually it’s a little less than that since the Chumby One is priced in US$ and you’ll have to pay for shipping and possibly duties, whereas you can drop by your local Sony Store and buy the Dash – or via SonyStyle.ca. The Chumby One can only be bought online through their web store.
This price difference brings us to the other big difference: the screens. The Dash’s screen is likely the biggest reason for the extra bucks. It’s nearly twice the diagonal size and more than double the resolution. And though Sony doesn’t publish the details on its processor, I’m guessing it’s more powerful than the Chumby’s. That said, it is a very nice screen. Not razor-sharp like you’d find on an iPad or a laptop but still very good to look at.
Why the larger, wider screen on the Dash? In a word: video. Although Sony has chosen to “wrap” the Chumby experience in its own themed dashboards, the main reason the screen has 16×9 ratio is to facilitate video playback, something the Dash does much better than the Chumby. Most of the video-watching options are via a menu of streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix, but the unit can also play compatible video (and audio) files off of an attached USB key – at least that’s the plan. Currently the video portion of this feature is listed as “coming soon” when you try to use it. To be fair, Sony doesn’t promote this aspect of the Dash on their website but it’s tormenting to be offered the menu item and then not be able to take advantage The video quality is surprisingly good and while I didn’t try streaming full movies on the Dash (not quite sure why you’d want to) I did watch several of the movie trailers, some of which were in HD, from Flixster and the stream quality was rock-solid. Sound from the Dash’s internal stereo speakers is, as you’d expect from such a small device, on the tinny side but the volume is enough for the 2-3 feet experience.
The other video options on the Dash include: FIFA World Cup, blip.tv, Wired, Syle.com. FordModels, DailyMotion and many others. But the big omission from this list is Sony’s own Crackle.com free movie service, which launched in Canada earlier this year.
Video playback isn’t Chumby’s strong suit, but that’s not a deal-breaker and given the smaller size of the Chumby One’s screen, you probably won’t find yourself wishing it could handle more video.
Instead, the Chumby focuses on audio. The audio options include playback of several audio formats (see list above) from a connected USB storage device, various streaming services such as ShoutCast, podcasts from NYT, Mediafly and CBS, the ability to playback content from an attached iPod, or a collection of internet streams known as “Sleep Sounds” (rain falling, white noise, waves crashing etc.) – kind makes sense for a bedside gadget right? Makes you wonder why the Dash doesn’t have it. But the Dash does have native support for Slacker Radio, which for those who subscribe to the streaming service, will be a big plus.
While it’s true that the Chumby One only produces monophonic sound from its internal speaker, don’t let the cheap-looking plastic exterior fool you. Much like the Tivoli Model One – a mono desktop radio with a huge cult following – the Chumby One manages to pump out surprisingly rich sound. You can’t crank the volume very high, but it doesn’t matter; the sound that you do get is great.
The ironic thing here is that the Dash is arguably the natural heir to the Radio-Alarm-clock experience given Sony’s age-old domination of the category via their omnipresent Dream Machine product line. And yet the Dash lacks a built-in radio which has been a mainstay of the alarm clock for decades. The Chumby One on the other hand, has an FM tuner complete with an external wire antenna that tucks into the battery compartment when not in use. Speaking of batteries, shouldn’t all modern alarm clocks contain at least a back-up battery? The Dash has one that keeps the clock time from needing to be reset, but you’re still without functionality in the event of a power-outage. The Chumby One doesn’t have a backup battery but you can add one yourself and it not only helps in the event of a power failure, it lets the Chumby One operate completely cord-free for up to an hour.
Another great feature on the Chumby One is the ability to assign a timer to your audio playback. You can choose from 5 to 240 minutes in 5-minute increments before the timer shuts off the sound – great for people who like to fall asleep to music but who don’t want their dreams to have a soundtrack.
By now, some of you have noticed that the microphone – a feature of both devices – doesn’t appear to have a purpose. You’re right. So far, none of the Chumby apps or the Dash’s proprietary functions make use of the mic. I’m probably not alone in hoping that a Skype app will surface sooner rather than later… how cool would it be to chat via one of these gadgets from the comfort of your bed without needing a PC or smartphone?
Alright, it’s bottom-line time. Which of these devices should you buy?
My overall recommendation goes to the Chumby One. The cheaper price, great sound, uncluttered interface and retro-appeal make the Chumby One a very attractive choice. The more expensive Sony Dash doesn’t offer enough extra features in my opinion, to justify the extra dollars. That said, there are bound to be some who feel the premium is worth it in order to get the Sony brand name and reputation, the sophisticated dark-wedge design, the superior video playback and the larger, wider screen. If, for instance, you need a device like this for the kitchen, the Dash’s larger display would be a distinct benefit. Likewise, if you plan on using either of these gadgets as a serious digital photo frame replacement, the Dash wins again. However, after having used both devices – and given the plethora of options I have at the home and office for watching video and looking at photos, I feel the Dash’s extras are nice-to-haves but certainly not need-to-haves.
Okay, so the iPad wasn’t quite what people were hoping to see when Steve Jobs took the stage last month to unveil Apple’s latest gadget. But let’s not dwell on the past. Instead, given what we know of the iPad’s specs, how can app developers take an overgrown iPod Touch and turn it into a device that we can’t imagine living without?
Here are two activities that would make the iPad worth the price of admission for me…
1. The best darn universal remote – Period.
I’ve been a long-time fan of Logitech’s Harmony universal remotes. They combine ease-of-use, no-hassle programming and fairly intuitive help feature when things go awry. But their touchscreen edition – the Harmony 1100 – is $399 U.S., only $100 less than a base iPad.
Why not use the iPad instead? I’m not the first person to think of this. Add-on and app developer ThinkFlood, which has already created a universal remote solution for the iPhone/iPod Touch, known as RedEye, is now working on their next iteration for the iPad. ThinkFlood uses Wi-Fi to communicate with their infrared transmitters which means walls and other objects aren’t an issue. It’s superior to other solutions that use BlueTooth.
ThinkFlood transmitters aren’t a bargain at $188 U.S., but their app is free as are all updates that they release.
2. Appliance/electricity monitoring
Helping people make more efficient use of their electricity and other energy sources is something that a number of the big tech companies are working on. Google’s home-grown PowerMeter initiative gathers data from the smart meter on your house and displays the stats on your iGoogle homepage.
Intel has created a proof-of-concept called the Home Energy Dashboard, an OLED touchscreen panel that is intended to display the vital stats of your home’s energy consumption. Using a new wireless technology known as ZigBee (a wireless protocol similar to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi intended for tiny, power-sipping sensors and other home appliances), the panel can also gather consumption information directly from individual appliance from around your home. Similar to PowerMeter, the idea is that by simply seeing your energy use in real-time, you are more likely to engage in conservation. Unfortunately, Intel’s concept is just that – a concept, with no pricing or availability dates.
A similar execution by SilverPac, will cost $600 and is scheduled for a Fall 2010 release.
But why buy a dedicated device when the iPad could easily fill this role? It only lacks ZigBee communication but I’m sure a small ZigBee dongle could be fitted to the iPad’s dock connector, or better yet, someone could build a ZigBee-WiFi bridge that would facilitate communication between the two protocols.
The app could be created by Google, which would make sense if it displayed PowerMeter data, or by individual utilities. Here in Ontario, home owners who have a Toronto Hydro Smart Meter can already access their energy consumption online. A recent Toronto Hydro program called PeakSaver, gave away free iPod Shuffles and a $25 rebate check to customers who agreed to let the utility take control of their AC systems during high-demand periods. Giving away free iPads would make an even smarter (if more expensive) incentive for reducing electricity needs during peak times.
So there you have it – a Universal remote and a home energy monitor. Two potential uses for the iPad that go outside the traditional spheres of web surfing and media consumption. What else would you like to see the iPad do?
Update Feb 18, 4:25 PM
If you’re still doubting the case for an iPad as an uber-remote control and/or energy monitor, check out what the President of Savant AV, Jim Carroll, has to say about the release of the device. He’s very impressed by the iPad, and that means something. Savant is the creator of a whole-home automation system based entirely on Apple technology. I recently had a chance to see the Savant system in action and was amazed by the way everything in your home could be controlled from a touch-screen interface. Savant’s control scheme not only looks a LOT like the iPhone interface, they’ve created an app that can run the whole system from an iPhone or iPod Touch. Clearly a specialized version of this app for the iPad’s larger screen is the next move for Savant. I have no doubt the combination of Savant’s automation technology and the iPad will be positively drool-worthy!
I’m not sure what’s more impressive: the fact that this iPhone accessory takes a humble cellphone and turns it into tripod-mountable camcorder, or the fact that the team behind it went from concept to fully-finished and available for shipping product in a little over 4 months.
The Bubo is deceptively simple. It’s basically a smooth piece of anodized aluminum that serves as a video platform for an iPhone. iPhones already have a built-in camera and mic, but what they lack is a way to comfortably hold them while you’re shooting, and there’s no way to add things like lens adapters, external mics or lighting units. The Bubo adds all of these features, plus several tripod mounting points.
When the Bubo goes on sale for pre-order on October 27th, The initial price will be $99 … fairly reasonable for what you get: Included with the OWLE Bubo will be a 37mm .45X wide angle lens, a high quality Vericorder boom microphone, and a silicon iPhone case. The price goes up to $129 after the initial launch.
Interested? Check out their light-hearted but informative video here:
and visit them online: http://www.wantowle.com/
Here’s a view of the back of the Bubo: