Review: Apple iPhone 5s Dock
Three years ago, Apple released the iPhone 4 Dock (iLounge Rating: B-), a $29 accessory that had many almost identical iPod and iPhone predecessors. Each of Apple's Docks was designed to hold a given device or several devices upright, using a pass-through Dock Connector plug and port system to make a single connection for your choice of charging and/or computer synchronization. Most of the Docks also included 3.5mm line out ports, enabling the connected devices to output their best quality analog audio to external speakers, and iPhone-specific Docks included special grates on the bottom to safely pass through speakerphone audio. When Apple released the Lightning port-equipped iPhone 5 last year, it uncharacteristically said that it had no plan to release a dock, and would leave the market to third-party developers. This year, plans obviously changed, because there are now two new options: the iPhone 5c Dock and the iPhone 5s Dock ($29), the latter of which is backward-compatible with the iPhone 5. Both also happen to fit the fifth-generation iPod touch.
From the outside, precious little has changed between these Docks and the iPhone 4 Dock that preceded them. Still made from glossy white plastic with gray bottom padding, the new Docks are just 1/16” deeper than the iPhone 4 Dock at 1 11/16” deep, while retaining just under 2.5” widths and nearly identical 0.4” heights. You wouldn’t be able to tell from a distance that the newer docks were larger, but they are by just hints. An Apple logo is molded into the center of the bottom rubber, leaving the rest of the dock spartan except for rear-mounted 3.5mm line out and female Lightning connector ports.
In addition to swapping the iPhone 4-vintage Dock Connector for the Lightning plug introduced with the iPhone 5, Apple has removed the interior mesh grates inside the docking well, leaving only a fully glossy plastic surface alongside the plug. A corresponding change to the bottom of the 5c and 5s Docks removes the thin speakerphone vent Apple introduced for iPhones. The noise-canceling microphones in the iPhone 5, 5c and 5s can automatically adjust to reduce echoes, reducing the need for special porting. Callers told us that the audio sounded pretty much the same with iPhones inside or outside the docks, though we noted a slight difference in speaker output—a little extra sharpness due to the audio reflecting upwards from the plastic docking well.
Other than that, the iPhone 5c and 5s Docks work exactly like the iPhone 4 Dock. Plug your device in and it reclines on a gentle angle, letting you see the screen. As with prior Apple Docks, you’ll need to supply your own cables; some users will want to place this on a desktop or nightstand, where it can be used with the Lightning to USB Cable Apple includes with each iPhone 5c and 5s, and others may want to connect it to a stereo system with self-purchased cables and a $19 wall adapter. Apple-authorized Lightning cables start at $11 and climb upwards, while 3.5mm audio cables are far less expensive. Rival Lightning docks sometimes include USB cables to connect to computers, but based on history, we aren’t surprised either that Apple requires a Lightning cable, or that it left that cable out of the box.
It’s quite likely that Apple has made some major under-the-hood tweaks to these Docks, as pulling an audio signal out of the iPhone 5, 5c, and 5s isn’t as straightforward as it was with pre-Lightning devices—for that reason, no third-party developer has yet offered a Lightning dock with actual line-out audio. But place one of these units next to the iPhone 4 Dock with an iPhone 4/4S inside, and you’d be hard-pressed to notice the difference. From a user’s standpoint, all of these docks provide very clear audio output at a consistent sound level without requiring you to play with volume buttons or connect a second plug to the iPhone’s headphone port.
As well as the iPhone 5c and 5s Docks perform, they continue to have a critical flaw that Apple has only tacitly acknowledged over the years: they work only with completely bare devices, and rarely with anything but the devices mentioned in their titles. Apple has released “universal” iPod docks that sidestepped these issues, but its iPhone Docks have consistently been model-specific and unfriendly to cases. The company noted in court proceedings that around 80% of iPhone users use cases, so it’s unnecessarily limiting the number of people who would otherwise be able to enjoy these accessories without some inconvenience. This large percentage of case users may diminish with the plastic iPhone 5c, but even Apple’s selling cases for the 5c that aren’t compatible with its own accessory, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.
Our limited recommendation of the iPhone 5c and 5s Docks is based substantially on the reality that the majority of iPhone users prefer cases, and that these accessories—unlike almost all of the third-party docks we’ve covered, notably including Twelve South’s beautiful HiRise for iPhone—don’t even attempt to accommodate them. That’s unfortunate, as Apple’s latest Docks offer a bit of audio functionality that’s unique for now, inside pleasantly familiar enclosures that people have liked for years. We anxiously await a case-compatible option with similar charging, syncing, and audio-out capabilities.