Until now, most web-browsing devices have been too hobbled (3Com's Audrey), too limited (the Ambient Weather Beacon), or just too weird (the Nabaztag rabbit). But the clock-radio-size Chumby might actually find a home on your bedside table.
The Chumby's 3.5in colour touchscreen is enveloped in a soft leather pouch, making it feel more like a beanbag than like a gizmo that logs on to your Wi-Fi network to deliver web-based content. Setup is a snap: log on to the Chumby website on your PC and select the Flash-based feeds ('widgets') that you want it to display. Then connect your Chumby to your home network. The onscreen keyboard lets you enter the passkey for an encrypted network, and the Chumby was intelligent enough to figure out what kind of encryption I was using.
You can watch eBay auctions, Craigslist ads, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr photos, YouTube, Webcams, news, weather, traffic reports and some 400 other widgets without ever touching a PC. Among them are games that use the device's built-in motion sensors; to get the Magic 8-Ball widget to cough up an answer, for example, you have to shake the device.
To access the control panel, you pat the Chumby on the head; a spring-loaded button inside the pouch brings up a screen of adjustable settings for your widgets and for the device itself. You can adjust brightness and volume, set an alarm, select audio options, and send widgets to your 'chums'.
The Chumby also lets you play an internet radio station or a podcast over the built-in speakers, or connect your iPod or a thumb drive containing MP3 files to one of the Chumby's two USB ports. You can also set alarms that play any of the above. I watched Sea World's Shamu cavort on his whale cam, cycled through David Letterman's Top 10 lists, and perused the RSS feed for my own tech blog, while listening to my favourite college station.
Most of the Chumby's information flow, however, is one-way; I could view my Gmail and Google Calendar, but I couldn't reply to messages or add appointments. I found the touchscreen hard to navigate until I started using my fingernail instead of my fingertip to select things. The onscreen keyboard is innovative, but not always easy to use: it consists of one row of capital letters, one row of lowercase letters, and one row of numbers. You tap arrow keys on either side of the screen to scroll sideways through the characters.
Though the Chumby is primarily a novelty - and at $179, not a cheap one - its goofy exterior hides a powerful idea. Devices driven directly by internet content are likely to become commonplace. If you're willing to pay the price, the Chumby isn't a bad place to start. Sadly, our web-browsing chum isn't currently available in the UK, but the company is hoping to rectify this situation.