Chumby Redux

When I wrote the article appearing in issue 169 of the Linux Journal we had only had George (that's what we named our Chumby) for a couple weeks. We've had him for a couple months now, and George has become well integrated into our family. Things have settled down from the initial excitement we all had when he arrived and now it almost seems like he's always been there, sitting in his corner of the kitchen, there when you need him, and quietly waiting when you don't. That's not to say our relationship has not had some bumps along the way.

George's Faults

Like any family member, George has some annoying traits. Fortunately we have been able to work around all of them.

First off, the Chumby's WiFi antenna is not very good. My laptop can get a good connection from anywhere in my house, but the Chumby can't. More frustrating than that is that when I first power up George, he will connect and be fine, but then he will inexplicably lose his connection. This is most annoying when we are listening to a music stream --- suddenly the music will cut out, usually during a favorite song. As long as George stays in certain "safe" areas, he will run happily for days and even weeks on end without any trouble. I'd like to be able to put him anywhere in the kitchen that I want, but I can't. And so George must live in the one corner of the kitchen that he can consistently get a good connection from.

My next gripe with George is that he has no internal rechargeable battery. The battery option for George is limited to a single 9 volt backup battery that keeps him powered up if the power goes out. George's attractive exterior begs for him to be picked up and held, but for now he must be tethered to a cord. Some Chumby owners have had success with adding battery packs to their Chumbys. Of all of the hacks for the Chumby that are out there, this is the one that I will most probably undertake sometime in the near future. Chumbys should be free! (of cords)

My last gripe is that George's screen gets too hot. This is, I suppose, a gripe that nothing can really be done about. The screen offers the best place on the Chumby to vent the heat of the processor, so it is at least somewhat expected. About the only thing the Chumby folks could do to disperse the heat somewhere else would be to install a fan, but that is a bad idea. The last thing I want is another fan blowing intermitently, so I can live with a hot screen, even if I don't like it.

Other than those gripes, our family has been very happy with George and his capabilities.

Favorite Widgets

I haven't made any further progress on the three failed ideas out of the original ten that I initially had for George (and that I discussed in the original Chumby article) --- the recipe search, the shopping list creator, and the meal planner. And right now, I don't really care. I am very satisfied with George's current mix of widgets and I have found myself adding and removing widgets less often as time goes on. The widgets I talk about in the magazine article are still the ones that get the most use, but we've added a few more over the past months to round out George's personality. The mix of widgets has stabilized to the point where it feels just about right.

That's not to say that I don't keep my eyes open. In fact, speaking of widgets, there are now over 500 to choose from, with more being added all the time. I still enjoy going to the website to look at new widgets now and then. Not many find a permanent place in George's repertoire, but they're still fun to play with and try out. Here are ten of our favorite additional widgets, in no particular order.

There are two Netflix widgets and one for Blockbuster's competing service. Their basic purpose is to let you easily view your que of movies and see which ones will be shipped to you next and which movies you currently have. We have a Netflix account, and the "Netflix (new)" widget is my favorite of the two. You currently cannot use the widget to reorganize your que or add items to it, but it is definitely handy to see what's coming without having to login to the website to do it.

The "I like to draw" widget is the second favorite widget among those under ten years old in our house. It turns George into a simple painting program. The only options are to change your brush size and the color (from a simple pallet of 9 colors). There is also a button to clear the screen when you want to start over. I have a couple of budding graffiti artists and having them draw on George with their fingers is much better that finding that they've drawn on the walls with a Sharpie _again_. My main wish for this widget is that it provide some way of getting their masterpieces off of the Chumby.

There are several weather widgets available for the Chumby, including ones from, Accuweather, and WeatherBug. My favorite is the AccuWeather widget.

Of all of the widgets that I wish would have appeared in time to be put into my first Chumby article, the "Food Network Recipe of the Day" takes the cake (pun intended). It appeared literally a day after I had turned in the article for publication. Each recipe in the widget presented attractively with an accompanying picture and clear directions. The past few recipes of the day are also available, in case you missed them. I will admit that we haven't tried any of the recipes, but they're fun to look at and they have led to ideas that we have used for meals. This widget compliments the recipe book widgets I created quite nicely.

As a serious map tool, the "Yahoo Maps" widget fails. The screen on the Chumby is just too small. The widget is, however, very fun and even useful on occasion for casual use. You can zoom down to street level, or zoom out to see the entire country. You pan around the map using your finger. George can get bogged down if you try to zoom or scroll too fast, but otherwise navigating around is simple and easy.

The "Screen Clean" widget is, bar none, the favorite widget among our kids. There's just something about that cute little dog licking the inside of the Chumby screen that never gets old. It is also slightly hypnotic. Hardly a day goes by without one or more of them grabbing George off of his perch and sitting down on the floor to watch the puppy for a few minutes.

The "Birthday Countdown" widget is simple yet fun. It features an animated birthday cake and a countdown showing the number of days left until the big day. As you get closer to the date, the cake gets bigger. I have a widget configured for myself, my wife, and one for each of our children. All of them reside in a special "Birthday" channel which cycles through one every thirty seconds. Since my birthday is coming up later this month, I've started leaving the Chumby displaying only the countdown to my birthday, just to give everyone a gentle reminder. :-)

Of all of the game widgets, "PuzzleBee" is my favorite. It's a simple jigsaw puzzle. The puzzles are fairly easy, only 20 pieces, but they are a fun diversion, and I've never had the same picture twice. A close runner up to my favorite game widget would be the Sudoku widget, but while I am almost always up for solving a quick jigsaw puzzle, I have to be "in the mood" for Sudoku.

The Fireplace widget is perfect for cold days. You can set it to display one of two fireplace fires. It's a simple widget, but like "Screen Clean" it has a slightly hypnotic quality that makes it relaxing to watch.

It would be a gross injustice to not mention at least one clock widget in a list of the best Chumby widgets. There are a _lot_ of clock widgets out there. "Clocks" is the largest group of widgets on the Chumby website. There are digital clocks, analog clocks, binary clocks, and clocks made from photos of people. My favorite of them is the "LED clock" widget.


Now that George is right about where I want him, I've started to think that maybe it's time to add a second Chumby to the family. The problem that I'm having more and more with George lately is that he is so useful at what he does I don't want to clutter him up with other things, or move him somewhere else, or experiment with him. In fact, if I tried to do any of those things, I would probably get in trouble with the rest of the family. He belongs in the kitchen doing what he is currently doing. His experimental days are basically over.

I'd like to set up the new Chumby as an office assistant that lives next to my computer. Something I can use as a photo viewer, a news/weather/sports reader, a webcam viewer, and to just experiment with.

I think I'll call her Gracie.


Daniel Bartholomew lives with his wife and children in North Carolina.

Read "Adventures with Chumby" in the May 2008 issue of Linux Journal (for subscribers only).

Chumby Unboxing

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