end kvetch

Macs, productivity, &c.

My Experience with Chumby

chbablk_side_500x450I’m one of those people who dreams of the days when, upon waking, a pleasant, synthesized voice announces the weather, our schedule for the day and all that business (think Jarvis in Iron Man or S.A.R.A.H. in Eureka).

If I wanted to have my computer talk to me in the morning, I could do something like this. However, there’s no way to have my MacBook rattle off the weather or my agenda (although, if I told it to say “School: 8:15 AM to 3:45 PM. That is all.”, it’d probably be right 90% of the time). Also, if you’ve played with your Mac’s speech settings lately, you’ve probably noticed that none of the voices really fall into the “pleasant” category.

Considering that Pipe Organ is the zenith of our current progress in the synthesized voice field, it might be best to stick with a less chatty morning briefing system for the time being. Short of hiring a personal assistant (I would totally settle for my own Pepper Potts), Chumby seems like a pretty slick system. Basically, you keep the cute little duffer by your bed and it makes a lot of noise when you tell it to (i.e., it’s an alarm clock) and then it plays a stream of information including weather, your email inbox, Facebook updates, Google Calendar agenda, and, of course, Chuck Norris facts. In theory, it sounds pretty swell, but there’s a couple things that make this $200 alarm clock sub-par.

The biggest problem with the Chumby is its internet connection. Since basically everything is stored on the Web (rather than on the device itself), the Chumby can only do four things without an internet connection: 1) display the time, 2) do its whole alarm thing, 3) play music from your iPod or computer and 4) be cuddly. This wouldn’t really be that big of a deal if the internet connection wasn’t so flaky. My Chumby loses its connection much more often than my computer or iTouch and when I try to reconnect, it frequently doesn’t work.

Even when I can get the Chumby connected, another problem presents itself. At 6:00 AM on a weekday in the pitch black and freezing cold of a winter morning, I suddenly find that squinting at my calender or the weather isn’t as fascinating as I thought it was (especially when the latter is easily summarized as “damn cold”). Granted, this isn’t really the Chumby’s fault, but I can’t help but think that a nice big LCD monitor next to my bed would improve on the concept.

The default clock (i.e., the only one which works without a Web connection) isn’t too hot either. It’s low contrast and fairly small, so I can’t see what time it is from across the room (without my contacts, at least).

Of course, Chumby has his good qualities, he can play Pandora (often haltingly due to a poor wireless connection), he can play music from my iPod (although, it doesn’t work with my iTouch, just my old Nano. Oh, and it can’t play anything with DRM). My Chumby’s coolest function (arguably) may also be the creepiest: With the right widget, you can view the feed from random security cams around the world.  While the footage of snow-covered Helsenki streets isn’t exactly exciting, there are some more interesting feeds mixed in.  It’s great preparation for a career as a security guard.

Really though, after seeing just how bad things can get when S.A.R.A.H. malfunctions, maybe I should be counting my lucky stars that the cute little Chumby doesn’t holler at/try to kill me when it malfunctions.

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Software Sumo: Alarm Clocks

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Yes indeedy, time to review alarm clock applications: Aurora, Awaken and Alarm Clock 2. I have decided to review the Aurora 4 kinda-private beta rather than the stable version 3. I know I may be criticized for this just as I was for comparing an old version of MacJournal to Journler, but deal with it. (I was originally planning to review Alarm Clock Pro as well, but my trial has expired and I do not know it well enough to review it without playing around for a while).

Interface

The new version of Aurora boasts a nice new interface. Although it is basically the same as the old one functionally (meaning users of Aurora 3 will have no problem using it) it has nice new graphical elements that really bring it up to speed with the new OS. I love the new toolbar icons, and although the sheep was cute, I’m glad to see it go. Overall, Aurora 4 presents a nice, simple interface that is really all about the alarms, making it very easy to do what you’re supposed to– wake up. That said, it does lack a full screen option for both alarms and the Fall Asleep option.

Awaken also has a nice interface with a semi-transparent clock as the centerpiece. Although the clock looks nice, it doesn’t serve any real purpose in my mind and just serves to distract from the alarms (in Awaken, there is a dropdown box for editing alarms). I’m not too crazy about the “back-end” interface for Awaken, but the full screen interfaces can’t be beat. For both alarms and falling asleep, there is a gorgeous full screen display showing album art et al (similar to Front Row).

Alarm Clock 2 hasn’t been updated in a while and is starting to show it. A couple years ago the simple transparent alarm was nice, but now it is starting to age. Combine this with pre-Tiger graphics in the back-end and you’ve got a problem. The back-end is also accessible only from the menu item which really annoys me. Perhaps this application would be best for your blind aunt.

Aurora: 8/10 – A gorgeous, clean interface. But no fullscreen.

Awaken: 9/10 – Not the best back-end, but the fullscreen is to die for.

Alarm Clock 2: 6/10 – It seems my alarm clock has woken me up in 2003.

Features

Aurora has the two main features we have come to expect in alarm clock apps: the alarm, of course, and also the fall asleep option. The alarm is clean, easy to use and reliable because it uses Aurora’s built in player rather than iTunes (I quit using Aurora 3 because its iTunes reliance effected dependability). The alarms play in a pane of the main window that shows album art and a variety of other information and options. Although the fall asleep pane has more options than the one in Awaken (you can choose to fall asleep after a number of songs, at a specific time, once a movie has finished or after a set number of minutes) I find it annoying that Aurora will not start iTunes/Quicktime/DVD Player like Awaken does (because, let’s face it, I’m a lazy bum. However, some people probably won’t mind this). In addition to iTunes, Aurora also has EyeTV support but I haven’t had a chance to use it. Otherwise, Aurora doesn’t have a ton of extra features (this isn’t a bad thing however, it has everything I need).

Awaken has alarms and fall asleep just like Aurora, but no EyeTV support. To make up for it, it has a timer (and of course, full screen). By far my least favorite part of Awaken is the fact that it still uses iTunes for just about everything. You can use sound alarms that play right from Awaken, but these are limited to certain file types (and you miss out on album art). However, I have not found this reliance to effect reliability (not much anyway, the first time it didn’t go off because iTunes wanted me to update). The only option for falling asleep is after a certain amount of time. This is kind of a pain, but overall I think the fall asleep option is stronger here than in Aurora. The timer is pretty simple– you tell it when to go off and it does. Easy as that.

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Alarm Clock 2 does not have a fall asleep option. However, it does have both a timer and a stopwatch. Surprisingly, Alarm Clock 2 plays alarms locally and because of this it has never missed an alarm (I used it for quite a while). Also nice is the ability to choose a specific song in a playlist rather than having to play from the beginning.

Aurora: 7/10 – Has the two most important features but no fullscreen (and the fall asleep option isn’t the best).

Awaken: 7/10 – The biggest weakness is its use of iTunes for playback.

Alarm Clock 2: 6/10 – No fall asleep but some other handy features.

Overall

Because Aurora and Awaken are so close it really comes down to personal choice. If you’re not big on fullscreen, Aurora is probably the way to go. However, if you really like the fullscreen and other showy effects, Awaken is probably the way to go. And, if you’re hard-up on cash, Alarm Clock 2 (or Aurora 3) will do in a pinch. Bottom line, pick up your trial of Awaken and the Aurora beta and see which you prefer.

Aurora (v3 is free, but v4 will sell for an unknown price): 15/20 – Great interface even without fullscreen. Easy (and fun) to use. Definitely a strong contender.

Awaken ($12.95): 16/20 – The fullscreen really makes up for some rough bits. A great, great-looking app that’s pretty good as far as first things to see in the morning go.

Alarm Clock 2 (Free): 11/20 – Bad interface and a mixed bag of features. That said, the price can’t be beat.

Additional screenshots for this edition of Software Sumo can be found here.

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