No matter how much you love your iPad, there will always come a time when you feel the need to prop up this hefty tablet while simultaneously giving its audio and battery a little boost. Well, Altec Lansing thinks you do, anyway. Like the $99 SMK-Link PadDock 10 we reviewed not long ago, Altec's Octiv Stage (or Octiv 450 outside the US) also provides a combo of swivel hinge and speakers for the iPad, but is this $149.95 dock worth the extra money? Read on to find out.
It really doesn't take long to do a full tour around the Octiv Stage. The hard polycarbonate body consists of a pair of front-facing two-inch neodymium drivers hidden behind a piece of black cloth, and below that you have an LED along with click buttons for power and volume. On the back you'll find nothing more than an AUX-in port and a power adapter socket; and it's odd that there's no USB charging port as featured on the cheaper, dual docking Octiv Duo. We also noticed that the SMK-Link PadDock 10 has a mini-USB port that lets you sync the iPad while it's docked, so it would've been cool if the Octiv Stage sported the same feature, especially given that it costs $50 more than the PadDock. On the bright side, the Stage comes with a slim IR remote control, although the dock doesn't have a compartment for storing it away. We've been told the reason the Stage isn't as feature-complete as the Duo is mainly because Altec wanted to push the former out in time for the holidays, so it had to give up certain refinements. Since Altec put it that way, we find it even harder to justify the Stage's higher price compared to the Duo's.
Moving on to the cradle: its arm base is tightly hinged at the top of the main body for adjusting the vertical viewing angle (from flat to about 80 degrees), and further up is a swivel hinge that gently locks at portrait or either landscape position. We haven't had too much difficulty with operating the hinges, but since they're located differently, we often find ourselves applying the wrong force while adjusting the viewing angle. Eventually we got into the habit of tilting the iPad by its top side while holding the base down with our other hand. There's no way to adjust the iPad's height, although at where it is now, we've found it to be just right for general usage, especially as a secondary display for videos or Twitter. When tilted lower, the dock's also good for some quick typing as well thanks to the tight lower hinge.
To dock the iPad, you simply slide it from the open end of the cradle down to the dock connector. And yes, this means you will have to remove the iPad's case, if any. We did wonder whether the cradle will leave marks on our tablet, but after days of usage, it looks like the felt-covered tips of the two arms are keeping our iPad scratch free, plus there's also a piece of rubber to cushion the iPad's hump on the back. Oh, and in case you're wondering, the cradle just about fits our iPhone 4 and iPod nano as well -- both sans cases, of course.
While the hardware's not bad physically, the speakers' audio quality didn't stand up to our expectation. It's good enough for the casual TV show, sure, but when compared to the Octiv Duo, the Stage seems to suffer from a weaker bass performance. We also noticed an unusual amount of static noise -- which was non-existent on our Octiv Duo -- when the volume's above 50 percent. Speaking of which, for some strange reason there's no way to quickly adjust the volume on the iPad (with 4.2 firmware) as the virtual volume slider's disabled when docked. Right now you have to hold down on either volume button on the remote control or the dock until you reach your desired level, or until the LED stops flashing if you want to max it out. It's certainly not very convenient.
We had high hopes for the Octiv Stage, but the price tag just doesn't seem to match what it offers (or the lack thereof). Sure, the iPad market is nowhere as big as the iPod's or the iPhone's, and that cradle would've no doubt incurred extra manufacturing costs, but we're still not convinced that the Stage deserves a full $50 jump from the Duo or the PadDock. If Altec wants to make up to us, it'd have to throw in the aforementioned missing features and enhance the audio quality. Other than that, the Stage is a solid piece of iPad accessory with a fair set of features.