Review: Philips Docking Entertainment System DCP850
Pros: A combination of 8.5” widescreen LCD screen, stereo speakers, twin headphone ports, a DVD player, and iPod dock - all in a fold-closed, lightweight, cleanly-designed package. These components, a SD/MMC card slot, and 5-hour battery for iPod playback deliver more than adequate value for the dollar relative to other, similar options; some users will like unit’s integrated MPEG-4, SVCD, and DivX video support. Video screen can be positioned on your choice of angles, Infrared remote control is included.
Cons: System’s audio channels are reversed, performing left-channel sound through the right speaker and vice-versa; videos can appear distorted unless aspect ratios are manually adjusted through unit’s Setup menu and iPod. Remote control and menus aren’t integrated with the iPod dock, so you’ll need to use controls on the unit for iPod playback, and volume isn’t controllable from the remote. Screen and speaker quality are each a step or two below comparably priced alternatives.
Thanks to its small screen, the fifth-generation iPod has spawned a number of add-on screen accessories, most notably Sonic Impact’s Video-55 (iLounge rating: B+) and Memorex’s iFlip (iLounge rating: B+). Originally released for $300, the 7-inch-screened, impressive-sounding Video-55 was a narrowly smarter purchase than the 8.4-inch-screened, tinnier $200 iFlip, but now that both are selling for the same $200 price, Video-55’s more clearly the superior option.
Against these competitors and iLuv’s weaker i1055/Zeon z1055 (iLounge rating: C) emerges the Philips DCP850 ($200), a unit that on paper takes the best features from all three devices and blends them into one device. Perhaps not surprisingly, though, DCP850 will force you to accept some compromises of its own, and isn’t a decisively superior purchase than the rest of the pack.
Specs, Key Features, and Pack-Ins
We weren’t surprised to discover DCP850’s compromises for two reasons: Philips provides very few specifications for the device, and sells it at a very competitive price. Unless the company had wanted to completely blow away its rivals, it had to cut costs somewhere in the design, and that’s what it did. Still, it manages to fit a lot of technology inside an 8.3-inch by 7-inch by 1.5-inch, 4.2-pound chassis - more, but not necessarily better components than those found in the other portable video displays.
From a features standpoint, DCP850 is the best of the bunch: alongside an easy-to-use integrated iPod dock, it includes a size-leading 8.5-inch widescreen display, a DVD/DiVX/MPEG-4 disc player, SD/MMC memory card slot, two speakers, twin headphone ports, and an Infrared remote control. For those keeping score, these features trump those of the iLuv/Zeon unit, which thanks to its own DVD drive was the category’s previous leader in versatility. Philips also includes AV cables, a wall power adapter, and a car power adapter in the package, roughly matching Sonic Impact’s and iLuv’s best-equipped packages, and lacking only for a carrying case. You can use the included AV cables to connect an external video source for display on the DCP850, or connect DCP850 to a separate AV system for use with a superior screen or speakers. Videos played through the AV cables looked and sounded fine.
Philips’ 35-button, Infrared remote control is like the one included with the i1055, only nicer looking: there are enough buttons to control DVD playback, plus the unit’s display settings, but nothing for audio or the iPod, a major disappointment given that it otherwise works reliably from 30 feet away. When the unit’s in iPod mode, the DCP850 buzzes slightly to indicate that it’s receiving and ignoring the remote’s controls.
Speaker and headphone volume is controlled exclusively through a volume knob on the unit’s left side, found alongside the headphone ports, a brightness knob, the SD/MMC card slot, and separate AV Out and AV In ports. Power is controlled by a switch on the unit’s front, and indicated by a blue light; charging is indicated by a yellow light to its side, extinguished when the battery is full. Again, the remote omits a power switch; the screen will turn off automatically a minute or two after you press a stop button for DVDs or manually stop the iPod, but using the unit’s switch is the smarter way to go for long battery life.
The last set of buttons on the unit are found beneath the DVD drive: a silver button opens the drive, and a matching five-button joypad lets you navigate the unit’s, a DVD’s, or an SD card’s menus. A menu button calls up the DVD menu - only the remote can call up the unit’s Setup menu - while a monitor button toggles between 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios, a source button switches between DVD, iPod, SD card and auxiliary input, and track backward and forward buttons skip DVD tracks.
That Philips doesn’t render the iPod controllable via DCP850’s included remote should be the first tip-off about the system’s approach to iPod integration: it’s threadbare, essentially a system that was designed as a DVD and SD card player first and foremost, with an iPod dock conveniently nestled inside. This approach is underscored by the system’s approach to iPod charging: when it’s connected to wall power, the iPod only recharges when the system’s in iPod mode or turned off, otherwise it’s electronically ignored.
DCP850’s iPod dock is simple but interesting: it resizes via a removable plastic insert to support any thickness of fifth-generation model, and uses pieces of slide-out plastic to hold and eject the iPod inside. It’s roughly as efficient as Sonic Impact’s dock in Video-55, if not quite as pretty, and worked without problems in our testing, allowing easy access to the iPod’s screen and controls. This part aside, however, Philips does basically nothing else to accommodate the iPod: there aren’t any iPod-specific menus, just Setup screens for the unit’s display and DVD features, and these screens aren’t accessible while the system’s in iPod mode. We found this to be problematic when using the iPod and DVD player, as noted further below.
There’s mixed news about DCP850’s video performance. Our most positive comment is that those who aren’t obsessed with video quality will find its performance at least satisfactory: out of the box, it looks just fine with iPod or DVD video if you’re not especially discerning and haven’t compared it against other options. Some will love the 8.5” screen, DVD, and iPod combination at the relatively low price.
But Philips has compromised enough on screen quality here that videophiles will almost certainly be disappointed: on its best settings, the unit’s display lacks for apparent resolution and color balance relative to even the iFlip, which was a step below the Video-55 in our view, and didn’t look as good in our testing as we’d have hoped. Below, you can see how blurry and muddy the DCP850’s screen - on maximum sharpness - looks relative to the iFlip.
We also found the brightness knob and digital brightness controls less impressive than they could have been; they did little to make video look better under direct light, or outdoors. This is a third-rate display, rendered acceptable only by virtue of its size and price.
Philips did one thing very right with DCP850. Unlike any of its competitors, you have full control over the screen’s viewing angle, and can literally open it 180 degrees, or swivel it around to transform the system into a tablet-like viewing device. In doing so, you give up access to both the iPod’s and DCP850’s controls, which is a major problem for iPod users: though you can point the remote control at the IR sensor under the screen to control DVD playback, the remote does nothing with the iPod, so unless you’re planning to sit back and watch video without interference, you won’t want to cover the iPod with the screen during playback.
Though we’re not going to go into all of the details of DCP850’s non-iPod video playback functionality, we’ll make a few comments based on the DVDs and menus we tested. As portable DVD players go, DCP850 is competent but not fully automated or silent, making a little noise while operating and requiring you to manually choose TV Display settings in the Setup menu in order to properly display videos without distortion. As there are two 4:3 settings - pan and scan or letterbox - plus a 16:9 widescreen mode, we found that the system had a tendency to display improperly wide or narrow video with our DVDs and iPods, and frequently required manual corrections after a movie started. These corrections often required the Setup menu rather than the use of DCP850’s “Monitor” button, which basically stretches the current image to fill the screen. Though it’s nice that DCP850 can eventually reach a proper display mode for most videos you’ll pipe through it, automating this process would have been much easier on the user.
We found the system’s file system menu navigation to be simple, allowing access to photos and videos stored on SD or MMC cards. While we weren’t impressed with the unit’s JPEG playback, which displays low-resolution thumbnails of a card’s stored images with simple slideshow, flip, zoom, and rotation tools, Philips claims that the unit can play DivX VOD files rented or purchased via the DivX VOD service, plus MPEG-4 files, audio CDs, video CDs, and MP3 CDs. Because we use our iPods for these sorts of things, we were not interested in testing these features at length, but did test two MPEG-4 files; one was an iPod-ready standard MPEG-4 video, which the system saw and played without a problem, and the other an H.264 video, which it wouldn’t find or display. We could skip through the working video using the arrow buttons on the remote control - more than we could do with a connected iPod. Note that playback of these files will consume more battery life than direct-from-iPod viewing, perhaps the most undemanding feature in the unit.
From an audio standpoint, the DCP850 is again a noticeable step below the slightly above-average iFlip. First, there’s the fact that Philips has reversed the iPod’s left and right channels through the speaker drivers and its headphone ports: sound effects and music that are supposed to be coming from the left instead come from the right. Additionally, the sound from the speakers and ports is fine, but not great. DCP850’s small integrated speaker drivers are housed in its thinner monitor chassis, rather than its thicker bottom half like the iFlip, and have comparatively little breathing room for bass resonance. Similarly, while both systems have two headphone ports, iFlip’s ports go a little louder than DCP850’s, which might not be as audible against the roar of an airplane engine. The two systems are roughly equivalent in speaker output volume; iFlip just sounds a bit better, save for some signal noise that’s audible at certain volumes.
Neither system compares to the speakers in Video-55, which as we’ve noted before are best-in-class, producing bigger, richer sound that’s more appropriate to cinematic videos, and lacking in the aforementioned signal noise and left/right-channel issues. Sonic Impact’s only comparative omission is its lack of a second headphone port, a feature you’ll need to decide whether you need.
Absent from Philips’ packaging is any mention of the unit’s battery life, but it turns out that there’s an internal lithium battery inside capable of around 2.5 hours of DVD disc playback with headphones attached. In our testing, the battery ran for 5 hours and 20 minutes when used exclusively for iPod audio and video playback, on standard brightness, widescreen mode, and with the speakers at approximately 50% volume; the unit will run longer with headphones attached instead. This is roughly comparable to the battery life of Sonic Impact’s Video-55, and a big step below iFlip, which left the iPod almost fully charged after running out of power. Like Video-55, DCP850 lets the iPod’s battery run down, and ran out of power before our 80GB test iPod did.
Unlike Video-55, however, DCP850 is like iFlip in that there’s no obvious compartment for removal and replacement of its internal rechargeable battery. While it’s obvious that none of the systems has been designed for an easy battery change on an airplane - even Video-55 requires you to remove two screws - there’s no doubt that DCP850 isn’t intended for user modification in this regard, so when the battery’s dead, you’ll need to send it back to Philips for repair or buy a new unit.
Value and Conclusions
The Philips DCP850 nearly rated our general-level recommendation: despite the fact that its video and audio aren’t quite as impressive as in its higher-rated competitors, its inclusion of a DVD drive alongside the iPod dock makes it a true multi-purpose portable companion. If you’re one of the many people unable or unwilling to convert DVDs to an iPod-ready format, DCP850 gives you the ability to carry both discs and the iPod around in one unit - a less than optimal option, but one that’s far better executed than in iLuv’s earlier i1055. The convenience of access to these formats in a sub-$200 device will be significant for some people, enough so that they’ll be willing to look past the unit’s AV limitations and enjoy what it has to offer regardless.
Regrettably, there’s no denying that DCP850 isn’t the best iPod video add-on out there: screen and speaker quality aside, its unimpressive lack of iPod menu and remote integration are telltale signs of a “cash-in” product, and its tendency to perform audio backwards and display videos in the wrong aspect ratio unless manually tuned otherwise will annoy many users. The iPod-specific engineering and quality control really weren’t what it should have been here - even small fixes would have made this a generally recommendable product. If it wasn’t for the DVD drive, we’d have little reason to recommend it to any of our readers as an alternative to the iFlip, and even then, iFlip’s superior battery life, screen and speakers would have us lean in that direction. For the price, unless you need DVD functionality - or want Philips’ marginally important SD card features - we still think Sonic Impact’s Video-55 is the best portable iPod display add-on around, and iFlip a smarter second choice.