Review: iHome iA5 App Enhanced Alarm Clock for iPod and iPhone
Having reviewed at least two dozen different iHome alarm clocks over their five-year run in stores, we could easily have tired of the numerous iterations long ago. They are, after all, plastic shells with clocks, speakers, and alarm hardware inside, most with far more in common than not. But unlike many developers, iHome has continuously updated its products enough to make each one interesting on its own merits, and its just-released iA5 ($100) "app-enhanced" alarm clock is arguably the biggest break yet with its past offerings. Used with older iPods, iA5 is simply a radio-less, single-alarm design with an unusually simple clock on one side of its face, and a single speaker on the other. It doesn't compare in integrated features or value with the company's recently-released $100 dual-alarm, AM/FM-equipped iP90, or for that matter, virtually any other product the company has sold at that price point since 2005. But when used with an iPhone or iPod touch, it does something that no other iHome or third-party alarm clock accessory does as of today: it communicates with an App Store application to radically expand the simple system's capabilities.
We’ll save Click Wheel iPod users a read through the rest of this review by cutting straight to the point: if your Apple device can’t run apps, skip iA5 unless you’re willing to pay a premium for the unit’s interesting design, which looks much like an iP90 sliced diagonally in half as it was sinking into water. For what it’s worth, we really like the black, dark gray, and silver design a lot—only a nicer silver bezel material would have glammed it up—but iHome has packed a lot more hardware into earlier, same-priced models. In addition to the iP90, iHome makes many other alarm clocks—including some really nice new 2010 products—with more integrated features than iA5, even at lower price points. A clock, one alarm, a speaker, plus an iPod dock aren’t worth $100 on their own, and that’s all Click Wheel users will get for the asking price.
But on initial connection to a plugged-in iA5, iPhone and iPod touch users are automatically directed to a free download of iHome+Sleep, an ambitious and generally very impressively designed application that enables iA5 to literally turn off its own clock screen and await additional alarm instructions from the connected device. iHome+Sleep does so much—and is intended for multiple iHome devices, including the upcoming iA100—that it was worthy of its own separate review, which explains its numerous features. It wouldn’t be fair to review iA5 without taking iHome+Sleep into account, but iA5 also needs to be considered on its own merits.
The single biggest factor working in iA5’s favor as a standalone device is its simplicity. iHome’s box contains the iA5 unit, a wall adapter, and nothing else—zero Universal Dock Adapters, external antennas, or other parts to fuss with. Similarly gone are the dials, rows of buttons, and remote controls of most iHome models, replaced here by a set of two big buttons on top and four smaller ones underneath the dock on the unit’s face. In addition to multifunction + and - buttons that let you change the volume and set the time, there are “bedtime” and “wakeup” buttons that activate the sleep timer and disable the buzzing alarm. A big iHome logo on top turns the power on and off, with a wide “ZZZ” button as a snooze bar and screen brightness adjuster. Once you’ve set the system up with its single alarm, these are all the buttons you’ll need.
But the set-up is a little less satisfying than with other iHome models. Hidden behind iA5’s plastic mesh face is a deliberately blocky clock that cycles through only four levels of illumination—half that of otherwise comparable iHome models—and similarly lacks for the date and other details commonly found on iHome’s $100 units. An alarm icon appears if you press the “alarm” button hidden on the unit’s thin back edge, with three additional buttons there to set the clock, change the unit’s bass and treble equalization, and toggle the display’s interaction with the iHome+Sleep app. They’re all easy enough to use, but iHome ships iA5 with its clock backup battery unplugged—a break with past tradition—so you’ll actually need to set the clock on first use. We found that the iA5’s automatic clock-setting sync button initially didn’t grab the correct time from a connected iPod touch, but we couldn’t reproduce this problem in subsequent tests, even after pulling the plug and battery and retrying the experiment.
Time-syncing using the iHome+Sleep app worked perfectly out of the gate, however, and if you’re using an iPhone or iPod touch, everything from the integrated alarm to the bass and treble levels can be adjusted from within the app rather than with the unit’s own buttons. A beep from iA5 signals that it has received and accepted the app’s command. As noted in the separate iHome+Sleep app review, the application expands iA5’s alarm capabilities—when the iPhone or iPod touch is docked, and the application is running—to feature multiple alarms, programmable to a greater degree of flexibility and specificity than any prior iHome or competing alarm clock, down to the creation of alarm-specific playlists, whatever days of the week you want the alarm to run, and “nap” alarms that combine music playback with a sleep timer and an alarm at the end. Importantly, these additional software-based alarms will not function when the app’s closed, or when the iPhone/iPod touch isn’t docked with the iA5, though the iA5’s single integrated alarm will continue to function with or without a device connected. The app also displays current and next-day weather, tracks your sleep, tweets and Facebooks for you, and offers numerous other features. It’s surprisingly powerful and generally quite impressive. More on that in a moment.
From a sonic standpoint, iA5 offers no real surprises. Its single speaker can be turned up to a maximum volume level of 40, which is shy of room-filling, but roughly twice as loud as necessary for regular, safe listening at level 20 or 25. If it wasn’t for iA5’s app compatibility, we’d describe the sound quality as only “acceptable” or “decent” given the price; it’s bassy with just enough treble not to miss most of a song’s high notes, though there are the sorts of hints of evident distortion found in most compact speakers at or below the $100 mark. The system reaches its presentation apex right around volume level 25, and is set by default to +3 bass, +2 treble, sounding flat if it’s at 0/0, and awful at its minimum -5/-5 settings. Pushing the bass or treble up to their maximum +5 settings results in distortion, so it’s better to just leave things as they are. Out of the box, iA5 sounds just fine.
Pricing aside, the only issues we had with iA5 were two in number: the dock, specifically, the Dock Connector, and the electronic interaction with the app. Several companies have designed front-mounting iPod and iPhone docks with slightly extended Dock Connectors that enable encased devices to be mounted without any additional screwing around, but iHome’s design leaves the connector flush with its small docking surface, so encased iPods and iPhones may—depending on the case—have connectivity problems. We tested two cases that generally have no issues working in Universal Dock-equipped speakers and clocks, and found that they did not reliably make connections with the iA5: sometimes they did, sometimes we needed to press down firmly on the iPhone or iPod to confirm the connection—evident only when the battery icon shows that charging is taking place. A slightly elevated connector could have eliminated this problem altogether.
We’re not sure how much is the fault of the iA5 dock design, Apple’s accessory authentication methodology, or the iHome+Sleep app, but in any case, iA5’s interaction with the app leaves a little to be desired. In an ideal world, you’d plug an iPhone or iPod touch into iA5, the app would launch automatically by default—subject to your choice to disable it—and iA5’s integrated clock would fade out in favor of the connected device’s screen. The latter feature is actually there, but you need to manually launch the app to make it happen, and if the connection between the iPhone or iPod and iA5 isn’t tight, the app and accessory mightn’t communicate properly. When they’re working together, there’s a brief authentication delay before iA5’s clock displays a logo showing that it’s aware the app is running, then a fade out, fading back in whenever the app is turned off, physically disconnected, or merely on a non-clock settings screen. In our testing experiences with the iA5 and app, noted within our separate review of the app, we found iHome+Sleep to be less than completely stable when gathering Facebook and Twitter updates, as well as when creating “Sleep Cards” for programming alarms, though it otherwise ran without problems. Bug fixes and other updates to the app will surely improve its functionality, and hopefully also its reliability, going forward.
To make one last point before we close out this review, it needs to be said that our evaluation and rating of iA5 attempts to fairly address a reality of the nascent “app-enhanced accessory” business model—the fact that an app such as iHome+Sleep is, for the convenience of users, being “given away” as a free download before or after the related accessory’s purchase, despite the fact that it cost money to develop and could have been charged for. There are clearly kinks in this business model that still need to be worked out for the benefit for both developers and consumers, but in any case, judging iA5’s value strictly on the basis of its hardware and utility to all users—Click Wheel iPod owners included—isn’t entirely reasonable given that it was designed specifically to benefit from the complex application, and would probably not exist at all if the app wasn’t available. That said, our impression is that there’s a roughly $40 price premium being charged for iA5 beyond the value of its hardware and design, whereas a $10 premium would have been more appropriate under the circumstances. The absence of a remote control in particular may bug some users, given that one has been tossed in with virtually every $100 iHome unit for years now.
Overall, iA5 is a good new start for iHome: an attractive-looking, simplified alarm clock that gets most of the way towards mingling the computing and app power of the iPhone or iPod touch with a connected accessory, with only minor software and hardware speed bumps. To the extent that iA5 has greater potential than any of its predecessors to grow in appeal over time thanks to improvements in the iHome+Sleep application, the software’s worth watching on its own merits, and could easily benefit from an iPhone OS 4.0 update that enables accessories to launch apps. We’ll be equally anxious to see how iHome evolves the low end of the iA family hardware over time, and very much hope that it starts with some of the smart design elements this model has introduced into its product line.