Review: Belkin Charge + Sync Dock with Audio Port for iPhone 5
Differentiated from "stands" by their inclusion of electronic components, docks have for years kept iPods, iPhones, and iPads upright on flat surfaces while enabling users to charge, synchronize, and output audio or video from their bottom ports. The accessories were simple, relatively easy to make, and pretty popular, varying from highly device-specific to "universal" in design. However, Apple has signaled that it's no longer interested in making docks, and because of the switch from Dock Connectors to Lightning, old docks no longer work with the latest Apple devices -- a huge opportunity for interested third-party developers. Belkin is the first major company to release an option, which it has named the Charge + Sync Dock with Audio Port for iPhone 5 ($30). Though it's highly appealing in some ways, it feels like a short-term stopgap design rather than a completely finished solution.
While some may be tempted to dismiss the Charge + Sync Dock with Audio Port as overly simplistic, it’s obvious after opening the package that Belkin put real time and effort into designing something nice—though not quite nice enough for the $30 price. Belkin’s Dock consists of two plastic pieces: a silver faux metallic L with a rubber pad on the bottom and a magnet inside, and an all-black upside-down T-shaped unit that constitutes most of the dock, using zinc or something similar inside to provide substantial weight. The T-shaped piece is padded with rubber on the surfaces that will touch your device, and otherwise sports a mostly glossy body; the bottom is generally unseen, but matte-finished. It attaches magnetically to the silver L, forming a minimalist and modern dock roughly equivalent in heft to an Apple-developed solution, but with broader device compatibility thanks to its completely open sides.
Belkin apparently made the pieces detachable out of necessity. Apple’s past $29 to $39 docks were finished solutions, including a male metal Dock Connector plug on the top, a female Dock Connector port on the back, and a 3.5mm audio port alongside it for optional sound output. Since Apple has limited supplies of Lightning plugs to developers, Belkin came up with a “do it yourself” solution. The top front surface has a centered hole for a male Lightning plug, there’s still a 3.5mm audio port on the back, and a place for a USB cable to stick out next to it. You need to self-supply an Apple Lightning to USB Cable for most of the electronic functionality: only when this is inserted will an actual Lightning plug stick out of the top and a USB cable run outwards from the Dock’s back. A channel runs through the Charge + Sync Dock base to grip the Lightning cable, while the silver L serves to cover the cable and make everything appear to be integrated, though not color-matched in any way.
While this approach generally works to replicate the functionality of past Apple Docks, there are some wrinkles. Rather than pulling audio from the Lightning port, as Apple’s accessories did with Dock Connectors, Belkin instead uses a flip-up 3.5mm male plug that can be connected to the bottom-mounted headphone ports of the iPhone 5 and fifth-generation iPod touch. While you can flip it down if it’s not needed, it doesn’t shift to the left or right, so it can’t be moved in a way that connects to the seventh-generation iPod nano, fourth-generation iPad, or iPad mini. To its credit, Belkin doesn’t claim that the Charge + Sync Dock with Audio Port is compatible with devices other than the iPhone 5 and new iPod touch, but apart from the audio functionality, it does work just fine to hold, charge, and sync every Lightning-equipped device—even if they’re inside of cases.
The single best feature of the Charge + Sync Dock with Audio Port is the height at which it positions the Lightning connector you self-supply. Unlike early speakers we’ve tested, which unfortunately recess the Lightning plug such that it’s flush with hard plastic—a poor design choice that precludes the speakers from working with most encased devices—Belkin’s decision to let the plug’s top stand millimeters above the surface around it guarantees broad case compatibility. Due to this choice, virtually every iPhone, iPod, and iPad case we tested worked just fine with the Charge + Sync Dock; only iPad cases that were unusually thick in the back created problems with Lightning connectivity, and then only because of the depth of the Charge + Sync Dock’s rear support.
One issue with Belkin’s cable-holding design is that the Lightning plug isn’t completely secure. Pull your device out and there’s a possibility that the cable will wiggle its way upwards, as well, despite the cable-gripping channel in the Dock’s bottom. While we never had the cable yank substantially outwards from the Dock, it can loosen a little after several re-connections, something that wouldn’t be expected from a fully integrated docking solution. Another issue is Belkin’s approach to audio, which requires volume adjustments to be made on your iPhone or iPod to maximize sound quality. Past docks used line-level audio from the Dock Connector ports of Apple’s devices, guaranteeing the cleanest possible sound. We’d expect future Lightning-compatible docks to offer similar functionality, though the shift towards wireless streaming is arguably reducing the need for wired audio connections these days.
Overall, the Charge + Sync Dock with Audio Port is a “just good enough for now” solution to a common, well-established set of needs—not the ideal implementation of anything it attempts to do, but not bad, either. While it’s not a huge surprise that Belkin is charging $30 for something that doesn’t have much current competition, the combined cost of the all-plastic Dock and a $19 Lightning to USB Cable is just too high given past $29 to $39 docking options; there’s nothing in the materials or the DIY solution that justifies the cost. At a lower price, it may continue to be a somewhat viable solution going forward, but it really feels like a stopgap option on the road to something better. If you’re willing to supply your own Lightning cable and looking for something that’s available right now with broad case compatibility, consider it anyway.