Review: Gear4 AlarmDock Halo 2
There's a pricing sweet spot for iPhone- and iPod-docking alarm clocks -- $100 -- which has for years been dominated by options from iHome and, to a lesser extent, Philips, both of which have recently focused largely on similar designs that place your device directly above clocks and twin front-firing speakers. But before this platform-style concept became so common, Philips offered other form factors such as the inexpensive AJ300D, which looked like a chair with a clock at the top and an iPod dock in the seat. Years later, Gear4 has picked up the AJ300D's torch with the AlarmDock Halo 2 ($100), an evolution of the same basic concept with a higher price tag, iPhone and app support, and a slightly different industrial design. If you're hunting for something different, this is a nice option, though it does lag at least a little behind its top rivals in a few ways.
Rather than using the silver and white color combination that was dominant for iPod accessories back in AJ300D’s days, AlarmDock Halo 2 is a primarily black clock radio with a glossy plastic rear chassis and a substantially fabric face, interrupted at the top by a silver-ringed, glossy black clock and at the bottom by a matte-finished dock. Each portion has five buttons—above the clock and below the dock—while the back sports a decidedly un-iHome-like minimalist set of aux-in audio and power inputs, plus a non-detachable radio antenna, rather than a collection of additional controls. Gear4 includes a wall adapter, an Infrared remote control, and a battery to back up the unit’s integrated clock when wall power isn’t available; you insert the battery into AlarmDock Halo 2’s bottom before first use. Apart from that battery compartment, which feels a little cheap, the rest of the unit looks quite sharp: it’s one of Gear4’s best designs yet.
Several things about AlarmDock Halo 2’s feature set stand out immediately as contrasts with the AJ300D and many other non-iHome third-party alarm clocks. First, the integrated clock screen isn’t fancy, but it’s modern and readable thanks to a light purple (off white) dot pattern on a black background. A flexible Dock Connector design at the bottom is capable of accommodating today’s encased iPhones and iPods, though not iPads, which are large enough to completely obscure both the clock and the unit’s speakers—a virtue of the now more common platform-style design. Despite its slender profile, AlarmDock Halo 2 does actually include stereo speakers, as well as two separate integrated alarms, and an FM radio with nine preset stations, all accessed easily via the built-in clock screen. And despite the comparative reduction in buttons relative to many iHome systems, Gear4 has done a good job of making the remaining ones intuitive to control the unit’s various features. Pretty much everything is clearly labelled for its primary purpose and easy to understand for secondary functionality. The included remote works well, too.
There are also some obvious shortcomings of AlarmDock Halo 2’s design that may stand out to people accustomed to iHome’s alarm clocks, even looking past the lack of iPad compatibility. The integrated clock includes only a day-of-week indicator rather than a broader calendar date, and though it dims through six levels of brightness (including “off”), it’s not quite as bold at its brightest as the typical $100 iHome clock. Gear4 has included only an FM radio tuner, rather than AM/FM, which might be an issue for those who care about talk radio channels. Despite the lack of some now expected buttons, such as a “sync” button to automatically pull the time from your iOS device, AlarmDock Halo 2 can generally do the same things as its rivals—with software assistance. Gear4’s free SmartLink app lets iPhone and iPod touch users make the adjustments.
SmartLink is a reasonable piece of software, divided into four tabs: Music, Clock, Radio, and Settings. Music provides a stylized alternative to Apple’s Music app, focusing more on interface than on album art, though with an optional screensaver-like feature that zooms in on the album art somewhat like iPhoto’s Ken Burns effect. You can choose from “steel” or “digital” music interfaces, each with its own button layout and decent graphic design, though the app’s speed of access to your music library lags at least a little behind Apple’s Music app. On a separate tab, Clock allows you to choose between digital or flip-style clock interfaces while displaying animated weather details at the top of the screen and the calendar date in tiny letters at the bottom. Clock switches to a five-day forecast with a horizontal swipe of your finger, or dims both the iOS device and AlarmDock Halo 2 screens simultaneously with vertical swipes. While we preferred the design and functionality of this tab to both the Music tab and the unit’s integrated clock, it seems somewhat superfluous for AlarmDock Halo 2—why buy an alarm clock at all when the app does the same things and looks better?
Tab three is Radio, which offers two different tuning screens for the clock’s FM radio: with the “steel” interface selected, it looks like a dial, while “digital” has a dot matrix-style tuner and clearer set of preset buttons. During our first test of the “tune” button, which is supposed to automatically locate local stations, the app got caught in an endless loop; quitting and restarting the app thankfully fixed that issue, and auto-tuning worked pretty well. Finally, Settings provides granular control over the accessory’s two hardware alarms and additional software-based alarms, complete with iHome-style weekday/weekend/every day repeat options and multiple sound effects for each alarm. Notably, the sound effects you choose only work if your iPhone or iPod touch is docked; otherwise, AlarmDock Halo 2 puts out a series of loud beeps.
One additional feature some users might like is buried in the app’s Settings and Advanced Settings menus: “Control a Speaker.” You can see this feature under Settings, but for whatever reason can’t actually use it unless you separately activate “Allow Remote Control” under Advanced Settings. Once it’s turned on, you can use an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch to wirelessly control an iPod touch or iPhone that’s electronically docked with AlarmDock Halo 2 and running the SmartLink app; the docked device’s screen puts up a screen indicating that it’s remote-controlled, and the wireless device can access most of its Music, Radio, and Settings features—notably not the connected unit’s hardware alarms. Gear4’s inclusion of this feature within the device-agnostic SmartLink app is pretty forward-thinking, and anticipates a day when many users will have spare iOS devices sitting around to use for purposes like this, but for this particular accessory, we found it only modestly useful. You might feel otherwise.
Sonically, AlarmDock Halo 2 did a better job of performing loud, reasonably clear music than we’d initially expected from the form factor, though it’s not a major breakthrough in any way. The stereo speakers project several inches beyond the edges of the roughly six-inch-wide unit, accurately separating the left and right channels, and at peak volumes that fall only a little short of filling a small room without major distortion. That said, there’s nothing particularly standout about the audio, which is competent in the mids with reasonable treble, mid-treble, and mid-bass, without sounding particularly deep, sharp, tinny, or bloated. We’d call the sound “good”—pretty much what one would expect from a comparably priced iHome unit at this point in time. Radio tuning is par for the course, as well; light static was apparent on most of the stations we tested, though it could be reduced or increased depending on how close the integrated antenna was to a window and various types of interference. Apart from the app-related tuning glitch, AlarmDock Halo 2 is a good radio.
And that’s consistent with our overall impression of AlarmDock Halo 2—in pretty much every way, it’s a good accessory. Nothing stands out as phenomenal, and we’ve seen virtually all of its features before, but it delivers a solid experience that we’re glad to generally recommend to our readers. As a clock, as a speaker, as an FM radio, and as a dock for iPhones and iPod touches, it does pretty much what you’d expect it to do, at a reasonable price. On the other hand, the lack of iPad compatibility and small issues with the app could both benefit from improvements in a subsequent version, and a simpler name would probably be a good idea going forward, too.