Adventures with Chumby
There is an alarm clock built in to the Chumby, so this one was checked off of my list before the Chumby arrived. The Chumby can have multiple alarms, and the alarms can trigger different sounds and activate different sets of widgets. For example, in the morning I have an alarm that does not make a sound (the Chumby is not in my bedroom, so any alarm sound would not be heard), but what it does do is switch the active set of widgets over to my “morning” set, which contains a mixture of news and weather widgets that I like to look at while I'm getting breakfast ready. When the time comes to take the kids to school, there's another alarm, and this one does make a sound. I also have other morning, afternoon and evening alarms that—although they don't make any noise—switch the active widget set to the sorts of things I am generally interested in at those times.
The photo album also was checked off before the Chumby arrived. There are many options for displaying photos through your Chumby. The easiest are the series of official photo widgets that can pull photos from your Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket or MySpace accounts. You just enter your login details and the album you want, and away you go.
There is also a neat service called Dailio where you can send photos to a special e-mail address, and they will show up on your Chumby without any further effort.
The egg timer was another easy item to cross off my list, as an enterprising member of the Chumby community (the same one who created the Dailio widget) already created one that works very well.
There is a also a calculator widget that a different member of the Chumby community created. It works well, and that's about all I have to say on the subject, apart from that I wish the buttons were bigger.
The calendar widget I'm using is one that displays my Google Calendar. It is limited to an agenda view that lists each scheduled item in order. It would have been nice to have daily, week or month views, but it is certainly usable if not quite what I was looking for.
I was very pleased with the Chumby's support for listening to music. The music section of the Chumby control panel has several options that let you listen to music from a variety of locations. These include an iPod, SHOUTcast streams, Mediafly podcasts, any radio streams in MP3 or Ogg format from radio stations or your own local SlimServer, or music files (in Ogg, MP3 or FLAC format) from a USB thumbdrive plugged in to one of the available USB ports.
Incidentally, the speakers on the Chumby sound quite nice, especially considering their size. There is, of course, the option to plug in a set of external speakers or a pair of headphones to the headphone jack if you want better sound.
The first idea I had for my kitchen-assistant Chumby was to make it into a recipe book, so I focused a lot of my efforts here. The recipe book idea is also, coincidentally, my wife's favorite use for the Chumby. She's been storing her favorite recipes for years now on her computer in .odt format, and whenever she cooks something she needs a recipe for, she either makes a lot of trips back and forth to her computer, or she prints the recipe out. Neither of those options are ideal.
As with the other tasks I had outlined for the Chumby—I named him George, by the way—I first went looking to see if someone had a recipe widget already created. I could not find any, so I then decided to look to see whether there were any widgets I could easily adapt into becoming a recipe widget.
There are several photo-viewing widgets, so my first inclination was simply to create 320x240 pixel images of my recipes, upload them to my Flickr or Picasa accounts, and then view them on the Chumby. This worked—a PNG image is a PNG image after all—but it didn't work very well, because practically all of the photo widgets are for showing slideshows, with the photos switching every few seconds. This is fine if you are displaying photos—I use the Flickr one for pictures of my kids and love it—but recipes need to stay on the screen for several minutes (or longer, depending on preparation time).
The photo widget that worked the best was the Dailio widget. Unlike other photo widgets, this one lets you set how long a photo stays displayed (from five seconds to five minutes). There also is a forever option, which I assume means that the photo stays displayed until you change it manually, but that option did not work for me. Instead, it caused the recipes to blink and stutter. So I was stuck with five minutes, which is okay, but not perfect.
I finally found the perfect recipe option sitting right under my nose: Impress, the OpenOffice.org presentation application. It has an option to export any slideshow as a Flash (.swf) file. It also turns out that these files play perfectly on the Chumby, even though they are not technically the correct size. So I chose one of the basic templates, and then, using each slide as a “recipe card”, created a recipe book.
For simplicity and ease of use, I did not put in any transitions or text animations. I also tried to keep the fonts as large as possible while still fitting an entire recipe on a single slide. The side effect of not putting any auto-advancing slides into my presentation is that each slide stays put until I'm done with it, which is perfect behavior.
Each presentation always starts at the first slide, and you have to tap through each preceding recipe to get to the one you want. So I created several presentations with general themes, like desserts, main dishes and so on, to keep the number of recipes per widget manageable.
Currently, the recipe books are pretty plain. Over the next few weeks, I plan to add photos to the recipes and make other general improvements, but as they stand now, they already have been put to good use.
The process of getting a custom widget, like my recipe books, onto the Chumby is simple. There actually are a couple ways to do this, but the most straightforward option is to upload it to Chumby.com and add it to one of your channels there. All you need is your .swf file and an icon. The icon is a simple 80x60 pixel .jpg image. I kept mine simple by putting black text on a white background using The GIMP.
Go to www.chumby.com/widgets/upload to upload your widget. The form is self-explanatory. Once uploaded, your widget will be available in the category you chose, and if you marked it as public, it will be viewable by all Chumby users (once the Chumby folks have determined that it isn't a malicious widget).
The only real downside to the browser method is that Chumby.com will let you upload only widgets that are less than 100K in size. If you create a widget larger than that—and I expect that once I've added all my recipes and photos, each recipe book has the possibility to be larger than that—the other way to get a widget onto your Chumby is with a USB thumbdrive.
For the thumbdrive method, apart from the icon and Flash files, you need a text file named profile.xml. The Chumby looks for this file when it boots and will add any widgets described in it to all of your widget channels. This file is self-explanatory, and the Chumby Wiki provides full instructions.