Review: iHome iA17 GlowTunes LED Color Changing Alarm Clock Radio
Two years ago, iHome released iH15, an inexpensive cube-shaped speaker with color-shifting LED lights inside. Designed for kids, iH15 was nonetheless one of the most distinctive and interesting budget audio systems around, and seemed ideally poised to receive an alarm clock update -- a product iHome briefly showed last year as iH150 and then cancelled before release. Instead, the company went back to the drawing board to produce the bowl-shaped iA17 ($100), a thoroughly rethought version that's larger and a little less flashy from the outside, but more powerfully equipped inside.
iH15 was a white and silver rounded-off cube roughly the size of a Kleenex box, with circular speaker drivers firing from its front and sides, plus an iPod dock on the top with volume, power, and color mode buttons. As the new “iA” name implies, the new model is now compatible with iHome’s iHome + Sleep and iHome + Radio applications, and unlike iH15, includes full iPhone support in addition to working with all Dock Connecting iPods. Shifting from a box to a bowl in shape has led to some major changes in speaker design, as well: there’s now a fabric stripe across the center of iA17’s face for twin speakers, dividing the front into a lower clock portion and an upper button and dock section. A wall power adapter is included, as is a white and gray plastic remote that matches the iA17’s glossy bottom.
The signature feature of the iH15 was its color-shifting capability. Using LED lights inside the enclosure, iHome enabled a young listener to either cycle endlessly through the primary and secondary colors, choose one color and stick with it, or deactivate the colors altogether for a clean white and silver look. Because of iA17’s shape, and changes under the hood, the color-shifting effect is somewhat different. Viewed from the front, you only see a little of the white body changing colors—you really need to look at the sides or the back to get the full effect, which is unfortunate. iHome compensates for this a little by adding a color-shifting clock display that flips through 10 or 11 different hues, versus what iHome calls “over 20” for the body. These colors don’t match precisely, but are somewhat similar; the clock’s numbers tend to be more saturated and lively than iA17’s body. Five different color modes are now available: “slow,” “fast,” “no color,” and single fixed color are still there, joined by “pulse,” which rapidly flips the colors along with the beat of a currently playing song.
What iA17 and iH15 have in common are fairly low-end speakers, a performance compromise that was easier to accept in a super-budget $60 unit than a more midrange $100 model. Both systems include stereo speakers with modest separation, midrange-focused sound, and an only limited capacity to crank up to higher volume levels. iA17 can reach a little louder than iH15, but it still puts out fairly flat, radio-quality sound, and is not going to impress anyone for the price when considered solely as a speaker.
iHome justifies the price gap between the models with iA17’s other features. There’s the included Infrared remote control, which largely overlaps the 13 buttons on the unit’s face, but works reliably from up to 30 feet away, and the FM radio, which provides respectable—slightly staticy—tuning along with six programmable presets. A single alarm can be set with a time, iPod/radio/buzzer wake up feature, and color effect; snooze and sleep features can be adjusted, as well. It’s somewhat telling that iA17’s various settings are more easily managed by the iHome + Sleep application than by the unit’s built-in or remote buttons, but that’s an advantage of leveraging Apple’s touchscreen devices—something that iA17 can do that its predecessor could not.
Aside from iA17’s more muted color-shifting capabilities, the single thing that irked us the most about the new design was the placement of the iPhone/iPod dock at the unit’s top back. While the position is natural and frankly elegant because of the design of the silver circular rim, which serves as a back support for iA17’s Dock Connector plug, it is deliberately designed to be incompatible with cases—iHome has acknowledged case compatibility as an asset of many of its products, and virtually every one of its units from iH15 on up the chain has had a dock with enough space for Apple’s encased devices. iA17’s Connector flexes a little to accommodate bare iPhones and iPods, but doesn’t work with typical cases. Speck’s CandyShell Flip and slider-style designs are noteworthy exceptions, but iHome really shouldn’t have designed the unit with a “must not be in a ‘skin’ or case” caveat to begin with.
All in all, iA17 is a good rather than great sequel to iH15, which despite its considerably more limited design offered a better canvas for its color-shifting capabilities and a more attractive price point, besides. If you’re a huge fan of LED color changes and really want an alarm clock radio with iHome + Sleep and iHome + Radio app support, iA17 obviously offers those features with modest audio and iPhone support improvements over the prior model, plus a remote, albeit at a $40 price premium over the iH15. iA17 is good enough at everything it does to merit our general level recommendation and a B rating, but it’s not going to blow anyone away at this price.