Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

iHome iH5

If you've been scratching your head wondering how a company like iHome Audio came out of nowhere to create a product that is now offered in stores like Circuit City and Target, you can put away the Selsun Blue. The reason most people have never heard of iHome Audio is because the company is merely a new brand from 45-year old electronics company SDI Technologies.

"Huh?" you innocently ask, helping me to contrive a narrative flow, "I've never heard of SDI Technologies, either. Did they do Reagan's Star Wars plan in the '80s?" No, but they have done a huge number of alarm clocks bearing better-known brands such as Timex, licensed from the eponymous watch company, Soundesign and Zenith. So it's not surprising that the first company to integrate the iPod with an alarm clock would be experts in alarm clocks. (Apple had pretty well staked out the iPod part.)


The iHome iH5 is a relatively large, unusually shaped clock radio with a little valley on its top that contains the dock and the device�s control buttons. iHome includes a variety of mounts for different-sized iPods, but will accommodate a non-docking iPod, iPod Shuffle or practically any other portable audio device via its line-in jack. A line-out jack is also provided. It looks better out of the box than in most of its pictures. The buttons, including a prominent snooze activator, are nicely illuminated. However, it doesn�t support dual alarms and sports an LCD with adjustable brightness instead of the more common (and I believe preferable) LED displays.

The clock makes it easy to use the iPod (or FM radio) for either waking or falling asleep, but has some drawbacks. The volume control, obviously inspired by the iPod�s scroll wheel but not as functional, felt mushy at times. Also, the way the docked iPod stands up like a little iHomosapien makes it difficult to stack anything atop the device. The various bundled iPod adapters don�t offer enough support to avoid putting pressure on the dock connector when using the iPod�s buttons. Worse, the errant arc of a drowsy arm might result in teaching your iPod with a fatal physics lesson. iHome Audio bundles a slim remote control for the iH5 when you order it direct from their Web site, but it�s an egregious $20 add-on for units purchased at Target.

The iHome offering marks another near-miss in the quest to find a fun and affordable MP3 alarm clock. When compared to the Philips Shoqbox, iHome Audio has certainly executed its product better, but the Dutch giant�s miniature boombox feels closer to the right form factor and specifications for an MP3 alarm clock. Other pretenders include a new RCA alarm clock that can accept line-in input from an MP3 player, The Sharper Image�s $200 shower MP3 CD player that can function as an alarm clock, and the Acoustic Energy Wi-Fi Internet radio. It�s almost as if companies are doing everything they can to avoid a simple, elegant solution.

With a price of about $100, the wide-body waker costs more than most alarm clocks, but is considerably less expensive than many other speaker docks. Indeed, while the iH5 is at least twice the size of a folded Altec Lansing inMotion iM3 system, it produces far better bass thanks to its �Reson8� sound chamber. It won�t beat the best table radios from the likes of Bose, but it costs a quarter of those devices. If you�re looking for a speaker dock for your iPod, and aren�t concerned about pass-through syncing or the sexiest facade, the iH5 offers eye-opening value.



Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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Switched On: When Clock Meets Dock