Review: Cables Unlimited Fone-Doc Hands-Free for iPhone 3G/3GS
To the extent that there are many very good to great visor-mounted speakerphone accessories for the iPhone 3G, the temptation to skip even reviewing hacked-together solutions such as Cables Unlimited's Fone-Doc ($80), which showed up this month at a $10 premium over its originally announced asking price of $70. In this case, every dollar matters: visor speakerphones we've tested almost universally sell for $100, include Bluetooth wireless chips and rechargeable batteries, and have neat little features that justify those price tags. Fone-Doc drops almost all the frills in favor of a design that has only two advantages other than price, and frankly would have needed to do a lot more than offer a modest discount to be worthy of buying, anyway.
Rather than pairing with the iPhone 3G using wireless Bluetooth, Fone-Doc initially appears to be achieving speakerphone functionality through a less than totally impressive workaround, asking users to connect a headphone port cable to the iPhone and physically dock it inside the accessory, which then rides on the car’s visor like an elongated, flat speaker system. You could conceivably place your iPhone somewhere other than in Fone-Doc’s iPhone tray, but you’d need to supply a longer cable, and then, you’d have to run that cable through your car to some other destination. It’s more convenient, at least in some ways, to just put your iPhone in the dock.
Advantage number one of this design: unlike the Bluetooth speakers, Fone-Doc can double as a speaker for iPhone music—a non-trivial feature for those who don’t have any better way of bringing the device’s audio into their car stereos. Number two: the system has a sturdy-feeling combination visor clip and table mount on the back, and thus can be used indoors for speakerphone or plain speaker features. Most of the other speakerphones we’ve tested can be used indoors, too, but very few have the physical mounting hardware to prop themselves up nicely on a flat surface.
Putting aside the fact that you need to remove your iPhone from any protective case or film it’s in to use Fone-Doc, the bad news starts with the system’s power design, which relies upon AAA batteries rather than an integrated rechargeable cell, and includes no wall charger—features found in virtually every one of its competitors. In what should have been an early red flag, Cables Unlimited provides no longevity statistics for the call time one can expect from Fone-Doc, except to say that it has an automatic sleep mode and therefore the user doesn’t need to actually flip the rear power switch on and off with every use: this “enables the battery life to go well beyond the normal three months.” Three months would be an insane length of time for any speakerphone’s battery to last—at least, if it was actually being used—given that every system we’ve tested has less than 30 hours of talk time before requiring a recharge.
But that’s not what’s going on with Fone-Doc: the really bad news begins when you try to test it as a speakerphone. Used in the way one would expect it to work—through the headphone port, with Fone-Doc’s speaker performing audio and a microphone chamber passing through the voice, callers told us that it sounded awful, particularly when the volume was turned up to listenable levels, with profound echo effects that made phone calls unbearable on the callers’ end. This seemed plausible but unlikely, given that Cables Unlimited claimed that the system “utilizes the superb echo cancellation and noise reduction built into the iPhone.” Something about that claim made us read the company’s web page for the product more closely, this time focusing on some bolded text that now appears under the list of features.
“The iPhone must be on SPEAKER mode,” one feature point said. “Fone-Doc is used without the 3.5mm cable for hands-free use, etc.,” said another. “The only reason for the 3.5mm cable inclusion is for even BETTER enhanced audio when used as a speaker for music, etc.”
Pause for a second. “Fone-Doc is used without the 3.5mm cable for hands-free use?” Let’s get this straight: Cables Unlimited wants you to buy “the ultimate hands-free no pairing device for iPhone,” put your iPhone into it, connect a cable to its headphone port, and then not use Fone-Doc’s flat panel speaker for telephone calls—you’re supposed to just use the iPhone’s built-in speaker and microphone for calls? The company only included the headphone cable for “BETTER” music—really, you could enjoy your iPhone’s music without the cable? And they’re charging $80 for this?
There’s only one likely explanation we can imagine for this thing: Fone-Doc was someone’s half-baked idea for a wired speakerphone for the iPhone, and didn’t quite turn out right thanks to the awful echo and noise problems, which would have required actual engineering talent to fix. Rather than shelve the product, it was released as a hands free speaker with the ridiculous caveat that its hardware can’t actually be used for hands free calling. What you’re left with, then, is a nothing special flat panel speaker for music, powered by AAA batteries in an oversized shell—a package that’s barely worth $40, let alone $80. We’d never buy this, never recommend it to our readers, and frankly think that the “hands-free” marketing is deceptive. The fact that the flat panel speaker works for music is only reason it doesn’t rate an F, and even then, fidgeting with an iPhone attached to your visor probably isn’t the brightest idea, either. There’s a good reason that Fone-Doc is the only product of its kind.