Chumby: Open-Source, Internet-enabled gadget modernizes the nightstand clock and invites hackers

by David Carey , TechOnline India - August 10, 2009

Warm and cuddly aren't the terms that normally come to mind for electronic gadgets but the Chumby from Chumby Industries wants to make their device inviting to consumers and potential developers alike.

Warm and cuddly aren't the terms that normally come to mind for electronic gadgets but the Chumby from Chumby Industries wants to make their device inviting to consumers and potential developers alike. The Chumby is a $200 WiFi-connected personal Internet appliance that gets its information and applications through Chumby's website following a simple online registration process that opens up access to so-called "widgets." These widgets can be selected and downloaded to an individual Chumby via a WiFi broadband connection once the device's identity is known to the host website.

Chumby's widgets consist of small applications such as games, news headlines, weather, Internet radio, current stock prices, music, short movies, social-media websites, picture files and customized alarm clocks. Additional free widgets can be downloaded to the registered Chumby at any time by logging into the Chumby network and making further PC-based selections. A WiFi access point must be available at all times to play/use the widgets that are paid for by Chumby Industries and sponsoring companies who may offer special products for sale. Chumby can also be used to monitor incoming e-mail on any POP3 account, track eBay auctions or play an iPod through Chumby's on-board stereo speakers. At press time, over 1,000 widgets are claimed to be available for the taking, covering 30 different application categories.

Click on image to enlarge.

A distinguishing attribute to the Chumby is its very open hardware/software environment. By making details available on all the inner workings, Chumby Industries actively encourages users to hack the device and develop new uses for the platform. While many electronic devices have their own supporting software development kit (SDK) environment for third parties, few are as open as the Chumby's, which provides access to everything from the hardware schematics to an open-source Linux-based software client.

Departure from tradition on the hardware side starts with the outward design of the Chumby. A soft leather cover stuffed with polyester batting surrounds the device's internal printed circuit boards and 3.5" touch screen LCD interface. The overall effect is something akin to a big beanbag with a color display slapped on the outside. In fact, along with the batting material, an actual beanbag sits underneath the skin to add to product heft and help it sit in stable--but squishy--form on a night-stand or kitchen counter. Even the packaging is different, with the Chumby shipping in a drawstring canvas bag versus the usual cardboard box.

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Additional user interface bits are kept simple with a soft-touch top button for activating a WiFi connection hidden underneath the skin. Just smack the top to set wheels in motion. A small back-panel sporting two USB jacks, an audio jack, On/Off switch, DC-power jack, and stereo speakers are joined by a pocket on the bottom side for holding the unit's 9-V backup battery, much like any alarm clock. Four circuit boards are used to implement the Chumby internals.


The 6-layer main board butts up against the back of the LCD assembly and hosts much of the core electronics. The design centers around a Freescale MX21 Applications Processor (#MC94MX21DVKN3) supported by two 32MB SDRAM chips from Hynix (#HY57V561620F) and one 64MB SLC NAND flash from Hynix/STMicroelectronics (#HY27US08121A). While branded Hynix externally the internal flash component is marked from STMicro, reflecting the joint manufacturing operations established between those two companies and now rolled up into the Numonyx memory spinoff formed by Intel and STMicro. STMicro also supplies #STR715FR0 ARM-7 based microcontroller used as best we can tell for general purpose control and test port implementations.

Click on image to enlarge.

Click on image to enlarge.

Analog components on the primary board include a number of devices from TI including the #TPS6211A1 audio amplifiers used to drive the internal speakers and the #TSC2100 Touchscreen Controller, which also contains the stereo codec and amplifiers for the audio jack (along with source audio for the larger amps). A trio of Sipex USB transceivers handle interface to the two external USB ports and the internal connector used for the WiFi interface.

Said WiFi comes in the form of a 6-layer circuit board implementing a USB stick for wireless connectivity. Connecting back to the main board by way of a riser card (not shown), the WiFi stick is based around a pair of chips from maker Ralink--#RT2751 for the baseband/MAC chip and #RT2528L for the transceiver. Richwave's #RTC6683 2.4GHz amplifier is fronted by a Hexawave GaAs SPDT switch for routing transmit and receive signals between the chip antenna and the Ralink transceiver. Because of the universal USB interface, it would seem that a number of other WiFi stick vendors could be used, providing multisourcing potential to Chumby.

Click on image to enlarge.

Click on image to enlarge.

The last PCB--named here as the peripheral board--is used primarily to tie in the external USB and power connectors along with audio connection to the speakers but a Kionix #KXP74 accelerometer/inclinometer and controller and associated Atmel EEPROM also take up residence on the peripheral board as well. The Kionix part serves primarily for motion sensing in support of the many games available for the Chumby, including my favorite "Chumball."

Prices for the Chumby range from the $200 entry point up to $600 (!) if you want a very exclusive and custom hand-painted skin, although actual manufacturing costs are in the $80 range based on our detailed BOM cost analysis. Founded by hardware/software gurus and hackers, Chumby as a company is offering the device as a largely open platform with a growing set of applications. It's essentially a personable--but blank--sheet of electronic canvas intended to be customized for integration with your day-to-day life. For those with an adventurous developer/hacker streak, the wireless little infotainment companion can be turned into pretty much whatever the mind can imagine. Swimming against the tide of closed electronic appliances, Chumby no doubt hopes that ultimately "Open" translates into "Popular."

David Carey is president of Portelligent, a TechInsights company. The Austin, Texas, company produces teardown reports and related industry research on wireless, mobile and personal electronics.

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