Review: Griffin TuneCenter Home Media Center For iPod (without Wi-Fi)
Pros: An advanced, attractively designed iPod AV dock with the ability to display iPod menus - for audio - on a TV screen, controllable via an included, good Infrared remote. Outputs iPod video and photos to a TV, sans menuing. As an iPod accessory first, provides full slate of Internet Radio stations which can be heard through your connected TV and speakers, with minimal user configuration.
Cons: No screensaver to protect certain TVs against burn-in. Radio browsing is cumbersome and requires the use of an Ethernet cable, which you may not have near your TV; rest of on-screen interface could have used additional visual and functional polish. Audio quality at above-average levels isn’t as clean as on Apple’s considerably lower priced (but also less fully-featured) iPod and nano docks.
A lot - we underscore, a lot - has changed since Griffin first showed its TuneCenter Home Media Center for iPod ($130) back in January of this year. As originally promised for release in March, the chair-like iPod dock and remote control combination would let you connect an iPod to a television and/or home stereo, peruse its music library on the TV’s screen, and wirelessly access Internet Radio broadcasts, all for the aggressive price of $100. Given that you could spend the same dollars on a Kensington Entertainment Dock 500 (iLounge rating: B+) or a DLO HomeDock (iLounge rating: B), neither of which had the latter two features, TuneCenter was set to offer equal parts innovation and bargain.
Regrettably, in the nearly eight months that have passed since its introduction, TuneCenter has publicly stumbled several times: it has missed several announced release dates, bloated in price, and split into two different versions. The “cheaper” $130 TuneCenter, reviewed here, lacks the promised wireless feature, while a Wi-Fi ready TuneCenter Pro will sell for $150 and show up - get ready to groan - several months from now. Griffin has tried to mitigate some of these disappointments, guaranteeing its originally promised price and full feature set to people who pre-ordered TuneCenters prior to the changes. But it can’t turn back the clock on the delays: while all those months passed, competitor DLO has been actually shipping a product called HomeDock Deluxe (iLounge rating: B), which offers some similar features at a $150 price.
Before we move through the good and bad points of TuneCenter, one point about our review philosophy needs to be made clear: we have never been comfortable with the idea of paying over $100 for an iPod AV dock, and we know that virtually all of our readers feel the same way. Apple’s $29 iPod nano Dock (iLounge rating: B) and $39 Universal Dock (iLounge rating: B+) offer pristine audio quality, and you can add an Apple Remote control (iLounge rating: B) to the latter Dock for $29 more; a full kit with video and power cables sells for $99. Kensington sells a similar, great-sounding Stereo Dock kit for even less (iLounge rating: A-), so you don’t really need to spend so much to get the core audio docking features most people are looking for.
Once the magic $100 mark is crossed, as only a few companies have tried to do, expectations rise dramatically: a product needs to be best-of-class in almost all the features offered by the myriad sub-$100 docks out there, and then offer something new and great. With that standard in mind, the $130 version of TuneCenter offers two things that the best $100 docks don’t - on-TV iPod music menuing, and cabled access to Internet Radio tuning - but also has a few serious issues; it doesn’t do either of those things as well as we’d like, and it doesn’t have some of the best-of-class features found in lower-priced alternatives.
On a positive note, Griffin has done a nice job with the standard TuneCenter package. The core piece is an all-plastic gunmetal and black iPod dock, with an Apple-standard Universal Dock at its center and an Infrared sensor below that. Three white Dock Adapters are included for full-sized iPods and iPod minis, while 5G iPod and nano owners can use Apple’s packed-in Dock Adapters to resize TuneCenter’s dock for their iPods, as well. Griffin also includes a color-matched 14-button Infrared remote control, a wall power supply, and a stereo AV cable in the package. Each of these items looks pretty sharp; other than the fact that the TuneCenter dock is a little lighter than we’d hoped, it’s an impressive design - one of the coolest docks we’ve seen to date.
The back of the dock reveals four ports and a switch: S-Video and composite AV-out minijack ports are to the left of an NTSC/PAL video toggle switch, with wired Ethernet and power ports to the right. You connect the included AV cable to the dock and your television set - or supply an S-Video cable yourself and do the same - then connect the power supply to the dock so that docked iPods can charge simultaneously. Notably, TuneCenter is missing a USB or other Dock Connector port - a feature found in DLO’s HomeDock and HomeDock Deluxe, as well as each of Apple’s own iPod Docks. According to Griffin, TuneCenter was intended solely for connection to a home AV system, and not for direct computer connection, but that’s a shame: the dock looks good enough that you might want to use it with a computer. For now - more on this in a moment - it’s TV-only.
Once your TV and TuneCenter are powered on, TuneCenter’s on-screen interface - a clean blue, gray, and white design that looks clean, but isn’t as customizable as the one in DLO’s HomeDock Deluxe - appears, presenting you with two choices. The first is “iPod,” which brings up a familiar list of Playlists, Artists, Albums, Songs, Genres, Composers, Audiobooks, and Podcasts, all in plain text underneath the iPod’s name on the screen’s left-hand side. Then there’s “Internet Radio,” the feature which caused Griffin to include an Ethernet port and contemplate putting a wireless card into TuneCenter. Again, more on that point in a moment.
When you’re in the iPod menu, playing back iPod music is essentially just like it was through the iPod’s own interface, back when iPods lacked album art. Once you’ve picked from the iPod-esque menu hierarchy, TuneCenter calls up a full-screen song display. Here, title, artist, and album details are presented, along with the standard timeline indicating your place in the song, and a number for where you are in the current playlist (here, “1 of 1”). As with the iPod menu feature, these items are presented in text and without much visual pizzazz, while additional details - the current shuffle, repeat, and EQ settings - appear in tiny text at the top right corner of the screen. It’s obvious from certain details - a background with gradient, for example - that Griffin could have done a lot more with its interface than DLO did with HomeDock Deluxe’s, but it didn’t, and as a result, the simpler HomeDock Deluxe interface looks a bit better.
DLO’s interface also works a bit better. Control-wise, they’re highly similar; DLO conveniently includes a Shuffle Songs choice from its main menu, while Griffin has you toggle Shuffle Songs, Shuffle Albums, or Shuffle Off from a sub-menu, and other functional differences are similarly small. But in addition to HomeDock Deluxe’s four interface Color Theme choices, which were nice but not necessary, DLO thought to include something - a user-selectable screensaver, with user-selectable timing - which we honestly can’t believe that Griffin left out of TuneCenter. As a result, users of TVs susceptible to burn-in probably won’t want to leave TuneCenter on screen for extended periods of time - once again, for now.
TuneCenter does include a small collection of settings menus, including the aforementioned Shuffle and Repeat modes, plus a collection of different equalizer (EQ) settings mirroring the iPod’s, and a Network Setup Assistant for the Internet Radio feature. There’s good news and bad news here: the good news is that we didn’t need the Network Setup Assistant at all. We plugged TuneCenter in to our router with an Ethernet cable we supplied on our own, and its Internet Radio feature just worked. Better yet, it worked so quickly that there wasn’t any question whether it would function. While we can’t say for certain that this will be the case with every user’s home network, we were impressed by the ease with which it worked here.
The first piece of bad news is that you’re tethered to the Ethernet cord, which means that you may need to use this version of TuneCenter with something other than your favorite TV. In fact, you’ll be limited to whichever TV is within cabled distance of your router, which as indicated in our screenshots above may compromise your video experience somewhat. On one of our two entertainment systems, a projection HDTV, a bit of TuneCenter’s bottom was cut off - possibly the fault of imperfect TV calibration - but we couldn’t fix it through aspect ratio adjustments. By comparison, TuneCenter worked without issues on our newer and better widescreen LCD HDTV, which was physically inaccessible from our router. Griffin’s TuneCenter Pro should fix this by eliminating the need to depend on an Ethernet cable, but at an additional cost.
The second piece of bad news is the current interface for the Internet Radio. We were thrilled to be able to access a huge list of stations, and play Internet Radio music back from any of them with full pause functionality, all much faster than we could have expected. However, Griffin really hasn’t executed its radio listing feature properly: browsing the list of available channels is hugely cumbersome, as hundreds or thousands of stations are not sorted in any obvious way, and literally require lots of scrolling (entry by entry or page by page) to find anything specific you’re looking for. You have a good chance of finding something decent at random, but without an alphabetical list, genre, or presets feature, this potential super radio is unnecessarily crippled.
If there’s any saving grace to all of the issues we’ve noted above, it’s this: Griffin says that the unit’s firmware can and will be updated in the future. In other words, everything software-related - radio interface, lack of screensavers, and so on - could conceivably be improved to remedy the issues we’ve identified here, and the company could add additional features, as well, such as a way to control the dock from a computer using the Ethernet port. We’ll have to see what the company does here, but for now, our advice is only to buy TuneCenter if you like it the way it is today.
There’s one thing that firmware updates can’t fix, however, and that’s a low-volume buzzing noise we heard in TuneCenter’s audio signal at above-average volumes. Griffin wisely designed TuneCenter to emulate the volume attenuation feature of Apple’s Universal Dock, outputting the iPod’s audio at a default maximum level and then letting users ratchet the level down - with some compromises in audio quality - using the TuneCenter remote control. In theory, if you want “perfect” audio quality, you’d keep TuneCenter’s output level at its peak and make volume adjustments with your speakers. But whenever TuneCenter’s power is turned on, it emits a bit of noise in the audio signal - certainly not enough to bother average users, especially when connected to a TV, but discerning listeners with good speakers will notice it at higher volumes. In our view, $130 docks need to sound as good as Apple’s $29 or $39 ones, and this one falls a little short.
On a final note, Griffin’s remote handles control of the TuneCenter dock pretty well. We liked the intuitive top button layout, which in addition to up, down, left and right buttons has easy Select, Menu, and Power buttons, plus a lower level with simple play/pause, track backward/forward, volume, settings, and page up/down buttons. As with HomeDock Deluxe, you need to manually flip to Video mode to control the iPod’s movie and photo playback, a limitation that needs to be remedied by Apple. Because it uses an Infrared sensor, we were able to reliably control TuneCenter from a distance of 30 feet when there wasn’t any fluorescent light interference - such interference is uncommon in living rooms - and 17 feet when such light was involved. This is pretty good by IR remote control standards, and as good as HomeDock Deluxe, but not as impressive as the 50+ foot radio frequency (RF) remotes we’ve seen in Kensington’s Entertainment Dock 500 and other lower-priced offerings.
Despite our strong interest in iPods and their accessories, we are - like our readers - realists when it comes to product features and pricing, and in the end, our ratings are grounded by a simple question: is this item worthy of its asking price, given its features, performance, and competitors? The answer on TuneCenter is mixed. On one hand, it has a nice feature - Internet Radio - that you can’t find in any other iPod dock, and it also offers on-TV menuing for a lower price than its biggest competitor, HomeDock Deluxe. Regardless of the unit’s recent delays, price bumps, and multiple versions, these two points still weigh in favor of a pretty good grade.
However, to the extent that it doesn’t deliver pristine audio quality, lacks some features people would want, such as computer connectivity or a screensaver, and hasn’t as fully executed on its radio and on-screen menuing as many people would want, it’s not a clear-cut winner of an iPod dock, either. In our view, it’s clearly better than an OK (C-level) product, and deserving of more than a limited recommendation, yet not well-executed in the details to rate a B+ or higher. If you’re trying to decide between this and HomeDock Deluxe, consider the choice a wash unless you’re price conscious and willing to put up with a few issues. This should have been a home run for Griffin. our hope is that the TuneCenter Pro proves more worthy of the wait.