Review: TEN Technology flexibleDock Adjustable Car Dock and Charger for iPod
Pros: A spectacular iPod in-car charger, cradle, and audio output device, with clean audio feed that leads into either a car’s line-in port or cassette deck. Works with all Dock Connecting iPods, providing a stable and flexible six-inch gooseneck so that your iPod is mounted at your choice of angles and positions. Cost is substantially better than buying separate mount, charger, and audio output accessories.
Cons: Neutral dark gray coloration is a better fit for vehicles than iPods; more color options wouldn’t hurt. iPod dock works properly with all sizes of docking iPods, but isn’t as psychologically satisfying as dock trays that would form-fit the bottom of each iPod. One additional, inexpensive ($10) purchase of a tape adapter or audio cable will be necessary to use unit’s audio output feature in any car.
Ever since TEN Technology released an iPod mini-specific combination of gooseneck car mount, charger, and line-quality audio output called flexDock (iLounge rating: A-) in January, we’ve been waiting for a full-sized iPod version. We’ve continued to like the original flexDock mount so much, in fact, that it has remained in one of our test cars even after the discontinuation of the iPod mini, serving as an interim holder for one of our iPod nanos until something better came along. Now it has been replaced with TEN’s new flexibleDock ($50), an improved iPod-agnostic update that eliminates the only issues we had with its predecessor, thereby earning our top recommendation and deep appreciation. If your car has a cassette tape player or auxiliary input port, this is the best $50 you can spend on any iPod accessory today.
The concept behind flexibleDock is powerful and deceptively simple: it’s a single device that mounts any Dock Connector-equipped iPod in your car, recharges its battery using the cigarette lighter power port, and outputs its best-quality audio directly to your car stereo. Once it’s installed - which will require only one part not included in TEN’s package - all you need to do is bring your iPod to your car, mount it on top, and nothing else. That’s simple and elegant, right? For the consumer, yes, but not for the designer. The only easy part of creating such a device is the battery charging: TEN’s competitors have struggled during 2005 to create a gooseneck stable enough to hold bigger, heavier full-sized iPods, and various audio quality issues have plagued similar devices released for the iPod mini since flexDock. Even though it was not perfect, TEN’s original design has remained on top all year, and no full-sized iPod competitor with a gooseneck has been released until now.
So it’s impressive enough that flexibleDock does exactly what it sets out to do: by shortening the length of its gooseneck to six inches (from roughly eight), TEN has created a full-sized iPod mount that’s stable on the road, the task its competitors have described for months as most daunting. (An optional rubber ring is included to add stabilization to cars with loose cigarette lighter ports, but we found no need to use it.) Another subtle but significant difference between this design and others is the charging bulb that connects to your lighter port: despite the fact that a gooseneck has to stick out of it, it’s impressively low-profile, and doesn’t jut out in a way that interferes with the gear shifters or other oddities in our test cars. We’ve had significant connection problems with DLO’s clumsier TransPods because of their charger and mount designs, but as with the earlier flexDock, we didn’t have these issues with flexibleDock in any of the three test vehicles we tried.
The unit’s audio output quality is also very impressive - something we’ve come to appreciate more since testing flexDock’s subsequent competitors. There are two ways that people will connect flexibleDock to their cars for audio output: a line-in port, like the one on our test Honda Element, or a cassette tape adapter, like the ones we can use in our test Lexus RX330 and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Unlike competitors, which make no provision for the different audio output levels required for these two types of connections, TEN includes a switch that properly adjusts the levels, most notably preventing clipping of bass and mid-bass when used with a cassette adapter, and providing more dynamic, powerful sound when used with a car’s line-in port. From car to car, we loved flexibleDock’s sound, which we wouldn’t say (and haven’t said) about its competitors.
We had two complaints about the prior flexDock, one of which has been largely remedied in flexibleDock, while the other has been largely mooted. Last time, TEN attempted to include a cassette adapter with flexDock, but we found it to be the only sub-par item in the package - worth tossing out and replacing. Though it would have been better if flexibleDock has included a good adapter, TEN has just dropped it from the package altogether and stopped marketing the device’s audio output abilities as aggressively. Now it’s up to you to purchase and connect a separate cassette adapter or line-out cable of your choosing. Truthfully we don’t mind this approach much, and even though TEN hasn’t lowered flexibleDock’s price commensurately, as we’ll explain below, we’re okay with that. For reference, we’d recommend Sony’s CPA-9C (iLounge rating: B+) cassette adapter, which can be had for $10 if you shop around, or any inexpensive 3.5mm audio cable. You can even connect an FM transmitter to the audio output port, assuming you can find one (like Belkin’s TuneCast II, iLounge rating: B+) with a compatible plug, or mount one atop your older model iPod (not 5G or nano).
Our other past issue was coloration. Unlike virtually all of the iPod accessories released before flexDock, that one - and flexibleDock - make no effort to match the traditionally iconic ‘iPod white,’ or any of the other colors iPods have come in. Instead, they’re both available in a dark gray color that’s car-neutral, contrasting with later devices such as Belkin’s white and gray TuneBases, for better or worse. In our view, this has been mostly mooted by the passage of time: now that there are black and white iPods, and an increased demand to integrate iPods visually into a car rather than have them stand out, we’re fine with TEN’s color compromise. Additional color options wouldn’t hurt, but this one works well enough for us.
In our opinion, the only other way in which flexibleDock could be improved upon is in its cradle’s approach to iPod mounting. Right now, it uses a mostly flat docking surface and a series of interchangeable rear stabilizers to adjust to the thicknesses of various iPods that are placed on top - additional items that weren’t found in flexDock, and partially justify the new item’s price. Two latches on the Dock Connector lock any iPod into place, and buttons on flexibleDock’s sides release the latches. Together, the latches and stabilizers proved more than adequate visually and functionally to hold our test iPods (nano and mini to full-sized models), but they’re not as psychologically reassuring as they could be. Belkin’s already-announced TuneBases for full-sized iPods - actual release date unknown - appear set to remedy this issue with a set of replaceable trays, but as with earlier TuneBases, it’s unclear as to when they’ll be released, and whether they’ll match TEN’s audio quality. Additionally, some users may prefer a solution that lets them mount iPods inside various cases, a task which for now is left to more expensive, hybrid solutions such as ProClip’s Padded Adjustable Holder and separate audio/charging cables.
Given how much grousing we’ve heard from iPod accessory makers about the challenges of making a device exactly like flexibleDock, it’s highly impressive that this one both works so well and is available in time for 2005 holiday shoppers. It’s also worth noting that TEN has preserved its earlier, appropriate $50 price point, which - even with the cost of a cassette adapter or audio cable factored in - is less than the cost of purchasing our favorite car-specific mount (the ProClip one above) without any additional audio or charging accessories. Our strong A recommendation recognizes flexibleDock’s outstanding value, practicality, and performance. We only wish we’d had it earlier this year.