Review: DLO HomeDock Deluxe (2007) Entertainment Dock with On-TV Navigation for iPod
Pros: The second iteration of an attractively designed iPod and remote control docking station with audio/video output ports on its rear, enabling a user to play the iPod’s music, video, and photos (as applicable) through a connected television set. Includes menuing system that lets you select iPod music and videos using your TV; the first iPod dock we’ve seen with on-TV video browsing. Eighteen-button infrared remote looks nice and feels great in hand, includes power supply and AV cables. Many color schemes, multiple language support, and new screensavers.
Cons: Buggy interface has variety of more than occasional navigation and Album Art loading issues. Many new screensavers look bad. Retains predecessor’s premium price without including certain premium features, such as an RF remote control and certain cables. Photo library navigation still requires iPod’s screen; video browsing is good, but not as good as on iPod itself. While acceptable in performance, remote suffers from typical limitations (distance/lighting/line-of-sight) of Infrared remote control technology. Screwed-up aux-in port.
There’s absolutely no doubt in our minds that iPods - especially, but not exclusively iPods with video features - now need an excellent on-screen interface for accessing their music, video, and photo contents on a larger display. Whether you’re in the car, at your house, or in an airplane, you should have the ability to easily access your iPod’s library on the biggest screen you have available, rather than navigating on one screen while viewing on another. Unfortunately, Apple hasn’t stepped up and released such an on-TV interface for its iPods, and instead has left third-party developers to create expensive, separate accessories to simulate the experience in homes and cars. Since last year, DLO’s HomeDock Deluxe (iLounge rating: B) has been one such option, and this year, the company has updated the product with an improved, same-named, same-priced version ($150).
Equipped with firmware version 2, the “all-new” HomeDock Deluxe (HDD) preserves almost all the functionality of its predecessor, and thereby lets you access your iPod’s music, video, and photo content while it’s connected to a television set or home AV system. The basics of those features can be read about in detail in our prior review. This updated review covers several newly added features: HDD’s full on-screen navigation of your iPod’s video library, some support for on-screen display of Album Art, new screensavers, multilingual menus, and slightly tweaked cosmetics. Unlike the prior version, the new one can be updated with new firmware to fix bugs and add features, similar to the regrettably as-yet-unused capability of Griffin’s TuneCenter (iLounge rating: B); our review is based upon version 2.0.0 of the HDD firmware.
DLO’s package includes one HomeDock Deluxe dock, which remains several times larger than an Apple iPod Dock, but includes a space to hold the unit’s included 18-button, Infrared remote control. It now comes with an S-Video cable, composite AV cable, power supply, and iPod rear support stand, adjustable with a thumbscrew on the dock’s base. It loses the prior version’s RCA to 3.5mm minijack adapter - a piece that let you connect the audio ports to any audio system’s line-in port - and makes color changes to the plastics on both the base and remote control. Our photos show the old dock on the left, and the new dock on the right.
We preferred the prior version’s color scheme in all regards save the new remote, which is now matte dark gray-finished rather than glossy black, with some subtle DLO branding on its front bottom. This new remote shows fewer fingerprints and scratches than the earlier one, has slightly softer button edges, and cleaner iconography. It retains a rubber back, now with a larger DLO logo. Functionally, it is highly similar to the remote we tested before - as with other Infrared remotes, it works only on a direct line of sight from the dock, and performs reliably at up to 30-foot distances under normal light, with falloff if you use fluorescent lighting.
HomeDock Deluxe’s dock wasn’t in need of visual tweaks, but it received them anyway. The new dock has light silver aluminum-colored plastic edging rather than the darker gunmetal edging of the prior version, setting it apart from the remote and most iPods inside rather than tying them together. We preferred the old color, particularly in light of the new remote. Functionally, the dock preserves all of the same ports - video, audio, power, and USB - found on the earlier Deluxe, but loses the rear left-mounted NTSC/PAL switch. The feature hasn’t been lost: you can now switch modes with two button presses from the system’s main menu. There’s still no USB cable in the box, though Deluxe can be used with one alongside a computer for iPod synchronization.
There’s one other change that hasn’t been advertised or really documented in the manual, and that’s the addition of an aux-in audio port to the unit’s left side. Frankly, we can only tell you to ignore it: no cable’s included to take advantage of it, and when we connected our own cable with an iPod, the audio quality was awful - it looks as if the feature was added, but not quite finished before the new HomeDock Deluxe shipped. It’s very odd.
DLO’s visual changes extend to HDD’s interface, as well, and the vast majority of the changes are positive. Though it’s obvious that the unit either depends upon a relatively low-end video processor or has been programmed not to take full advantage of more powerful hardware, the system’s interface now uses soft gradients and rounded edges where its predecessor used flat colors and boxes. Newer TVs easily show off the limitations of the art - chunky pixels and dithering - but standard-definition sets mask those limits, making the graphics look roughly as good as a 1991-vintage Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo, minus the animation. As between Griffin’s TuneCenter and HomeDock Deluxe, it’s now obvious that Griffin has the better video hardware, but DLO has made better use of what it has.
The most significant enhancement to the new HomeDock Deluxe is found in its menu system: video library browsing. There’s no need to switch Deluxe into a separate mode for video library navigation any more - though you’ll still have to do this for photo slideshows - you’re now able to access movies, music videos, TV shows, and video podcasts from an on-TV “Videos” menu. The feature works mostly as expected, which is a net positive addition to the prior HDD hardware, allowing you to avoid walking over to the iPod to find the show you want to watch. That said, it’s not quite as impressive as Apple’s own organization on the iPod’s screen or in more recent products such as Apple TV. TV shows are organized by show name, then dumped into one large alphabetical directory without season information; music videos by comparison sort by artist name. There’s no cover art or other detail on a show or movie before you select it, so the interface is pretty much like using the iPod, rather than iTunes.
Skipping around within a currently playing video is handled through dedicated rewind and fast-forward buttons found on the remote control, while play and pause features are handled with the dedicated remote button, and you can change clips by using the reverse and forward tracks buttons. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to interrupt a currently playing video and resume from where you left off: when you hit the remote’s Enter button to go back to your list of videos, HDD stops the video and then restarts it at the beginning when you select it again.
There are lots of new color schemes for HomeDock Deluxe’s interface, including colors named for and roughly matching current-generation iPod nanos, and others titled caramel, shady, seafoam, black, white, and blue. While we really like the color scheme options, some are more likely than others to reveal dithering in Deluxe’s background art - all of the nano colors, for instance, look pixelated on even a standard-definition TV. That aside, this is a nice update to the prior HDD’s more limited set of color options.
DLO has also added a wide variety of screensavers, which can be activated individually or randomly, as quickly as 10 seconds from the last button press, 10 minutes later, or never. The good news is that you have a lot of options, but unfortunately most of them look like old 8-bit Nintendo graphic tiles, stacking up on top of each other. We’ll go so far as to call the supplied artwork bad - there’s nothing classy or even modestly attractive about any of it, as one might expect from selecting random pieces of clip art and dropping them on a TV screen. One screensaver, Kaleidastix, is a simple visualizer, but its effects won’t impress you much, if at all.
HDD’s single most exciting screensaver is one shown on the unit’s box: a “Now Playing” screen that is supposed to look pretty close to the Apple TV screen of the same concept. Unfortunately, the real thing isn’t as good as what the box suggests: rather than a large, high-resolution piece of album art, the Now Playing screensaver uses a smaller, low-resolution sample, which typically takes 6 or 7 seconds to load. It’s also odd in that it might not actually save your screen: unlike Apple TV’s version, which flips the graphics around on screen to prevent burn-in, DLO’s just goes black after roughly a minute on screen. Another screensaver drops even smaller versions of the album art on screen en masse, an effect that’s arguably even worse than the clip art shown in photos above; you can barely make out the album covers because the resolution is so low. We’ll have to see whether DLO fixes any of this in later firmware revisions, but for now, it’s not really impressive.
Music navigation is largely unchanged from before, though we were surprised to discover a bunch of bugs while we were browsing our collections. Some were big - lists of artists sometimes don’t display, and require a button press or two to appear on screen. Others were small but annoying: sometimes the highlighted track was not the one that the remote’s Enter button would select, we often noticed that album art didn’t load properly, and sometimes the remote didn’t respond properly to changes in scrolling direction. When the Now Playing screensaver was on and used with the remote’s track buttons, we also found that songs occasionally didn’t re-start properly. Even on version 2.0, HomeDock Deluxe is still in need of some debugging: its issues don’t make use of the hardware completely dissatisfying, but they do keep it from realizing its stated performance levels.
The only other major new feature in HDD’s music system is “My Jukebox,” which is designed to let you create playlists while you sit at the TV. We didn’t find it especially exciting; unlike the iPod’s On-The-Fly Playlists, which can select entire directories at once, My Jukebox only lets you select one song at a time, and loses the list when the unit is powered off. DLO’s manual suggests that My Jukebox was designed to select multiple songs at once, but we couldn’t get it to work. We’d have much preferred a Now Playing option on the main menu to My Jukebox.
Another addition to the system is a collection of 10 language options: English, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish are all built into the menu system, and selectable from a settings menu. Everything here seemed to work just fine.
As a final testing note, HomeDock Deluxe’s iPod pass-through sound and video quality haven’t changed much from its predecessor: video is basically problem-free, but sound isn’t quite up to the levels of Apple’s standard iPod Universal Dock. Without proper user tuning via the remote, the sound can be a bit “hot,” with noticeable distortion across the range, particularly in bass, and a hiss-like base level of noise when nothing’s playing. To reduce the distortion, you’ll need to turn down the dock’s volume to match your TV or stereo.
Our big picture opinion of HomeDock Deluxe is more complicated than it should have been: despite the fact that we have serious misgivings about the $150 price tag for a device of this sort, and ultimately do not feel that users should have to pay such a premium for on-TV menu navigation, DLO’s new additions were generally positive enough to make HomeDock Deluxe slightly more recommendable in our view than Griffin’s aforementioned TuneCenter - a competing product that has not been updated with comparable features.
But ultimately, the sloppiness in the “version 2.0.0” interface - display and remote issues, plus less impressive execution of features than what’s shown in Deluxe’s packaging - takes Deluxe down at least a notch, as some users will be disappointed that it doesn’t do what it’s advertised to do, at least as well as it should. In its worst moments, it feels like a good product that wasn’t quite finished when it left the factory, and really deserves yet another round of polishing, but in its best moments, it delivers a more convenient iPod-to-AV system experience than any alternative we’ve yet tested. While we hope that DLO will fix these issues, our rating has to be based upon what’s actually been delivered and tested: a B+ product with B- execution.