Review: Dexim MHub Dock Station for iPhone/iPod/Blackberry
When Griffin released Simplifi back in October, 2008, we were generally impressed: the company used an especially nice aluminum and plastic Mac-matching industrial design to house an iPod dock, two card readers, and a two-port USB hub. As implied by its name, its mission was to reduce cable and device clutter on a desk by combining the features of several computer accessories in a single housing -- not the first such device, but the best we'd yet seen. Now Dexim has an alternative, the MHub Dock Station ($80, aka MacHub), which takes the same general concept and shrinks it while adding a little, taking away a little, and raising the price. While MHub isn't quite as well-designed as Simplifi, it may appeal more to a certain segment of iPod and iPhone users.
Like Simplifi, MHub is made from a combination of aluminum and plastic, here a mix of a silver aluminum top surface with a black plastic adjustable top dock and a silver plastic bottom. Dexim was clearly inspired by Apple’s MacBook Air, using heavily tapered sides to give MHub the appearance of thinness while hiding an SD/SDHC card reader and a USB input port on the left side, a power port and an accessory-ready USB port on the back, and two more accessory-ready USB ports on the right. For those keeping count, MHub manages to offer one additional device-ready USB port beyond Simplifi, drops Simplifi’s CompactFlash and Memory Stick card readers, and achieves a space savings besides: MHub is 3 3/4” wide versus Simplifi’s 4 1/8”, almost 1/4” shallower, and thanks to the tapering, seemingly shorter, but not really - there’s much less total volume but the dock on top makes MHub a hint taller at some points.
Also worth noting are Dexim’s pack-ins, which are significant for a dock of this sort. The company includes both the white micro-USB to full-USB cable used to connect MHub to your computer, a power cable that connects to an included dual USB power adapter, and device-ready mini-USB and micro-USB cables that can be connected to Blackberry devices or other small accessories. A carrying bag is also included for all of the parts.
While Dexim deserves commendation for achieving its size reductions and including all these extras—we were legitimately impressed when first taking MHub out of the box—they turn out to have come at a price. Simplifi’s design positioned its card readers on the front face, making insertion and removal extremely easy, while all of its cables stuck out of its back—in retrospect, a much smarter and forward-thinking choice than we realized during our review. MHub’s design instead creates a desktop hydra of cabling, one guaranteed to run from its left, another from its back, and if you’re using more than one USB port, one from its right. Thus, it may be a narrower dock in isolation, but once the cables are connected, it’s at least as wide as Simplifi.
When you want to insert or remove an SD card, you need to turn the hub around and insert the card behind the persistently connected USB-to-computer cable, which is fine in the abstract, but somewhat annoying in practice: putting the card reader on the entirely unused front surface like Simplifi would have eliminated this issue altogether. The reader works exactly as expected, transferring files to and from SD cards without a problem. There’s also a smaller but related issue with the unit’s three indicator lights, which let you know that MHub is getting power, has a card in the reader, and/or is being used to dock an iPhone or iPod; they’re top-mounted and not easy to see when MHub’s flat on a desk. Thankfully, they’re not especially important, but Griffin positioned its card reader lights on the front face so that they could be seen.
What ultimately reduced our excitement over MHub wasn’t so much the cabling, the card reader’s placement, or the lighting. Rather, it was Dexim’s dock, which looks great but turns out to be basically incompatible with encased iPhones and iPods. Apple’s Universal Dock standard, which has been adopted by virtually every major accessory manufacturer, has the benefit of a size and shape that adjusts for either completely unprotected devices or ones with cases on; Simplifi uses this Universal Dock, and most likely to achieve its MacBook Air-like thin profile, MHub doesn’t. The consequence is that an encased device generally won’t rest properly or completely on MHub’s Dock Connector, preventing synchronization; you’ll need to pull the case off to make it work. We’d take the more compatible Universal Dock design any day.
Overall, MHub is a truly interesting and initially compelling accessory that turns out to be a little less than thrilling when actually put into use. From a specifications standpoint, it struck us as an excellent replacement for Simplifi, given its greater number of USB ports and smaller size—even the lack of the CompactFlash and Memory Stick readers struck us as acceptable in an increasingly SD-focused world. But in practice, the location of the ports and the reader, the design of the dock, and the higher price all took away from what otherwise would have been a great new offering. Our rating of MHub is on the edge of limited and general recommendations, falling into the general category because this accessory will be a good and useful product for certain users when considered in isolation from other options; that said, Simplifi strikes us as a decidedly better implementation of the same concept at a lower price, with only a single USB port comparatively missing from its functionality.