Chumby's a veteran when it comes to app-based devices, especially of the plush and cuddly variety. The company's been moving away from that recently, though, focusing more on getting apps into other devices. Its latest device, called the NeTV, adds apps to almost any device — it plugs into your TV, and adds Chumby content over top of anything you're watching. It's a clever idea, since a lot of people probably bought TVs before the TV app craze hit, and won't be in the market for a few more years — so Chumby wants to sell you a workaround. I got to test a very early version of the NeTV to try out, and there were plenty of kinks and bugs to be found, but what I was really curious about was the concept. Before the device goes on sale, at a price Chumby reps told me would be "well south of $99" but not anytime soon, here's a look at what's in store.
Hardware / design
The Chumby itself is a small, non-descript black box. It's got the Chumby octopus logo on top, and vents all over (the little guy has a tendency to run hot). There's an HDMI-in port on the back, and an HDMI-out port on the front; this layout makes it impossible to not have a cable sticking out of the front of your A/V stack, which annoys me to no end. There's also an LED indicator light on the front, and around back are a reset button, a port for an IR extender, and a micro USB port for powering the NeTV. The whole thing runs on an 800MHz Marvell processor, which isn't much on paper but is plenty to power the low-horsepower NeTV — it's also very similar to the chipset inside the Chumby 8.
The NeTV can sit between almost any device and your TV, as long as it has an HDMI output — I tried it with an Xbox, a computer, and a Blu-ray player, and all worked well. It can even get around HDCP restrictions, through some apparent trickery on Chumby's part; the company wouldn't detail how it works, only that it does.
Setup / use
The same thing happened every time I plugged a new device into the NeTV: the screen flickered faster and faster over the course of about 45 seconds, and then all of a sudden kicked in and showed the setup screen I was looking for. Replacing the included HDMI cable with my own solved the problem, but it's a pain to have to buy a new cable when the NeTV comes with one. The device also puts different setup screens at different spots on the display — the first setup is in the middle of the screen, but the Wi-Fi connection is in the top right corner. Again, I should stress that if and when this hits shelves these issues presumably won't be present, but they were everywhere during my time with the NeTV.
There are three different ways to control the NeTV. The simplest is through the membrane remote, which is the most reliable but also the most frustrating. The remote has seven buttons — one for toggling the Chumby display on and off, one for opening settings, four directions and a select. The buttons require a serious mashing before they respond, and typing anything takes what feels like a hundred years, but they do always respond, and I can't say that of the other remote options. The other way is to connect a computer to the NeTV Wi-Fi network that the device creates, and set it up that way — that worked fine, but i found the network awfully finicky.
The NeTV is really meant to be used with an Android phone, though, which personally got me excited. I love the idea of controlling my TV from my phone, and pairing the device with an Android handset (a QR code during setup takes you to the download page for the NeTV app) adds some neat features like reading your text messages on the screen, and the ability to push a web page or photo from your phone to your TV, AirPlay-style. The integration is a neat trick when it works, but the app seemed to frequently just lose track of the NeTV, and one button press would work but the next wouldn't, and the third and fourth would but the fifth wouldn't, and so on. Plus, at the moment the Android app is just an on-screen version of the membrane remote, ignoring the fact that there's an on-screen keyboard and forcing you to up / down / left / right your way through typing.
Once it's up and running, the NeTV is little more than a customizable news ticker that crawls across the bottom of your screen. It will theoretically display any of Chumby's apps, but right now only a tiny number are optimized to run in the small, horizontal ticker across the bottom of the screen. Old Chumby devices were fun because they could be so many things, from a weatherman to an alarm clock to a personalized news service; now most of those features just say "Not Compatiable." (Yes, spelled like that.) The ones that work are things like Facebook, Twitter (a bootleg version), Groupon, and Weather.
You can set the speed of the crawl, the position, how often a given tweet or message is repeated, and so on and so forth. By default, it only pops up when something new happens, which could be way too often if you've got a lot of apps configured, or if you curate smartly could be a handy way to read the text or DM you just received. (You can also bring the ticker up manually with the remote.) Little of this was working during my time with the device, though, but it's a clever concept.
There are, I'd argue, a few things for which this limited feature set could be really cool. Watching the game while related tweets or scores from other games scrolls by could be great, and having a one-button way to access the weather forecast is useful as well. The trouble is they're not good enough to merit a whole separate device, at least for now. Chumby's opened the device up to developers both literally and figuratively, so the usefulness of the NeTV could increase quickly — I'd definitely advise a wait-and-see strategy there, though.
The very best thing about the NeTV, the one thing I used over and over again during my time with the device, is the ability to send any web page from your Android phone to your TV through the Chumby. Any time you click on a link in an email, Twitter, or wherever, you get the option to send it straight to your TV. One tap, and that link loads in the Chumby's browser on your TV. The browser is quite limited — clicking between pages rarely works, video almost never plays, and scrolling is a mess — but it's a fantastic concept, one of the things I loved most about AirPlay brought to lots of other devices.
I love the idea of the Chumby NeTV — a simple interface that pops up over whatever you're doing or watching, but only when you want it to. Obviously, the current iteration of the device is nowhere close to achieving that goal, but we'll be watching Chumby's progress, as well as that of the developer community (the NeTV's hardware and software are both open-source, and the company actively encourages hacking and tinkering), to see what might become of this odd little gizmo.