Review: Philips Docking Entertainment System DCP951
When an otherwise exciting new iPod accessory is grossly undermined by the quality of one or two of its components, our natural response -- the facepalm -- is followed by our need to write a sad explanatory review. Such is the case with Philips' new DCP951 ($200), the first add-on video screen we've tested that performs video from the third-generation iPod nano, iPod classic, and iPod touch, all of which were locked by Apple from working with similar earlier devices. DCP951 has almost everything needed to be a breakthrough product -- a 9" display, stereo speakers and twin headphone ports, and for the first time in iPod portable display history, on-screen iPod menu navigation -- but poor screen implementation wrecks what would otherwise have been a cool new option for travelers and other iPod users whose display needs exceed Apple's current offerings.
To be clear up front, DCP951’s on-paper feature list is seriously impressive. Take the display, which though highly unusual in pixel count—640x220—offers a superior overall resolution than any of the preceding portable displays we’ve tested, and beats the largest of them by half an inch on the diagonal. (Notably, Philips now also offers a 8.5”-screened version called DCP851 with the same form factor and general features, dropping in resolution to 480x234, and falling to $180 in price.) Housed in the tablet-like frame are two speakers under a metal grille, control buttons and release latches, an analog volume knob and ports for power, AV in, AV out, and headphones. Hidden on the back and sides are more significant features: a DVD compartment, an iPod dock, and an SD/MMC card slot, all capable of letting you watch video or photo content on the integrated display.
Pack-ins are also substantial. Besides a simple soft carrying sleeve, which protects the screen when not in use, there’s an Infrared remote control, borrowed from last year’s DCP850, as well as video, wall power, and car power cables, the latter two providing power for the device and recharging capability for its internal battery. Philips rates the battery at only 2.5 hours, which mimics the DCP850’s, actually running for longer if the power-draining DVD drive isn’t spinning; you can expect roughly twice the runtime if you’re connected to an iPod rather than watching a disc. As before, Philips includes integrated DiVX and MP3 playback support for the SD/MMC cards and discs, with commensurate performance hits if its decoder chip and drive are taxed in either or both of these ways.
The good news here is that Philips has packed all of these goodies into a package that’s only slightly larger than last year’s—9.25” by 7” by 1.5” versus the 8.5” by 7” by 1.5” DCP850—and fixed some of the prior version’s problems: no longer are the speakers reversed, the video aspect ratios difficult to toggle, and all navigation performed on the iPod’s tiny screen. Plug in an iPod and within seconds, DCP951 brings up a simple but functional on-screen menu that you control with the integrated joypad or remote control, selecting music, videos, photos, or shuffled songs. With the right iPods, you have less to screw around with, and a better chance of either getting the audio presentation or aspect ratio right the first time, or fixing it quickly thereafter.
There are also carry-over benefits from the prior design. Philips has designed the iPod dock as a storage compartment for the remote control, including small plastic inserts to help it and the video-ready iPod nano stay in place. The integrated speakers, while still not amazing, deliver good enough sound for DVD or iPod playback in the event that you don’t want to listen quietly with headphones; then, as with Memorex’s earlier iFlip and the prior DCP850, you have two ports for simultaneous listening. And finally, the styling is absolutely inoffensive; though DCP951 is physically a lot bigger than an iPod, it’s just as neutral visually, and unlike the wearable video goggles we’ve tested will leave adjacent viewers feeling jealous rather than amused.
Regrettably, there are some major caveats that offset these positives. The iPod touch doesn’t work as fully as the other iPods do with DCP951; for whatever reason, you can navigate touch’s music menu just fine, but you’ll have to pop open the dock and use its touchscreen for videos. You’ll also have to use each iPod’s menus if you want to display photos on the system’s screen, starting up the slideshow manually with the play button, and their resolution is seriously disappointing. On a comparatively minor but not forgettable note, the unit’s buttons and interface aren’t as uniform in response as iPod users would expect, so you’ll sometimes find yourself hitting the same button a few times to do something, or seeing menus skip forward or backwards twice after what you think to be one button press. While we applaud Philips’ attempt to integrate the iPod better into this system than it did with DCP850, the menuing system—which still lacks the ability to let you adjust the screen’s brightness or contrast in the middle of iPod video playback—still could use some major work.
Interface may be important, but it’s ultimately that screen’s performance that makes use of DCP951 such a disappointment. Last year, Philips mixed up the left and right speakers on DCP850; this year, it looks like either the screen or its backlighting solution were installed improperly in the unit we reviewed. To be clear, we’re not saying that videos or photos appear in the wrong orientation, but LCD screens are susceptible to serious color and brightness degradation when they’re viewed on the “wrong” angles, and with DCP951, angles that should be viewable aren’t. Last year’s model may have suffered from similar issues, but it was designed with a pivoting screen that could be watched on common angles without a problem. As a tablet with a pop-out stand, DCP951’s screen starts to look poor in movies with dark images if you’re anywhere south of a parallel viewing angle with the screen, and needs to have its brightness setting turned up to the maximum. It gets worse with lower viewing angles, making blacks, grays, and colors go negative to the point where you can’t make out what’s happening on screen.
Is it the screen? The backlight? An omitted setting? A manufacturing flaw? We’re honestly not sure. DCP951 doesn’t have the manual brightness knob of the DCP850, nor does it have the screen color, sharpness, gamma, hue, or saturation settings that used to be part of the older model’s menus. Practically, what this means is that DCP951 doesn’t do well under the two usage situations that we consider to be most common for devices of this sort: flat-on-back tablet style viewing, or propped-up desktop or bedside viewing. You need to either be positioned on a viewing angle at or above the screen’s center point, which isn’t great—you have a much better chance of properly seeing the screen of the unaided iPod, even an iPod touch, than you do the DCP951.
All in all, it’s obvious from DCP951 that Philips’ ambitions in the iPod video accessory space continue to exceed its engineering prowess, which is tragic on two levels: first, the company has done seriously impressive things in the audio category, particularly with its affordable and attractively designed AJ300D clock radio, and second, improved portable video displays are so sorely needed for iPods these days. By breaking compatibility with Sonic Impact’s and Memorex’s comparatively excellent models, and apparently not guaranteeing iPod touch video menu navigation compatibility for 2008 accessories, Apple has left current-generation iPod users with little choice but to accept clumsily executed options such as this one. Under the circumstances, and even as much as we’d love to have a way to replace earlier video accessories, we’d hold off until something better comes along. Unless you plan to view the screen from an unusually high viewing angle, DCP951 isn’t the sort of video add-on we’d recommend.