Review: Griffin PowerDock 5
As we've noted many times before, Apple's decision to increase Lightning connector licensing prices has had seriously negative consequences -- fewer accessories now have integrated Lightning plugs, and those that do are too often being sold at untenably high premiums over nearly identical Dock Connector versions. Many formerly Apple-exclusive accessories have shifted to become universal with USB ports, leaving customers to supply and manage their own cables. That background substantially explains Griffin's release this month of PowerDock 5 ($100), a very different addition to its five-year-old PowerDock franchise.
Previously, PowerDocks were Apple device-specific. The series began with June 2008’s twin iPhone/iPod-charging station PowerDock 2, then continued with December 2008’s four-dock PowerDock 4, and late 2010’s one-iPad, one-iPhone/iPod PowerDock Dual. Griffin’s first two PowerDocks were handsome $50-$70 brushed metal and plastic trays designed to manage your pocket devices without cable clutter; the subsequent $60 PowerDock Dual embraced the iPad’s considerably larger size with an unusual design that held both the tablet and an iPhone or iPod upright, placing a coin/wallet/accessory dish between them.
PowerDocks always used to be turnkey device charging solutions, built with integrated Dock Connectors and bundled with wall chargers. However, due to Apple’s more expensive Lightning connectors—and the challenges of managing an unpredictable array of tablets, phones, and media players—PowerDock 5 changes the formula quite a bit. You get a white and black plastic rack roughly 7.7” deep by 5” wide by 1.1” tall, plus a set of six clear plastic inserts that bring the total height to 3” between recesses. Rubber on the bottom of the rack keeps it in place on a flat surface, but it feels lightweight, in large part because the substantial power supply is a separate piece connected in a cable-managing recess within PowerDock 5’s underbelly.
While the wall adapter is included and capable of supplying 2.1-Amp/10-Watt to five devices at a time—a non-trivial feat—Griffin leaves you to supply all of the cables for your devices. The positive here is that you can mix and match cables to your liking, popping USB-laden Dock Connector, Lightning, or micro-USB cables in as you want; if you have them handy, this isn’t a problem, but adding five Lightning cables could be a significant additional expense. Five USB ports are on the unit’s right side, and each auto-switches between 0.5-Amp, 1-Amp, or 2.1-Amp power as is necessary for iPods, iPhones, and iPads. You could also use PowerDock 5 to refuel accessories such as Bluetooth headsets, wireless keyboards, and spare batteries, which vary just like Apple’s devices in power demands. This is only the second time we’ve seen a dock for five 2.1-Amp devices, and the first with some Lightning compatibility, so the very existence of such a powerful solution is welcome.
PowerDock 5 had no problem during our testing charging multiple iPads at once, or adding iPhones and iPods to the mix, though two caveats should be noted. First, PowerDock 5 does not support the faster 2.4-Amp/12-Watt peak charging of Retina iPads, a small but noteworthy omission that really should have been addressed given this accessory’s price and mid-2013 release date. Second, our initial review unit did not work properly, cycling connected devices off and on in a suspicious manner; Griffin replaced it quickly and without question. If your unit exhibits a similar defect, we’d strongly advise you to remove your device(s) immediately and seek a replacement.
Our editors concurred that the single biggest issue with PowerDock 5 is its lackluster approach to cable management. To be fair, once Griffin decided to sell PowerDock 5 with five USB ports and support multiple types of devices with different cables and cases, there was no ideal way to manage everything. PowerDock 5 provides a place for you to hold five tablets or other devices vertically, and it generally works for that, though the idea of having iPhones and iPods laying in landscape orientation is at best questionable. One of our editors though that the whole solution looked cheap and ugly, due in part to its use of multiple colors and textures of plastic, while the others felt that it did a reasonable but not great job given some obvious design challenges. Griffin also condenses what would otherwise be five wall adapters into one, freeing up outlets on a power strip or unusually huge wall plate. Unfortunately, cables dangle out from the unit’s side or sides, and many cables won’t fit well within the simple grooves molded into PowerDock 5’s top. Functionally, PowerDock 5 does what it’s supposed to do, but it’s unmistakably kludgy in a way that we’re not accustomed to seeing from Griffin.
Is PowerDock 5 worth the $100 asking price? As our limited recommendation suggests, the answers will vary considerably between prospective users, even between people who would otherwise be interested conceptually in its functionality. What Griffin has achieved with PowerDock 5 is the creation of a relatively compact multi-device charging station with plenty of power for most purposes, combining a basic five-tablet rack with the equivalent of five 2.1-Amp wall adapters. From an accountant’s standpoint, the math is simple: Apple sells each iPad-ready USB Power Adapter for $19, which means five adapters would come out to a nearly PowerDock 5 price. Though that’s $30 more than Griffin’s old four-dock PowerDock 4, it’s a lot less than XtremeMac’s somewhat obscure five-Dock Connector-equipped InCharge X5, which also could charge five iPads. That said, users might not find the numbers so straightforward. Unlike past PowerDocks and InCharge X5, you’re not getting a truly turnkey solution here, and the dangling cables will be a constant reminder of the system’s design omissions. PowerDock 5 is a fine step on the road towards a great five-device charger, but Griffin still has a way to go before the execution is as strong as the concept, assuming that it opts to continue iterating on this particular design challenge.