Review: Belkin Charge + Sync Dock for iPhone 5
Shortly after announcing the iPhone 5 last year, Apple suggested that it was done making standalone iPhone dock accessories: “Most people who use docks use them with speaker or clock systems," said the company's marketing chief, while stating that Apple wasn't planning to release a dock for the iPhone 5. At the time, Apple didn't provide additional details, but small and large third-party accessory developers quickly jumped in with their own proposed solutions. They quickly discovered, however, that Apple's new Lightning connectors were in short supply, and that related technical changes would make iPhone 5 docks more expensive than similarly-featured versions for earlier iPhones.
Since then, long-time accessory developer Belkin has released two separate iPhone 5 docks that take different approaches to the same problem—offering users a way to prop up their devices during charging and syncing. In December, Belkin began to sell the Charge + Sync Dock with Audio Port, a $30 accessory that notably didn’t include its own Lightning or USB plugs. Now it has released the Charge + Sync Dock for iPhone 5 ($40), which integrates a four-foot cable with Lightning and USB connectors for a $10 premium, while losing the analog 3.5mm audio port. While the new Charge + Sync Dock is a reasonably good accessory when considered in isolation, it’s saddled with new pricing, functional, and design issues that unnecessarily limit its appeal—all Apple’s fault, if accounts from numerous developers are accurate.
The simplest way to sum up the Charge + Sync Dock is as a fairly long Lightning to USB Cable with a basic plastic stand permanently attached. A black-jacketed USB plug and cable run into a silver metallic plastic and matte black rubber stand with a flexible Lightning plug in the center. Now only 1.75” tall by 2.2” deep and 2.3” wide, this Dock doesn’t have enough size or weight to support a full-sized iPad, but in addition to the iPhone 5, it can in fact hold the seventh-generation iPod nano, fifth-generation iPod touch, or even an iPad mini without tipping over. While the packaging says “for iPhone 5” in large letters, the iPod nano and iPod touch are specifically supported in smaller print on the box’s side, while the iPad mini is not mentioned at all.
On a positive note, the Charge + Sync Dock is a considerably more efficient design than the prior Charge + Sync Dock with Audio Port, thanks largely to the integrated USB and Lightning connectors. Belkin previously had to include a narrow underbelly channel for users to insert their own Apple Lightning to USB Cables, as well as a 3.5mm audio-out port with a flip-up headphone plug that worked only with the iPhone 5 and iPod touch 5G. These elements added around an inch to the prior height and a quarter-inch to the depth, as well as bottom magnets and a third plastic surface; the new Charge + Sync Dock loses these things, so it looks cleaner and requires no DIY user installation.
Unfortunately, these changes also have a couple of decidedly negative consequences for the Charge + Sync Dock, the first more serious than the second. According to developers, Apple is now mandating that the Lightning connectors on docks be surrounded by enough plastic to roughly match the footprint of the old Dock Connector—a large, generally pill-shaped support that is far bigger than the Lightning port openings found in most iPhone, iPod, and iPad cases. Notably, this plastic support is considerably bigger than the “keepaway” hole specifications Apple has provided to case developers for Lightning-equipped devices. Consequently, unlike the Charge + Sync Dock with Audio Port, this Charge + Sync Dock is effectively incompatible with the vast majority of new iPhone, iPod, and iPad cases on the market, and unnecessarily so: we haven’t experienced any problems with stability over a month and a half of testing Apple’s smallest-sized Lightning housing inside the prior Charge + Sync Dock with Audio Port. Since Apple’s own surveys suggest that roughly 4 out of 5 iPhone owners use cases, a Lightning plug that’s incompatible with most cases will be a non-starter for the majority of people.
The second issue is the loss of audio functionality, which may or may not matter to you. Past iPhone docks with audio-out functionality relied upon direct line-level analog output from the classic Dock Connector’s pins, but Apple nixed those in favor of all-digital Lightning output. As a result, iPhone 5 dock developers need to either include digital-to-analog converter hardware—something that hasn’t yet been done—or a headphone port pass-through, a so-so workaround Belkin offered in the prior version of this dock. Just as its name suggests, this Charge + Sync Dock is primarily for charging and syncing; you can also use your iPhone 5 in speakerphone or FaceTime modes without echo issues.
Taken as a whole, the Charge + Sync Dock for iPhone 5 merits a limited recommendation. While it’s reasonable to call it a glorified version of a $19 Lightning to USB cable—that, plus a small stand that will work with recent iPhones, iPods, and iPad minis—the $40 price isn’t completely insane for something that does what it’s supposed to do. It looks nice, offers adequate support, and doesn’t take up a lot of space. Unfortunately, like Apple’s prior-generation iPhone 4 Dock, the unnecessary case incompatibility will be a non-starter for many people, and with the omission of audio-out functionality, it loses one of the key benefits that most of Apple’s docks included. All you really get with this model relative to the Charge + Sync Dock with Audio Port is an integrated four-foot cable; it’s up to you to decide whether that’s enough to justify the added $10 cost, and what you lose as a result.