Review: iHome iB969 Charging Station for iPod, iPhone + iPad
Over the past couple of weeks, two companies have finally evolved the increasingly me-too "iPad stand" category into its natural successor -- the iPad dock, combining the prop-up benefits of the many stands we've reviewed with the electronic charging components of classic iPod and iPhone docks. But these companies have both gone further, offering multi-device charging stations with room for an iPad in back and at least one iPod or iPhone in front. One of the options is XtremeMac's InCharge Duo for iPad ($60), while the other is iHome's iB969 Charging Station for iPod, iPhone + iPad ($60); we test and compare both of them in this combined review today.
Of the two designs, the one we were at first most inclined to prefer was InCharge Duo, which has a more compact form factor and streamlined design. Measuring 5.5” deep by 4.5” wide and around 0.75” tall in its basic form, InCharge Duo is a black and gray plastic, dual-device charging station with two swappable top plates, a wall adapter, and five universal dock inserts in the package. With the basic plate installed, you have two universal iPod/iPhone wells capable of recharging both devices while inside or outside of most cases, but you can swap the back dock to the iPad-specific plate for full-speed 2.1-Amp charging of a single iPad, standing vertically either alone or behind a smaller Apple device.
Initially, we really liked the way XtremeMac designed InCharge Duo: it has two small lights in front of its iPod/iPhone dock to indicate charging status, looks nice, and doesn’t consume a lot of space. The docks both work as expected, with the front one quickly recharging smaller devices and the rear one offering 2.1-Amp full-speed iPad refueling. The unit has no other frills, such as computer/iTunes synchronization or audio-out, but as a bedside charging station, it just makes a lot of sense.
Except for one thing: iPad case compatibility. With the iPad plate on, encased iPads generally won’t work; only if you pull the plate off and take your chances with a physically unsupported but encased iPad might you see that charging’s taking place, albeit without InCharge Duo’s indicator light illuminating properly. Most cases we tried didn’t work at all with InCharge Duo, but certain thin shells did—a shame because this would have been much easier to recommend if the dock could accommodate iPads that were protected. The idea of having to pull a case on and off for recharging is a deal-breaker for us because of the inconvenience factor, but those who don’t use cases will feel otherwise.
iHome’s IB969 takes a very different approach to iPad and multi-device charging—one that’s initially less appealing but turns out to be more practical. Like XtremeMac, iHome has packaged a wall adapter and two iPhone/iPod universal docks inside a black and gray plastic shell, here finished with a metallic gunmetal and soft touch rubber look rather than the matte plastics used in InCharge Duo. This dock is considerably larger, measuring 9” wide by 6.9” deep by nearly 2” tall, including a chunky plastic iPad holder that bulges out of the otherwise ingot-like device. Also inside the box are twin mini-USB to USB cables and a foreign-looking USB to power adapter that turns out to be for Sony’s Reader devices, plus a mini-USB to micro-USB adapter, and two iPhone 3G/3GS-compatible universal dock inserts. Flip iB969 upside down and there are two USB ports on the bottom, ready to connect to the included USB cables or whichever other device-specific ones you may want or need to self-supply.
The net effect of receiving all this stuff in the box, then sorting through it, is to tell a tale of a dock that seems to have originally been designed somewhat questionably for iPod, iPhone, and a Sony Reader to hang out together—a product iHome is incidentally releasing separately as the iB967—then hastily redesigned with a non-electronic iPad tray for the iB969. There are a lot of cables here, three separate oddball switches on the iB969 for different purposes, and a big rubber surface in front of the twin iPod/iPhone docks for the Sony Reader of all things to rest on. By comparison with the InCharge Duo, why waste all the space and introduce a bunch of different cables into the equation?
As it turns out, there’s a good reason to bother: despite some initial setup complexity, iB969 turns out to be a really nice nightstand option for multi-device users—a place to drop an iPhone or iPod, an iPad, and your glasses, car keys, or whatever other electronic device you might want to charge at the same time. On one hand, iHome puts iPad users at a disadvantage relative to InCharge Duo by forcing them to supply their own Dock Connector to USB charging cable, which is length-managed by clips under iB969, then fed through the rear plastic tray for connection to the iPad’s bottom. But this approach lets iB969 do something InCharge Duo doesn’t: you can mount your iPad vertically or horizontally in the tray. And because the tray is large enough to accommodate encased iPads, it works under a variety of circumstances XtremeMac’s dock can’t handle. Inside a case, outside a case, upside down, on its right, on its left, or even backwards—the iPad can be placed any way that works for you.
It’s also a more powerful charging station. We had an iPad fully charging via the rear 2.1-Amp charger while two iPods or an iPod and iPhone fully charged in the docks in front; 4 total Amps of power can be divided amongst the four total ports if you desire, except that only one port offers high-speed iPad charging. By comparison with InCharge Duo, iB969 is ready to refuel a bunch of devices at once, albeit with only a single very bright blue light on its top surface to indicate that it’s being used for any form of charging. Two of the switches on the unit are on its bottom, letting you toggle the hidden USB ports for Apple and non-Apple device charging; the other one is on the top, letting you switch iB969 into a syncing mode so that the connected devices can interact with iTunes on a Mac or PC using one of the included cables and an outgoing mini-USB port on the unit’s back.
There is no single iPad charging and docking solution that’s going to be right for every user, and as these two alternatives suggest, developers are going to be tempted to integrate iPhone/iPod and iPad docks together, while offering various interchangeable parts that may overcomplicate yet improve the versatility of their products. In a world in which dual iPod/iPhone docks have been around for a while and the addition of iPad functionality is really the major selling point for new accessories, our feeling is that InCharge Duo had the right idea with its form factor but the wrong execution with its case-unfriendly top plate, while iHome’s form factor is a little kludgy but its functionality is decidedly superior for the same price—albeit with assistance from a self-provided Dock Connector cable, which most multi-Apple-device users will already have lying around. If you use your iPad without a case, InCharge Duo is a good option; iB969 is otherwise a more capable and versatile pick that could benefit from a little more streamlining, but has done well enough for our needs that we’ve preferred actually using it.