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Switched On: Musical screen plays


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Even in this age of slim, lightweight televisions, few consumers short of bored bodybuilders would want to have to lift one whenever they needed to, say, change the channel. (Hence the remote control remains as popular today as it was 20 years ago.) But the iPod is a different story. For all the lawsuits targeted at Apple for iPod-related consumer complaints, none has alleged a strained back or pulled groins caused by Apple's miniature media machine. (Indeed, this has held true in spite of past rumors from credible sources that Apple has been working on a giant iPod.)

Nevertheless, as close a companion as many iPods are, there are times when they aren't packed in our pockets. Since they can hold months' worth of music, hard drive-based units in particular can serve as the main music library in the home in any number of ways -- with one-piece or, more recently, a variety of separate speaker docking speakers, through add-on docks for receivers or home theater-in-a-box systems from popular home audio companies, or via standalone media docks such as the Kensington Entertainment Dock and DLO HomeDock and HomeDock Deluxe (which added a Media Center-like television user interface).

Further taking advantage of this new role, USB remote pioneer Keyspan and iPod accessory veteran DLO have released new remote-controlled docks -- the $179 TuneView and the $129 HomeDock Music Remote. What separates these new arrivals from earlier efforts such as previous AV docks from DLO and Kensington is that they have screens that can be used for track display and navigation -- a simpler slice of Sonos.

The tiny DLO remote includes a razor-sharp OLED display that would shame many neon signs, but is confined to only four lines. The Keyspan remote, on the other hand, has a color LCD larger than the iPod nano's. Its color scheme, menu structure and screen layout more closely mimics that of the iPod itself. Both products use RF signals so that they can work without clear line-of-sight to the dock. Neither, however, includes a scroll wheel, relying on directional arrows for their navigation.

The docks themselves have basic outputs for connection to a stereo or television and include basic composite cables. Cleverly, the Kensington dock connects to its AC adapter via a mini USB connection. This allows the bundled USB cable to serve double-duty; it can also be used to update the firmware on the remote itself, adding new features. Like previous iterations of the HomeDock series, the DLO dock series includes a slot for the remote; this one charges the dock's rechargeable battery in addition to the iPod's.

The svelte black DLO remote is the same height as Apple's white remote used with Front Row, Apple TV and the iPod Hi-Fi, but it is a bit wider and thicker. Indeed, DLO's remote includes only five buttons, half the number of those on the Keyspan and even one less than that of the minimlist Apple remote.

The Keyspan remote uses AA batteries, which accounts for a profile that would win the admiration of Sir Mix-A-Lot. However, it offers practically complete freedom in selecting your music. In contrast, the DLO Music Remote omits choosing by albums; you can't even choose albums after selecting an artist. However, all songs are available for individual selection under the "All Songs" playlist selection. It also includes a jukebox feature that enables you to create your own playlist on the fly using the remote, but the remote's limited controls can make this a time-consuming process.

The DLO remote also occasionally displayed an "Out of Range" message when the dock was set up just a few feet away from the dock. While I didn't encounter this with the Keyspan remote, it operates in the 2.4 GHz spectrum used by Wi-Fi, microwave ovens, and the cosmic rays the robots of Zibodiph 5 use to control Lindsay Lohan.

As with the iPod itself, these screen-bearing remotes appeal to different users (or at least usage models). If you gravitate toward the iPod nano, which offers a slim profile, a smaller screen and lacks some features of its bigger brother, than the DLO HomeDock Music Remote may be more your style. Those who want more power in their palm will like the superior control options of the Keyspan Tuneview.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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