Review: Apple Computer Universal Dock and Apple Remote
Pros: A single iPod dock electronically compatible with all Dock Connector-equipped iPod models, including necessary adapter plates for all 4G and mini iPods. Outputs S-Video and variable audio natively, composite video with an optional cable, and can be connected to a computer. Compatible with an optional Apple Remote, which is iPod shuffle-like in simplicity and looks.
Cons: Not as affordable of a total audio dock and remote solution as Kensington’s Stereo Dock, as it does not include power charger or audio cables, which Stereo Dock does. 3G owners will need to buy adapters separately. Infrared remote control is good by infrared standards, but can’t go through walls or achieve 100-foot distances like top RF remote options. Neither component available in black to match increasingly popular black iPods.
By appearances, it was almost as much of a surprise to the demonstrators as it was to us: when Apple Computer’s Universal Dock ($39.00) appeared at last week’s debut of the fifth-generation iPod, the company was still unclear on pricing of its optional Apple Remote ($29.00), a simple Infrared remote control that interfaces directly with the Dock. And oddly, instructions for the Apple Remote appear in the Universal Dock’s box. Though they are sold separately, these are clearly two devices intended to be used together.
The Universal Dock is a fairly important product for Apple. It has released separate Docks - reclining iPod stands with computer and audio output ports - for every iPod since the 2003 third-generation model, and watched numerous third-party developers do the same. All of Apple’s Docks have used the same glossy white plastic tops and soft rubber bottoms - so have most third-party alternatives.
Now Apple has decided to simplify things for everyone. Now it will sell one Dock that works with basically every iPod, excepting the shuffle and the original, non-docking first- and second-generation iPods. The key to this plan is a series of plastic iPod-fitting inserts called Dock Adapters.
Many Different Dock Adapters
The Universal Dock’s box comes with five different Dock Adapters for five different iPods - the iPod mini and four different thicknesses of 4G iPods, specifically the black and white 20GB / U2 Special Edition models, the 40GB black and white iPod, the 20GB, 30GB, and U2 color iPods, and the color 40GB and 60GB iPods. Because of all of the items in the box, Apple has used a sophisticated iPod-like package - bigger than current iPod boxes, but similarly designed - to hold all of the parts.
In addition, not only will every new iPod come with one of its own Dock Adapters, but the Adapters will also fit future third-party iPod docking accessories, such as speakers, eventually eliminating the need for companies to supply their own. Additional Dock Adapters will be sold separately in five-packs for around $9 a piece - five of the same adapter, not five different ones, for all of your single-iPod docking needs. Since the Universal Dock does not include 3G, nano, or 5G iPod Adapters, you’ll need to buy Apple’s packages (or the iPods) to get them.
It’s easy to pop them in or out, and since the Adapter included for the color 4G 40GB and 60GB models is so large, any docking iPod can fit at least loosely on top. But if you’re looking for the specific Adapter for your model of iPod, there’s now a decoder list. The five-packs should be showing up in Apple’s online and physical stores over the next month or so.
Once you’ve popped the right Adapter in, you’ll find three ports on the back of the Universal Dock: an S-Video output, a Dock Connector, and a variable audio out port, marked Line Out. The S-Video output lets you show photos or watch videos from a color 4G or 5G on a television, and the Dock Connector lets you sync any docked iPod with a computer.
But the audio port has two interesting features. First, unlike an iPod mini or iPod nano Dock, it replicates the headphone ports of color 4G and 5G iPods, and is thereby compatible with Apple’s iPod AV Cable (iLounge rating: B). Consequently, you can keep this AV Cable connected to the back of the Universal Dock instead of your iPod if you want composite video output rather than S-Video output.
Second, as Kensington did with its earlier Stereo Dock (iLounge rating: A-), the volume level of the Universal Dock’s audio port can actually be controlled by a compatible remote control. An iPod connected to the Universal Dock will start outputting at its maximum volume level, just as it would have with a standard iPod Dock. But you can now lower that level, which was not possible before. One of the ways to lower the level is to use the Click Wheels of compatible iPods - unfortunately, only the nano and the 5G support this.
Other than that difference, the Universal Dock worked exactly as expected with all of our iPods, including everything from the 3G on up. The build quality on Apple’s Docks has always been good, the video and audio clean, the footprint always acceptable, and the look always sleek and simple. This one is no exception. We only hope Apple makes one in black to match the increasingly popular nanos and full-sized iPods of that color.
The Apple Remote
How do you lower the volume without touching an iPod? Use the Apple Remote. It is a six-button, iPod shuffle-esque glossy white plastic controller that can be used with either the Universal Dock or the new iMac computer. Other than its sixth button - a menu button, currently used almost exclusively with the iMac - the other five are identical in size and shape to the shuffle’s: volume up and down at top and bottom, track backwards and forwards at left and right, play/pause in the center. On the back is an Apple logo. At the bottom is a place to pop out an included Lithium battery. On the top is a large dark red - almost black - Infrared panel. It’s meant to be pointed at a small matching circle on the Universal Dock’s front.
Infrared (IR) remotes typically have one advantage and two disadvantages over other remotes. They are inexpensive to manufacture and sell, which often gives them a price advantage - many companies sell $30 IR controls with top-mounting transmitters for 4G iPods, the same price Apple charges for just the Remote. But IR remotes work from considerably shorter distances - 1/2, 1/3, or 1/5 that of a radio-based (RF) remote control, depending on the competing technology and conditions you use the IR remote in. And they can’t work through walls.
In our tests, the Apple Remote reliably connected with the Dock under overhead fluorescent lighting - our typical stress test - at a distance of 20 feet when pointed directly at the IR receiver. At 21 feet, the connection became poor, and at 22 feet, they wouldn’t connect. But if we put the Dock under different lighting or turned off the lights, the remote not only worked without a problem from a distance of 30 feet, but could actually work without being pointed precisely at the Dock. By IR standards, this is quite good.
However, it’s only OK by RF standards. Griffin and ABT/Targus have been selling iPod remotes that can achieve 50-100 foot distances, and can work through walls and no matter what the lighting conditions, which the Apple Remote cannot. It’s only a matter of time before simple RF-based iPod docks begin to appear, and complex ones are already available. For instance, JBL has already implemented Griffin’s RF remote into its On Stage II speakers, which we’re presently testing, so you get a combination of RF remote, iPod dock, and speakers. Other alternatives are in development.
(It’s also worth a brief note that since the Apple Remote is designed to work with multiple Apple products - currently only other Universal Docks or the iMac - it can be paired specifically with a single Dock or other Apple product in the event that you have more than one receiver in a room. Holding down the Menu button and the track forward button at the same time for several seconds will pair a remote to the nearby receiver it’s pointed at.)
The remote also has one other idiosyncrasy: though released at the same time as the video-enabled iPod 5G, it doesn’t behave exactly as you’d expect during video playback. On a strong positive note, holding down the forward or back button during video will let you scrub forward or backward within a video. But when you press forward or backward only once, you can’t skip forward or backward through your Movies clips. Referenced in the manual, this feature works fine during Music Videos, and we assume/hope that it’s only an iPod software update away from working with Movies, too.
For now, what Apple’s offering is a modular system with two good but not great components at prices that could be better. If you shop around, you can get Kensington’s audio-only Stereo Dock for about the same total price ($58), and you’ll get a power charger and audio cable in the box, in addition to a nice glowing remote control. This is a better solution for people who want only audio output with recharging and don’t care about computer or video output. For $40 more, you can get DLO’s physically larger HomeDock (iLounge rating: B), which includes video output and a more complex remote control, as well as a partial way to connect your iPod to a computer.
Our B+ rating of the Universal Dock recognizes its slightly superior value to its flat B predecessor as a standalone peripheral, while our B rating for the Apple Remote is a compromise. As an iPod-only accessory, it could have rated lower based on its high standalone price, limited utility without the Universal Dock, and Infrared broadcasting limitations. However, because of its solid-by-IR standards performance and classically Apple industrial design, as well as its compatibility with other Apple products and the lack of directly comparable iPod alternatives, it’s recommendable. As with the Universal Dock, a black-colored version would be a nice alternative for certain iPod owners.