Review: Altec Lansing inMotion iMV712 Portable Audio System
Pros: An all-in-one speaker and video screen accessory for the iPod, with a remote control, top-loading Universal iPod Dock, and more audio horsepower than current add-on display rivals.
Cons: Overpriced relative to competing iPod-specific options and larger, full-fledged LCD TVs; lacks TV tuner and DVD player functionality of closest iPod-specific competitor. inMotion branding aside, it’s not portable in any sense of the word; larger than Altec’s biggest prior iPod speaker system and can’t run off of batteries. Despite large size of the enclosure, 8.5” screen is not as impressive as the ones found in the iPod’s top, truly portable video display add-ons; images are softer and too color-saturated, with limited user ability to adjust settings. Despite nano-sized Dock Adapter, offers no benefit over less expensive speakers.
In the 1,300 iPod accessory reviews we have published to date, we’ve always tried to distinguish between “great,” “good,” “okay,” and “bad” accessories. Long-time readers know that we also strive to explain whether less than great accessories were good ideas executed poorly, or just bad ideas to begin with. The “bad idea, good execution” combination is especially rare, as good accessory makers rarely put much development talent or effort into bad ideas, and bad developers rarely execute well on bad ideas.
Thus, when we say that Altec Lansing’s inMotion iMV712 ($350) is an example of “bad idea, decent execution,” here’s what we mean: everyone would agree that there’s value in adding a bigger screen and some speakers to a fifth-generation iPod. Four other companies have already done this, with varying degrees of success. But almost no one would want such a device if it was either so big that you couldn’t carry it around, or so expensive that you could buy a superior, full-fledged television set for the same price or less. That’s the problem with iMV712 in a nutshell: Altec, an expert in portable iPod speakers, puzzlingly opted to create a non-portable AV system that consumes roughly as much space and cash as a full-fledged LCD TV set. Given the choice between similar, truly portable devices, a real TV set, or the iMV712, most people will prefer either of the former options instead of this one.
iMV712’s body measures 18.5” wide by 7.5” tall and 8” deep, which for those keeping track is larger in each dimension than the company’s superb but already oversized 16.7” by 6.5” by 6.5” inMotion iM7 speaker system. Made from glossy black plastic save for its matte-finished 8.5” LCD screen and fabric speaker grilles, its top features a Universal iPod Dock and three buttons to adjust volume or change input sources. Altec includes four Dock Adapters; two are for different 5G iPods, one is for the second-generation iPod nano, and one is device-agnostic. The box also includes a 17-button Infrared remote control, a wall power adapter, and both audio and video cables.
iMV712’s rear includes RCA-style inputs for audio and video, a power port, an S-Video output port, and a minijack-style audio input. Oddly, it also includes a rear power switch, which we generally don’t like to see on iPod accessories, rendered acceptable by a matching power button on the remote control. Altec’s remote also includes bass, treble, and volume buttons, a play/pause button, and iPod menu navigation controls, plus toggles for input sources, speaker muting, and a simple “SFX” sound enhancer. Regrettably, these menu navigation buttons aren’t matched by any iPod menuing on the iMV712’s screen—something that might reasonably have been expected for this price—so you’ll need to get up close to the unit if you want to select songs or videos on your iPod.
Perhaps the nicest thing that we can say about iMV712 is that it is a competent audio system: put side-by-side with truly portable add-on iPod video screens, it sounds considerably better—similar to what we’re hearing these days from $150 dedicated speakers such as Griffin’s AmpliFi, though short of what Altec packed into the more impressive iM7.
We’ve consistently praised iM7’s ratio of price to sound performance, which was produced by 5 total drivers—two 1” tweeters for highs, two 3” drivers for mids, and one 4” driver for lows. iMV712’s three-driver array is the same as iM7’s minus the 1” tweeters, and consequently doesn’t offer quite the level of high-end detail and apparent depth we heard in iM7. Spec fiends might also care that iM7’s speakers were backed by 75 watts of total amplification, while iMV712 maxes out at 60 watts, averaging 40. In practice, both systems can generate loud, room-filling sound, and you’ll enjoy listening to music through either one. But the iM7’s a bit more powerful, and at lower volume levels, offers superior detail and nuance. Given iMV712’s price and size, we would have hoped for more, but it’s not bad.
Detracting from the sound is something that we’ve mentioned in a regrettable number of Altec speaker reviews: hiss in the speakers. Turn iMV712 on and you’ll hear a hissing noise at any volume level save “1.” The hiss doesn’t disappear as the volume gets louder; it’s only masked. We get the impression that it’s at least partially traceable to electronic interference from the screen, which can’t be turned off.
The display is actually the source of most of our dismay over iMV712. For some reason, Altec chose to use an 8.5” LCD screen, which as you can see from the photos here is the same size as LCDs we’ve seen in backpack-ready, sub-$200 portable iPod AV add-ons from Memorex and Philips. This screen size is typically chosen not for stationary monitors, but rather for headrest-sized in-car displays and lap-ready portable DVD players, and as previously suggested is considerably smaller than the 15-20” LCD TVs you can now buy for iMV712’s price, or less.
We feel compelled to restate and explain those points: the same dollars will buy you a larger, full-fledged LCD television set, complete with a TV tuner and in some cases an integrated DVD player, or you could spend around half the amount and get a competing iPod accessory with a screen that’s the same size as iMV712’s. Either one of those ideas strikes us as smarter than this one.
It’s exacerbated by the fact that, despite the packed-in nano Dock Adapter, the screen does nothing for iPod nano owners, and nothing during 5G iPod music-only playback. If a video’s not playing, Altec’s display presents the company’s logo, and can’t be turned off. Adding a visualizer or on-screen menuing would have been no-brainer ways to improve this product, or at least to justify its existence as a screen-laden speaker system.
During video playback, there’s more bad news: Altec’s screen is actually outperformed by the one in Memorex’s iFlip, which can now be had for around $130 at retailers. As the comparison photos below show, the iMV712’s screen suffers from the same issues as the 8.5” Philips iPod-ready screens we’ve tested: softer images and somewhat overaggressive color saturation.
We did side-by-side tests using a number of videos, including several downloaded from the iTunes Store, such as Maroon 5’s 640 pixel wide “Makes Me Wonder,” the 320 pixel wide U2 video for “Original of the Species,” and Pixar’s movie “The Incredibles.” Even from a couple of feet away, it was immediately obvious that iMV712’s videos were blurrier than iFlip’s, a fact which was confirmed as we came closer to each screen.
What color differences there were between the systems made us feel that iMV712’s images looked less realistic, but since different viewers have different color tastes, ideally a user would have the ability to fully tweak the palette to his or her preferences. On iFlip, as with most TVs, you can change brightness, contrast, sharpness, color, and hue. iMV712 provides only brightness, contrast and a single slider for color; there’s no sharpness or hue adjustment. Consequently, if you want iFlip’s screen to look more like iMV712’s for whatever reason, you can do it, but the same isn’t true about the Altec display. Both systems include user-adjustable 16:9/4:3 toggles for those who want to view uncropped or undistorted versions of old aspect ratio videos, at the cost of introducing letterboxing. It’s worth noting that Sonic Impact’s slightly smaller Video-55 screen, which we preferred to iFlip’s, has iFlip-style controls as well.
The most unusual feature in iMV712? A screen flip setting. One of its menus lets you turn the monitor’s display upside down, for reasons we can only guess at.
From a big picture perspective, iMV712 feels like another one of those iPod accessory “solutions in search of a problem;” a device that probably started as a decent idea (make an add-on iPod screen with good speakers), and then snowballed into something that really doesn’t make a lot of sense given other options in the marketplace. If you own any TV and are satisfied with its built-in speakers, you can connect your iPod to it with a $15 video cable or a $70 Griffin AirDock and get better results than this product offers, and if you don’t like the speakers, it goes without saying that you’ll do better buying Altec’s less expensive iM7 and running a video cable from its back to the TV’s video input. If you just want a way to watch iPod videos on a bigger screen, you’ll be decidedly better off with one of our top recommended portable options, unless audio quality is your paramount concern.
When we reviewed Philips’ DCD778, which sells for $50 more than iMV712 but also includes a DVD player, TV tuner, and AM/FM radio, we at least felt as if that device had a reason for being: it was designed to mount under a cabinet and serve as an kitchen or laundry room alternative to occupying a countertop with a big, bulky TV set, DVD player, and iPod dock combination. Even though it didn’t do a great job with the iPod features, it served a purpose. In our view, iMV712 doesn’t. It’s a $350 TV set replacement minus the TV tuner and larger screen most people would want given its price and size, and if its name has led you to expect inMotion-style portability, you’ll have to look elsewhere to find it. As rare as this is by past Altec standards, we’d call this one a definite “pass,” and a bad idea that should have been nixed before release.