When the Tidbyt, which the makers describe as a “personal pixel display,” arrived at my house, I liked it before I knew what to do with it. With its walnut wood panels and ultra-pixelated display, it’s a bit like what would happen if you asked someone to design an Echo Show for Amazon in 1956. It’s 8.2 inches long, 4.4 inches long and two inches deep, which is a little big to put on your nightstand, but fits nicely in a bookshelf or on a larger desk. It’s an impressively well-made thing for a company’s first product.
But the thing about the $179 Tidbyt is that it never really becomes clear what this device is in front of. It’s a clock, but not an alarm clock. It’s a hilariously bad digital photo frame. It doesn’t do anything your phone can’t, and your phone definitely does all those things better. It’s an excellent delivery system for quick bits of environmental information, but if that doesn’t mean something to you right away, you don’t need Tidbyt. Its charm is real and still hasn’t worn off on me, but it still feels a little unfinished.
The team behind Tidbyt started this a few years ago and launched the product on Kickstarter in March 2021. A year and a half later, all backers have received their Tidbyts and the device is generally available. Sort of: Co-founder Rohan Singh tells me that current stock is sold out, but “we’ll have more units on the way in a few weeks.” Manufacturing is difficult, but Singh is confident that Tidbyt can stay in charge.
However, there are plenty of hints that Tidbyt is still new to this. For starters, my device arrived with an Anker-branded charging cable in the box, along with a black plug that clearly came out of a trash can somewhere in a factory in China. Neither really bothers me — and at least the cable is one of those pretty braided ones — but an Apple-esque unboxing experience this isn’t.
However, the screen is the whole point of Tidbyt, and it’s a very unusual one. It’s not so much a screen as it is a collection of individual LEDs – 64 wide by 32 down, 2,048 in total – that can be lit and controlled individually. You can control the brightness of the screen and it can get seriously bright; I kept the brightness level at about 15 out of 100, and at full brightness those 2,048 LEDs were bright enough that the Tidbyt practically lit up my home office on its own.
It’s designed at an incredibly low resolution, as it’s not meant to do much. The makers of the Tidbyt aren’t trying to build a super immersive gadget, but something that can keep you from looking at your phone every time you need a little bit of information. Singh says he built the original prototype to quickly know when the subway is coming. “If I went on my phone to check,” he says, “I’d check Twitter too. And I’d check Instagram and stuff, and then just do it for half an hour.” Instead, he hacked into a thing hooked up to New York City’s subway API and told him when the next G train would arrive, it looks like a subway status sign, because that’s exactly what it is.
There is of course a whole genre of gadgets that all present themselves this way. “This is the gadget that will set you free from your phone” applies to everything from the Apple Watch and Alexa to the minimalist smartphones from Palm and others. Tidbyt just takes the idea to the extreme by not letting you interact with the device at all.
To set up the Tidbyt, just plug it in. It turns on automatically and jumps into pairing mode. All the actual work is done in the Tidbyt app, which is available on Android and iOS: you connect to Tidbyt via Bluetooth, log it into your Wi-Fi network, and it’s ready to go. The app is where you decide what the Tidbyt will do, how bright it gets, and everything else. It kind of defeats the “don’t use your phone” idea, but once Tidbyt is set up the way you want it, you don’t really need the app anymore.
As for getting stuff on the Tidbyt, that happens in the app as well. There is a store with several dozen different apps, all free, that you can install on your device with a few taps. Most are like status boards: there are many different clocks, a lot of weather apps, ways to track the stock market or the price of Bitcoin or the moon phase, some sports scoring apps that scroll like the ESPN ticker, and plenty of ways to see when the next subway is coming. There are also some crazy apps, like a Nyan Cat animation or a recreation of the bouncing DVD logo that I’m not ashamed to admit I watched for about 20 minutes straight to see if it would ever hit the corner. . (It did, and it was great.)
More and more apps are coming to Tidbyt, but it’s still pretty basic. There’s no calendar app that works for Outlook or iCloud, for example, nor is there a way to see most to-do lists except from Todoist of Things. Building an app for Tidbyt is pretty easy – it’s just a ton of light, after all, and if you have access to Linux and basic Python knowledge, you can write your own pretty easy. And the Tidbyt team tells me that eventually they want the Tidbyt to work more like a no-code platform for anyone to build custom apps. However, that is still a long way off and for now there are big holes in the app store.
It’s easy enough to add apps to your Tidbyt, but I wish I could do more to manage them. By default, Tidbyt rotates through all the apps you’ve installed, showing each app for 15 seconds at a time. You can drag the apps to control the order in which they appear, and you can reduce the switching time to just five seconds, but you can’t make it longer – and I want it to be longer. More than that, what I want is a way to freeze it on a single app, kind of like pressing “hold” on a thermostat to keep it at one temperature instead of running the normal schedule. You can technically schedule when apps will and won’t run, so you can kind of reverse engineer this setup, but it’s a lot more work than it should be.
Without this kind of control, you really only want to add apps to Tidbyt that you always want to use. I ride the DC subway sometimes, but not daily, and it got annoying constantly looking at the schedule on days I didn’t care. Nyan Cat was funny, but not enough to watch once a minute 24 hours a day.
In my entire time using Tidbyt, I’ve constantly wavered between appreciating how little it does and wishing it could do just a little bit more. It’s a great looking desk clock and with a speaker it would make a great alarm but I won’t For real want this thing yelling at me all day long. It would be nice to be able to manually scroll through my apps, but I also don’t want to turn my Tidbyt into something I have to walk over and interact with.
Here I am: a button. I wish Tidbyt had a single, customizable, smackable button on the top. That button could be fully programmable — both the hardware and software are easy to take apart and tinker with, which Singh says is an important part of its purpose — but I’d only use it as a way to stop the Tidbyts. and to launch app rotation: one hit to freeze it on any app currently running so I can show the clock and forecast most of the time, another hit to make it cycle between everything I’ve installed.
I don’t think I’ll get my button anytime soon, but the Tidbyt team is working on some more controls for the software. “Right now it’s definitely limited,” Singh says, “but it’s simple. It’s very predictable. There are a lot of things we can do, like add schedule, or allow you to hold an app or time change an app to show – the question is how to do that and provide you with a user experience that makes sense.” The whole point of the Tidbyt, he says, is that you don’t have to use it to be useful, and he doesn’t want to lose that.
The other thing that is currently missing from Tidbyt is multi-user support. For a device likely to be placed in people’s homes, the fact that you can only control it from one phone is a problem. The team says it’s working on that as well, as well as better controls for homes with multiple Tidbyts.
After a few days of playing around with all the Tidbyt apps, I ended up with only three: one shows the forecast; one shows the next event in my calendar; and one of them is a wonderfully grainy image of my two dogs. The Tidbyt switches between them every 15 seconds.
As a result, my Tidbyt is basically a super-powerful desk clock. $179 is, of course, an awful lot to pay for a super-powerful desk clock, and it doesn’t offer anything you can’t get with a quick glance at your phone. It also offers a lot fewer than you would get from a smart display from Google or Amazon, many of which you can find much cheaper. But I like the idea of these light, atmospheric gadgets, which have information I need, but don’t push me in the face with push notifications or try to lure me every time I watch doomscrolling. I like what the Tidbyt represents even more than the device itself. I don’t even want him to do any more stuff! I just want to control it better.
Photography by David Pierce / The Verge