This customizable smart display is a fun desk accessory that needs a purpose

When Tidbyt, which its makers describe as a “personal pixel display,” arrived at my house, I loved it before I even knew what to do with it. With its walnut paneling and its ultra-pixelated display, it seems like what would happen if you asked someone in 1956 to design the Echo Show for Amazon. It’s 8.2 inches tall, 4.4 inches tall, and two inches deep, which is a bit big to put on your bedside table, but nestles nicely on a bookshelf or large desk. It’s an impressively well-made thing for a company’s first product.

But the thing about the $179 Tidbyt is that it’s never really clear what the device is. For, It is a clock but not an alarm clock. This is an extremely bad digital photo frame. It doesn’t do anything that your phone can’t, and your phone certainly does all of those things better. It’s an excellent delivery system for quick bits of ambient information, but if it doesn’t make sense to you right away, you don’t need Tidbyt. Its allure is real and still hasn’t waned on me, but it still feels a little unfinished.

The team behind Tidbyt started working on it a few years ago and launched the product on Kickstarter in March 2021. A year and a half later, all the supporters have received their Tidbyts, and the device is generally available. Sort: Co-founder Rohan Singh told me that current supplies are sold out, but “we have more units in a couple of weeks.” The build is tough, but Singh is confident Tidbyt can stay on top.

There are plenty of indications that Tidbyt is still new at this. For starters, my device came with an Anker-branded charging cable in the box with a black wall plug that apparently came out of a bin at a factory in China. None of them bother me, really — and at least the cable is one of those nice braided ones — but an Apple-like unboxing experience it doesn’t.

The screen, however, is the whole point of Tidbyt, and it’s pretty unusual. It’s not a screen so much as a collection of individual LEDs—64 by 32 down, 2,048 of them in all—that can be lit and controlled individually. You can control the brightness of the display, and it can get seriously bright; I kept the brightness level at 15 out of 100, and at full power, those 2,048 LEDs were bright enough that the Tidbite practically illuminated my home office by itself.

The Tidbyt’s screen is delightfully low-res, but it still works for most purposes.

It’s incredibly low-res by design because it doesn’t mean much to do. The makers of Tidbyt aren’t trying to make a super immersive gadget, but rather something that can save you from needing to look at your phone every time you need a little information. Singh says he built the original prototype to quickly find out when the Metro was coming. “If I got to check on my phone,” he says, “I’d check Twitter too. And I’d check Instagram and stuff, and then just be doing that for half an hour.” Instead After all, he hacked together a thing that plugged into New York City’s subway API and told it when the next G train was coming. It looks like a subway status board because it’s exactly that.

There’s a whole genre of gadgets out there that all pitch themselves in this way, of course. “This is the gadget that will free you from your phone” applies to everything from the Apple Watch and Alexa to the minimalist smartphones of Palm and others. Tidbyt takes this idea to the extreme by letting you not interact with the device at all.

With Tidbyt all your conversations actually happen with the app on your phone.

To set up Tidbyt, you simply plug it in. It turns on automatically and goes into pairing mode. All the actual work happens in the Tidbyt app, which is available on Android and iOS: You connect the Tidbyt via Bluetooth and then log it into your Wi-Fi network and it’s up and running. The app is where you decide what Tidbyt will do, how bright it gets, and everything else. It defeats the whole “don’t use your phone” idea a bit, but once Tidbyt is set up the way you like it, you don’t really need the app.

To get stuff done on Tidbyt, it happens in the app as well. There’s a store with a few dozen different apps, all of them free, that you can install on your device with just a few taps. Most are status boards of some sort: there are many different clocks, a bunch of weather apps, ways to track the stock market or bitcoin price or the phase of the moon, a few sports score apps that scroll like an ESPN ticker. And there are plenty of ways to see when the next subway train is coming. There are also some silly apps, like Nyan Cat animation or the bouncing DVD logo recreation, which I’m not ashamed to admit, I spent about 20 straight minutes watching to see if it would ever hit the corner. (It did, and it was awesome.)

More apps are coming to Tidbyt all the time, but it’s still pretty basic. For example, there’s no working Calendar app for Outlook or iCloud, and no way to view most to-do lists other than Todoist or Things. Building an app for Tidbyt is fairly simple – after all, it’s a bunch of lightsabers, and if you have access to Linux and basic Python knowledge, you can write your own pretty easily. And the Tidbyt team told me they’d eventually like Tidbyt to act like a no-code platform for anyone looking to build custom apps. However, it’s still a way out, and for now, there are big holes in the App Store.

Adding apps to your Tidbyt is easy enough, but I wish I could do more to manage them. By default, Tidbyt spins through all the apps you have installed, displaying each one for 15 seconds at a time. You can drag apps around to determine the order in which they appear, and you can shorten the switching time by as little as five seconds, but you can’t do that anymore — and I want to. that it be long. Beyond that, what I’d like is a way to freeze it on an app, like hitting “hold” on the thermostat to keep it at a single temperature, rather than running a normal schedule. You can technically schedule when apps run and when they don’t, so you can one of a kind Reverse engineer this setup, but it’s a lot more work than it should be.

Without this type of control, you’ll really only want to add apps to Tidbyt that you plan to use all the time. I ride the DC Metro occasionally, but not daily, and was constantly annoyed by the schedule on days I didn’t care about. Nyan Cat was funny – but not enough to watch 24 hours a day at once.

Throughout my time using Tidbyt, I’ve constantly fluctuated between appreciating how little it does and wishing it did a little more. It’s a great looking desk clock and, with a speaker, would be a great alarm – but I don’t really I want this thing to scream at me all day. It would be nice to be able to scroll through my apps manually, but I don’t want to turn my Tidbyt into something I have to walk and interact with.

Tidbyt’s hardware and software have both been tampered with.

Here’s where I landed: a button. I wish Tidbyt had a single, customizable, smackable button on the top. That button may be fully programmable—both hardware and software are easy to disassemble and tamper with, which Singh told me is an important part of its purpose—but I’d rather just stop and try it. As a way to start I’ll use Tidbyt’s app rotation: a smack on whatever app is currently showing to freeze it so I can have a clock showing most of the time and forecast, another smack To start cycling it between everything I installed.

I don’t think I’ll be getting my button anytime soon, but the Tidbyt team is working on a few more controls for the software. “Right now, it’s definitely limited,” Singh says, “but it’s simple. It’s very predictable. We can do a lot of things, like add scheduling, or allow you to put an app on hold, or a Changing the time an app is displayed – the question is how to do it and give you a user experience that makes sense.” The whole point of Tidbyt, they say, is that you don’t need to use It’s meant to be useful, and he doesn’t want to lose it.

The other thing that’s missing from Tidbyt right now is multiuser support. For a device that’s likely to be placed around people’s homes, the fact that you can only control it with a phone is a problem. The team says it’s working on that too, as well as getting better controls for homes with multiple Tidbyts.

After a few days of playing around with all the Tidbyt apps, I only kept three: One shows the forecast; Shows the next event on my calendar; And one is a delightfully pixelated picture of my two dogs. Tidbyt flips between them every 15 seconds.

As a result, my Tidbyt is basically a super-powered desk clock. $179 is an awful lot to pay for a super-powered desk clock, and it doesn’t offer anything you can’t get from a quick glance at your phone. it also offers a lot low You’ll get smart displays from Google or Amazon, many of which you can get for pretty cheap. But I like the idea of ​​these light, ambient gadgets that have the information I need but don’t smack it in my face with push notifications or tempt me into doomscrolling every time I look. I like what Tidbyt represents even more than I like the device. I don’t even want it to do any more stuff! I just want to control it better.

Photography by David Pierce / The Verge

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