If you cross an alarm clock, a picture frame and an Internet radio player with a gerbil, you would get the Chumby, possibly the least threatening-looking electronic device ever.
It's a tiny computer enclosed in a stuffed leather pillow the size of two fists, but much less aggressive. The 3.5-inch LCD screen is touch-sensitive, and shows pictures, news headlines, games, incoming e-mail and other snippets of infotainment from the Internet.
It retrieves these goodies via Wi-Fi, so you need a home hotspot to use the Chumby. It needs to be plugged in to a power outlet, so don't start dreaming of using the Chumby as a squishy, $179.95 substitute for an iPhone.
But it can replace your alarm clock, rousing you with podcasts, Internet radio, or music you load on a USB drive. It can play your iPod's MP3s through the built-in speakers. You can put it on the kitchen counter as a Web radio that shows pictures from your Flickr account when you're not listening.
The manufacturer, San Diego-based startup Chumby Industries, even mentions that it could help in the bathroom, a space the consumer electronics industry has notably overlooked while flooding the rest of the house with gadgets.
I didn't test the Chumby as a bathroom buddy because the power outlet was too far from the room's "reading area," but I did try it out in the kitchen and on the nightstand.
It's a fun little thing. My wife took one look at it and begged me to disregard the AP's policy that review samples have to be returned. But she didn't actually use the Chumby much. It does a lot of things and doesn't excel at any one of them.
The Chumby test drive
You log in to Chumby's Web site to program the Chumby with "widgets" like The New York Times headlines application, or a version of the "Pong" game. These are sent to the Chumby via the Internet, and start playing in sequence, usually appearing on the screen for 30 seconds at a time.
But if you want to jump from one widget to the next (say you're heading out the door and want the weather forecast) you have to mash the top of the Chumby to get to the control panel, then forward through the available widgets one by one to find the one you want. It's a slow and annoying process.
We found we couldn't use it as an alarm clock, because the screen is too bright even in "night mode." That's a pity, because it's easier to set the wake-up time than on any alarm clock I've known.
As a Web radio player, it can play thousands of streams from AOL's Shoutcast, but saving your favorites, or tuning into other streams, is tricky. You can't pause podcasts.
As a picture frame, it's cool that you can access Web pictures, and even invite your friends to send photos to it. But the screen is small compared with cheaper picture frames out there.
But it's tough to criticize the Chumby, first of all because it feels like I'm being mean to a koala bear, and secondly because the manufacturer can send software upgrades over the Internet to the devices. Some of what I'm criticizing now could be fixed by next week, though of course the screen size will be the same and there will still only be one control button.
I'm split on whether it's worth $179.95 (at www.chumby.com, includes shipping). Sure, it's a lot for a device of limited value. But it beats the competition in the fledgling market for devices that aim to spread Internet data around the house.
For instance, Ambient Devices charges $199.99 for an LCD panel that does nothing but present a seven-day weather forecast. In its favor, Ambient's gadget is dead easy to use because of its limited versatility and the fact that it rides on the paging network, not Wi-Fi. It can last a whole year on the same set of batteries.
Ultimately, I give Chumby a tentative chumbs-up because of the openness of the manufacturer's approach. The startup started selling prototype units two years ago to get feedback from software developers and engineers who were excited about having a teensy computer at their bedside.
This week, Chumby Industries announced that it deemed the little bag of Internet cheer good enough for the general public, but it's still a work in progress. Also, anyone with a modicum of programming knowledge can make their own widgets and make them available to others through the company Web site.
Hopefully, that open approach should pay off in the form of widgets and other software that make the Chumby really useful.