Review: DLO HomeDock Deluxe Home Entertainment Dock for iPod with On-Screen Navigation
Pros: A very attractively designed iPod and remote control docking station with audio/video output ports on its rear, enabling a user to play the iPod’s music, video, and photos (as applicable) through a connected television set. First iPod dock we’ve tested with special menus that let you select iPod music tracks using your TV. Eighteen-button infrared remote looks nice and feels great in hand, includes power supply and some AV cables.
Cons: Premium priced without some of the frills (S-Video cable, USB cable, RF remote control) we’d expect for the dollar. Can’t use on-TV menus to navigate photos on color 4G, 5G, or nano iPods, or videos on 5G iPods - iPod’s screen must be used instead, typically up close. While acceptable in performance, remote suffers from typical limitations (distance/lighting/line-of-sight) of Infrared remote control technology.
Late last year, DLO released HomeDock (iLounge rating: B), a white, black, and silver iPod docking and remote control solution sold for the then-princely sum of $100. The idea - later to be mimicked by Apple and others - was to offer a simple package that contained all the parts a user needed to connect an iPod to a video-ready home entertainment system, then control it from afar. Yesterday, DLO released HomeDock Deluxe ($150), an upgraded sequel with one significant addition and a number of smaller, mostly cosmetic changes. After several days of testing, we certainly prefer the new version, though we’re not sure that we’d pay the price premium for its enhancements.
Out of the box, HomeDock Deluxe makes positive first impressions on literally all counts. DLO’s done an especially good job on its aesthetics, using neutral, sophisticated-looking matte black and gunmetal plastics for its docking base and a glossy black plastic for its included Infrared remote control. The remote still sits to the right of your docked iPod on the base, but now the system looks far more like a unified whole than a collection of disparate pieces. Gone is the large, glowing colored DLO light on the dock’s front, replaced with a simple, Apple-like white power lamp and more understated branding; similarly, the old clear iPod support stand has been replaced with matching black plastic, preserving its predecessor’s functional ability to adjust via a large thumbscrew to prop up any model of docked iPod. Because of this design, you can dock your iPod while it’s still inside a number of (read: not all) cases that have Dock Connector holes on their bottoms.
DLO’s package includes more than just the docking base and Infrared remote. There’s also an AC power adapter with 6-foot cord, a 6-foot composite AV cable, and a 1-foot stereo RCA to 3.5mm minijack adapter cable. These are easily and attractively connected to ports on the back of the unit, then to your home entertainment center, providing the same core features you’d get if you docked your iPod inside Apple’s $100 iPod AV Connection Kit.
HomeDock Deluxe actually includes six rear ports: one for an S-Video cable, one each for composite video, left channel and right channel audio, power, and USB. A switch on the left side lets you toggle between NTSC and PAL video modes, and the included power adapter can run from 100-240V, assuming you have the wall blade adapters for it. And as the USB port would suggest, you can use HomeDock Deluxe to synchronize a docked iPod with your PC or Mac, but DLO doesn’t include the USB cable - you’ll need to use the one that likely came with your printer or scanner. You’ll also have to supply your own S-Video cable if you want to use that port for video output, which is a bit of a shame given HomeDock Deluxe’s premium pricing - the video quality from this port is markedly superior, with greater image clarity when tested on modern TVs.
We were generally pretty impressed by the look and feel of HomeDock Deluxe’s remote control. As our photo shows, it’s clearly larger and heavier than an iPod nano, possessing a substantial feel in your hand that’s pleasant rather than unwelcome; the back side wisely includes a matte gray hard rubber pad rather than exposing scuffable glossy plastic to any flat surface you might leave it on. Its buttons are largely self-explanatory, safe for the power button at top right, an iPod Mode/On-Screen Navigation Mode button at top left, menu navigation buttons beneath them, and dedicated playlist/photo/video track skipping buttons below track backwards, play/pause, and forwards buttons. As with the original HomeDock, there’s a dedicated lamp button at the bottom right to turn your iPod’s backlight on - a feature you might need to use thanks to the aforementioned iPod Mode button, as explained below. Oddly, however, we couldn’t get the button to turn the backlight off; you’ll have to wait for it to happen automatically.
The remote did fine in our distance testing. As with many other Infrared remotes we’ve tested, HomeDock Deluxe’s had problems communicating reliably with the base at distances greater than roughly 10 feet under direct fluorescent lighting, but when that lighting was off (or other non-fluorescent lighting was used), it had no problem with line-of-sight control at a distance of 30 feet away. This is acceptable overall, but we continue to prefer radio (RF) remote controls, especially for docks sold at premium prices; Kensington’s recent Entertainment Dock 500 (iLounge rating: B+) is an example of a less expensive dock with the ability to work through walls or at distances of 50 feet.
HomeDock Deluxe’s biggest selling point - the one mostly supposed to justify the $50 price premium over its predecessor - is On-Screen Navigation Mode, which enables you to actually navigate through your iPod’s contents using a menu system that’s output to your TV. On a positive note, DLO did a very good job with the graphic designs for HomeDock Deluxe’s on-screen menus - though not as beautiful as Apple’s Front Row for recent Macintosh computers, they look nice, and are easy to read from a distance. After a quick startup screen, you’re brought to a list of four options - three are obvious iPod music controls, the fourth is settings for the HomeDock’s on-screen displays.
The settings are limited: you can choose from one of four color schemes for the menus (aqua, forest, metal, or teal), each shown in the photos below. Other than color, they don’t change the textures or other features of the menus in any way.
You can also choose from one of three screen savers. One’s the DLO logo, one’s the currently playing track information, and one is a black screen. They’re not eye-catching - and thus not photographed here - but they work as promised to prevent burn-in on your television.
iPod navigation is very much like what you’ve come to expect from using the iPod itself. While the main screen lets you shuffle songs if you want, going into the music menu gives you the standard array of choices - playlists, artists, albums, and so on. Browsing is just as you’d expect, with the remote control’s arrow keys aiding in navigation. To go back a menu, you press the left button on the remote control.
Once you’ve selected a song, its information appears at the top of the screen in a clean on-screen display. Unlike Front Row, there’s no display of iPod Album Art; text information and a scrub (track location) bar are all you get, underneath the name of your iPod. But you can easily hunt for other songs while you’re listening to individual tracks. Holding down the up or down arrow keys scrolls rapidly, but not uncontrollably, through your library; it’s not as nice as using the iPod’s Click Wheel, but it’s good enough.
Here’s the bad news: as the screenshots suggest, On-Screen Navigation Mode only works for music, so if you’re hoping to navigate photo slideshows or videos on your television, you’re out of luck - at least, for now. Apple has artificially imposed limitations on the iPod’s firmware that preclude developers from easily accessing the photo libraries found on color 4G iPods, nanos, and 5G models, as well as the video content of 5G models, so DLO was forced to include the previously noted iPod Mode button on the remote control. This button basically turns off HomeDock’s video output to your TV - namely, the menus - and passes through the color 4G or 5G’s native video or photo output instead. In the process, you’re forced to navigate your photo and video collections through the iPod’s screen. Assuming the iPod is set to TV output mode for both videos and photos, they’ll appear on your TV once you’ve selected them using the iPod, but this excludes photo playback from the iPod nano, which lacks TV output capabilities of its own.
Though it’s easy (and appropriate) to blame on Apple, the lack of video or photo TV menu support is probably the single biggest omission in HomeDock Deluxe. Given that it’s designed to connect to a TV, it just seems incomplete without this functionality, and steeply priced given that its best feature only provides partial access to the iPod’s media contents. True, you can navigate the iPod’s on-screen video and photo menus with the remote control, but you’ll practically need to be up close to the iPod anyway to read any of the text. All you can easily do from a distance is pause/play, and go forward or backward through whatever’s currently playing back, similar to the prior HomeDock. You can’t easily skip from video to video without using the iPod’s screen, and the unit’s playlist-skipping buttons, which might have been remapped to help with this, instead pull you out of video playback into audio playback. What DLO’s achieved is better than nothing, but not as good as a complete on-TV audio, photo, and video navigation solution.
Value and Conclusions
Overall, HomeDock Deluxe is a very solid upgrade to its predecessor, but it comes at a steep price - one that in our view is impossible to overlook. If it had been offered at the same price as the original HomeDock, Deluxe would today be our hands-down pick for any iPod user with a home entertainment center - DLO got the cosmetics and feel of both the hardware and its navigation software right, and the on-screen menus work quite well for music. That said, its omissions - S-Video and USB cables, radio remote control, and video/photo navigation - leave the package a little less “deluxe” than we’d have hoped for a $150 docking solution. On-screen music navigation is a nice bonus feature, but we’re not sure that it or the unit’s other cosmetic changes are worth a $50 premium.
If you’re looking for a premium home entertainment docking solution for your iPod, HomeDock Deluxe is recommendably good overall, possessing one currently novel feature and an attractive enough design to appeal to virtually any iPod user. The biggest things holding it back from more universal appeal are its high price and navigation limitations, which some users will find more acceptable than others.