Review: ABT iJet Two-Way LCD Remote for iPod
Pros: The first iPod remote control to include its own screen for iPod library navigation, combined with RF transmission technology that enables you to change iPod tracks, volume, and play/pause status from 100-foot distances. Bottom-mounting receiver includes its own Dock Connector and headphone ports, enabling charging and listening to volume-attenuated audio.
Cons: Very high price by comparison with other remote solutions, yet delivers only mediocre, two-line on-screen access to iPod’s library, and precludes use of iPod’s own screen and controls. Receiver best fits 60GB and 80GB fifth-generation iPods rather than 30GB and other models. Poor button labeling and interface oddities make navigation less intuitive and enjoyable than it should be. Remote’s design is aesthetically unappealing.
Over the past several years, consumers have lusted after several “holy grail” accessories for the iPod: portable yet detachable stereo speakers, docks with the ability to display iPod menus on any TV, and self-screened remote controls with complete access to the iPod’s menus. In each case, one or two third-party companies have taken a stab at releasing the accessory, but engineering and/or pricing issues have limited the final products’ appeal.
Unfortunately typical of this trend is ABT’s iJet Two-Way LCD Remote ($130), a self-screened remote control that we first tried in prototype form almost a year ago. For a $90 premium over the company’s earlier iJet ($40, iLounge rating: B+), iJet Two-Way offers two major new features: a confusingly implemented on-screen remote interface for selecting iPod music from a distance, and the ability to actually attenuate your iPod Dock Connector’s volume level. In short, the new Two-Way’s a half-baked attempt at a good idea, and will only satisfy users whose pockets are as deep as their standards are low.
The Package and Receiver
Like the prior iJet, ABT’s Two-Way package includes several key parts: a large bottom-mounting receiver that’s sized to properly fit a 60GB or 80GB fifth-generation iPod, a radio (RF)-based remote controller promising 150 feet of broadcasting distance, and a stereo minijack-to-RCA audio cable. The two devices serve essentially the same purpose, allowing you to access your iPod’s music library from a room or three away, hopefully without compromising audio quality in the process. They’re both available in white or black versions, and also work on other iPods - 4Gs, 30GB 5Gs, minis, and nanos - though the large receiver’s fit varies as considerably as one might expect from iPod to iPod.
Thanks to a pass-through Dock Connector port on its bottom, the receiver lets you connect your iPod to many iPod docks and stereo systems, preserving the iPod’s ability to charge and output audio while adding RF remote control functionality - a nice feature that can benefit both remoteless stereos and those with less impressive included Infrared remotes. In this regard, it’s just like the prior iJet. But there are two improvements: first, Two-Way now has a headphone port on its bottom, enabling even nano users to use the included cable’s minijack connector for audio output.
And unlike the earlier version, the volume control buttons on Two-Way’s remote actually work to change the volume through both of these bottom ports, though this feature still doesn’t work in quite the way some might expect. The last iJet gave you volume buttons that only controlled the iPod’s headphone port volume, forcing you to make a second connection for your audio if you wanted to adjust your volume and charge your iPod at the same time. Two-Way lets you attenuate the Dock Connector port’s volume - a feature that we like and find extremely convenient, though some hard-core audiophiles may pooh-pooh it - but it doesn’t adjust the volume of the iPod’s own headphone port, a feature called “Volume Mirroring” by Apple and others who have adopted it. In our view, this omission is in no way important, but it may be worth considering based on your intended personal usage of this accessory.
The LCD Remote and Performance
Though much could be said about the aesthetics of Two-Way’s remote, we’ll mostly bypass that discussion and note only that there’s nothing cool about the look of a miniature walkie talkie - virtually any traditional remote design ABT could have picked would have looked better than this one. It probably would have been organized better, too. Rather than placing all of its buttons on the unit’s face, ABT has put an iPod shuffle-like five on Two-Way’s front with icons for volume up, volume down, track backwards, track forwards, and play/pause, then placed another three on its right side with the labels playlist, artist, and display. More significantly, the buttons are augmented by a backlit LCD screen capable of displaying two total lines of text, each line with a maximum of 16 characters. During playback, title is displayed on the top line, artist name on the bottom. If a song’s title exceeds the screen’s width, the extra characters will scroll by once at a brisk pace, then disappear off-screen.
At this point, we’ll note that iJet Two-Way’s basic five-button remote control functionality works pretty much the way we’d expect from an A-caliber, $40 or $50 iPod remote accessory. If all you intend to do is skip forward or backward through tracks, play or pause music, and change volume - the same buttons found on the prior iJet - iJet Two-Way has you covered, as would several other RF-based remote control systems we’ve tested. It still doesn’t work at ABT’s claimed 150-foot unobstructed distance, coming closer to 100 feet in our testing, and occasionally failing to recognize commands on the first button press, but that performance still outstrips all of the Infrared remotes we’ve seen, and most of the RF ones out there, as well. With rare exceptions, Two-Way lets you control your iPod from a different room, floor, or outdoors, just as the previous iJet does.
The problems start once you step beyond the device’s basic remote functionality and try to navigate the iPod’s music library up close or from afar with Two-Way’s integrated LCD screen. On positive notes, Two-Way’s screen is nicely backlit, easy to see in bright or dim lighting conditions, and uses a fairly conservative power management system to avoid rapid battery drain. ABT includes a single AAA battery for the remote, which is easy to replace when emptied, and from a technology standpoint, it’s a fairly complex little device. Upon initial connection, it downloads your iPod’s entire music catalog into its memory - a process that can take multiple minutes on a high-capacity iPod, and needs to be repeated any time you change iPods or update the music on your current iPod. Though the initial synchronization process doesn’t always work perfectly, especially from a distance, and some characters (such as the special E in Beyonce) don’t display properly, ABT deserves some credit for bothering to include enough memory to store the iPod’s contents for easy access from a distance.
Serious negatives mostly concern the accessory’s user interface and the fact that it precludes you from using the iPod’s own screen and menus at all while attached. Once it’s connected, your iPod’s headphone volume setting is locked, and its photo, video, and other on-screen navigation features are completely removed in favor of a generic “OK to Disconnect” screen with a large checkmark. Though this may be a necessary evil for current-generation LCD screened remotes, it’s not an issue with other iPod remote controls, which let you continue to use the iPod normally if you’re up close and not carrying the remote around. We mightn’t mind so much if the remote provided fairly complete access to the iPod’s on-screen menus, but it really doesn’t.
While we strongly feel that a two-line display is inadequate for proper browsing of a typical iPod’s music library, properly labeled buttons could make the process a lot easier on average users. Once you try to bypass the iPod shuffle-style controls in favor of iPod menu navigation, Two-Way’s buttons are just plain confusing. Rather than placing up and down menu arrow buttons on the remote’s side for the easiest possible navigation, or double-labeling the front buttons for something nearly as easy, ABT has created a user interface that would be nearly indecipherable without the included instructions. In sum, the remote’s artist button calls up iPod menu navigation, and the volume buttons let you scroll up and down. Yet rather than having the track buttons make you go back or forward through the menu structure, you need to hit the play button to select an item, and the artist button to go back. Consequently, using the remote for menus always requires the use of both front and right surfaces, and seldom with buttons that are marked as to what they actually do.
Using Two-Way is also compounded by a number of other issues. Once you’ve selected a song, the remote doesn’t remember where you were in the list, so you’re always starting at the top of your library and scrolling down line by line thereafter - you can’t flip back to Z from the top of the list, either. While this is better than not having on-screen access at all, it’s only one step evolved from an iPod shuffle, mitigated by the complexities of its controls. Imagine doing this all the time with the 60GB and 80GB iPods that iJet Two-Way is physically designed to fit.
Additionally, the remote’s aggressive power management actually turns off the unit after several seconds without use, and requires a quick sync process every time you try to access it thereafter - sometimes the remote will claim to be “Out of Range” even though you’re sitting only feet away. And there’s sometimes a several second delay between pressing the play button and actually seeing the list of songs you can select from; if you’re not confident in your use of the controls, you may find yourself hitting the wrong button.
In retrospect, it’s obvious why ABT released iJet Two-Way so quietly a couple of months ago: while it’s not an entirely bad product, its high price and mediocre on-screen interface make it the sort of accessory a company would prefer people to stumble across unaware rather than see objectively reviewed prior to purchase. Its one fully realized feature - Dock Connector port volume attenuation - is not worth a premium, and can be had in less expensive iPod remote and dock combinations, while the quality of the on-screen experience isn’t sufficient to satisfy average or discerning users, especially given how much it costs. Until a properly implemented display remote is released, most people will be better off spending considerably less for the previous version of iJet, or any of several competing remote alternatives now available.
If you’re pining for a display-laden iPod RF remote because of an obsession over audio quality, Keyspan’s competing but even more expensive TuneView LCD remote and dock package is still apparently forthcoming; alternately, you can consider current and upcoming Bluetooth wireless solutions such as Belkin’s TuneStages, Griffin’s BlueTrips, and Logitech’s Wireless Music Systems, each enabling you to use the iPod itself as a remote music broadcaster to your stereo.