The Chumby: Fun, Hackable and full of Potential

by Sander Marechal

Thanks to a friend who knew a friend who knew someone else, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a Chumby for a few days even though it is only available as a limited preview and not outside the Unites States. It's probably one of the first Chumbies in Europe. I only had it a few days as it was only lent to me by the owner, but this gave me ample opportunity to play with the device, give a thorough review and hack it a little. And what fun I have had!

The Good

It's fun to use! It looks great. Cuddly almost. There are plenty of widgets on the Chumby website to keep you occupied, ranging from the useful (RSS readers, e-mail notifications or stock quotes) to useless toys (the lolcats photos or the angry Mona Lisa) and everything in between. My girlfriend and I had quite a bit of fun trying out all the different widgets.

The LCD display is crystal clear and the menu is intuitive. It's easy to configure the wifi connection and I had no trouble connecting using WEP or WPA. After that you can do most of the configuration through the website. You can create various personal widget channels on the website and load them with flash widgets. On your Chumby you can select the channel that you want to view and it will download and play those widgets according to your preferences. The website also lets you configure the individual widgets, such as the feed URL for the RSS reader, or your e-mail account details for the e-mail notifier.

I've shown the device to several people who did not know what it was and they all quickly became enthusiastic after discovering it was more than just a digital photo frame. When I told them "It's a Linux computer" I was usually met with stares of disbelief until I logged into the Chumby from my computer and played a radio stream using the `btplay` command line utility to show them it can do much more then just display flash widgets.

All in all it's a fun toy to play with.

The Bad

The touchscreen is not very responsive when you use just your finger. It doesn't always register when you tap somewhere and dragging something is very hard. I've found that if you use the tip of your nail or a stylus it does work very well though.

The website isn't very Linux-friendly. The dropdown menus often disappear behind flash objects for example, but this seems to be a known problem with Firefox on Linux in combination with external plugins. It would have been nice if the Chumby people had taken this into account when designing their website. Quite a few widgets also have problems with configuration. The Generic RSS reader for example often fails to show the entry field for the feed URL you want to use. Annoying to say the least.

There were also a couple of configuration options I would have liked out of the box. For example, you can only configure how long a widget is played. You can't tell it to play a widget only in certain circumstances. It would be very useful to have the e-mail notifier or RSS reader only pop up when there actually are new messages. Right now the only thing you can do is "pin" a widget so it won't change over to the next widget in your channel. It's probably not hard to add this yourself, given its "hackability" but it would be nice to have it by default.

and The Hackable

There is definitely a lot of potential ways to hack the device. There is a hidden option in the configuration menu tucked away under a small Pi symbol that lets you enable an SSH daemon. From then on you can log into your Chumby as root using a secure shell and do pretty much anything you like. You don't have to worry about breaking it. If you reboot the Chumby, all the changes you made will be gone. The complete OS is re-flashed, kernel and all. This sounds annoying at first, but it's actually quite useful if you consider that it has two USB ports. You can plug in a USB stick and save your changes on that. The Chumby provides various hooks into the boot process which you can use from your USB stick.

The Chumby forums and Wiki already provide quite a lot of information on building and installing extra software packages. The downside of this is that you need to set up a proper build environment on your own computer that can do the cross compiling to ARM. While the Chumby folk have tried to make this as easy as possible, it may be a bit much for newbies.

I really hope that that a few of the Chumby developers get their skills together and set up a software repository where people can simply download a binary package to their USB key, then reboot it from that USB key and have the rest of the setup process work out-of-the-box. It shouldn't be too hard given the fact that the Chumby always boots in a known, pristine state. Simply put the binaries on the USB key and have a hook script run on boot that takes care of installation and configuration.

This means that taking your Chumby with you could be as easy as taking the USB key with you. With all Chumbies booting from a fresh state, you can simply plug your USB key into your friend's Chumby and take all your applications and modifications with you.


All in all I give the Chumby a big thumbs up. It's fun to use and easy to hack so it's perfectly suited to satisfy your inner geek. It's also useful and cheap enough that you can convince your non-geek Significant Other to buy you one. If the community comes through with a decent package repository and tools, I see lots of potential besides just playing Flash widgets. I just hope that they can fix the touchscreen's responsiveness when using your finger instead of a stylus or the tip of your nail.


This article was originally posted on LXer Linux News.

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