Review: iHome iDM5 Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard With Speakerphone
We were genuinely excited when iHome announced iDM5 ($130) earlier this year at CES: rather than mimicking the numerous OEM-designed portable keyboard cases everyone else was releasing for iPads, iHome developed a larger, office-class solution with a speaker system and speakerphone, and pitched it at a wider array of users -- an "Executive Space-Saver Station" that could transform almost any iOS device into something closer to a laptop. While the final version of iDM5 doesn't fully live up to the potential it seemed to have at CES, it's still a novel accessory, and some users will be satisfied with its overall performance.
iDM5 is shaped like a rounded-off, extruded triangle, measuring 7.25” deep by 2.25” tall at its peaks when closed, and a consistent 15” wide from left edge to right edge. Almost entirely made from matte black plastic, iDM5 also includes a translucent black keyboard cover that flips upwards when you’re ready to type, adding roughly 6” of additional height to the back as an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch stand. The stand is capable of accommodating encased or bare devices, but features no soft padding of any sort, which is somewhat unusual for an accessory with even passive stand functionality. That said, there’s no issue whatsoever just placing any iOS device inside on your choice of landscape or portrait orientations; a plastic lip above the keyboard will hold it in place, though you have no ability to adjust the angle of recline, nor to access the Dock Connector port of an iPhone or iPod touch in portrait orientation. An iPad looks most natural in landscape mode here, with its Dock Connector port off to the left, but it can also be turned upside down for top access to the Dock Connector port if necessary.
There’s little doubt that this system was built with wireless convenience in mind: once you make a single, super-easy Bluetooth connection with iDM5, you can access the keyboard, speakers, and speakerphone without ever having to connect anything to your iOS device. The unit’s left and right sides both feature metallic perforated speaker grilles, complete with the two total speaker drivers and SRS TruBass optimization we’ve come to expect from most iHome audio systems. Power, volume, play/pause, and Bluetooth buttons are on the far right side, the former and latter with internal illumination for status indications. Below the Bluetooth button are a switch to toggle between Bluetooth and a rear aux-in port for audio input, plus a small microphone hole labeled “mic” for speakerphone functionality. iPhones support the mic for phone calls; other iOS devices can use it for FaceTime and certain other apps.
iDM5’s strongest performance is in the audio department, where iHome has the most expertise. While the integrated speakers aren’t spectacular, and suffer a little from projecting their sound to the left and right rather than directly forward, they perform audio at twice or more the peak volume level of any iPad—considerably louder than the speakers in any iPhone or iPod touch—and with considerably richer midbass/bass performance than any iOS device. Though you can easily find standalone speakers in this price range with more power, range, and fidelity, you’ll be hard-pressed to locate one with an integrated keyboard, or microphone performance as good as iDM5’s: callers reported that we sounded considerably better when making phone calls through the iDM5 than we did through even the iPhone 4S, and they sounded a lot better, too. Both sides noted fuller-bodied, less distant sound on their ends; whatever iHome is doing with its latest echo-canceling microphones is working a lot better than with its earlier Bluetooth speakerphones.
While most of the details above are positive, there are some less than thrilling details to report, as well, and they came as last-minute surprises to us. The first and most serious is the keyboard’s performance, which we’d classify as underwhelming. Unlike its numerous portability-focused rivals, which have spent the past two years evolving their iPad keyboards from squishy rubber keys to increasingly advanced but still cramped hard plastic alternatives, iHome didn’t have to compromise at all for iDM5: the chassis has the space for a full-sized desktop-class keyboard, and iHome’s is almost identical in width and height to the wired and wireless keyboards Apple uses, complete with very similar-looking keys. There’s even a full row of function keys, oddly missing the brightness controls and some other iOS-specific buttons that we’d expected to find, though there are buttons for the virtual keyboard toggle, track controls, and speaker muting, as well as another set of play/pause and volume buttons—the first time we can recall a keyboard having two sets of those keys while omitting other iOS functions.
We noted during testing that the keys started off stiff, an issue that improved a little over time, but also found that the keyboard was seriously off regarding repeat and multiple keypress timing, an issue that will persist unless you adjust your typing by slowing down to accommodate it. Because of the key repeat/multiple keypress issue, fast touch typists will find that the iDM5 appears to miss key inputs—double letters and vowels most often in our testing—resulting in the need to frequently backspace to correct errors, itself an atypically slow process. With a Mac or PC, these sorts of issues can generally be corrected on the software side, but iOS devices don’t currently have keypress-tweaking options. As a result, typing on the iDM5 may represent an improvement for users who found their fingers too cramped on small iOS devices, but it’s closer to par with the virtual keyboards on iPads, and nowhere near as capable as on the best Bluetooth keyboards we’ve tested.
Though this isn’t entirely surprising, it’s worth mentioning that the device’s marketing as both tablet- and smartphone-friendly—implied as potentially simultaneous by the packaging—is really more of a one-or-the-other proposition, unless you’re willing to provide your own cabling. iDM5 can pair with more than one Bluetooth device, but since it can’t make connections with two devices at once, you can’t use it to type on your iPad while streaming music or phone calls from an iPhone. That’s why the aux-in switch is there: supply your own 3.5mm audio cable and you can hear your iPhone or iPod’s music through the speakers while using the iPad and keyboard. Otherwise, the Bluetooth keyboard, speaker, and speakerphone functionality will all work with the same iOS device.
The last issue we noted in iDM5 was USB charging. In addition to a wall adapter, iHome includes two USB ports on the left side of the system, each complete with oddly marked switches—a three-position A/B/gear switch on the left, and a two-position A/B switch on the right. It turns out that the “gear” position lets the left USB port accept yet-to-be-released firmware updates, presumably from connected iOS devices, but there’s no information on how the A and B positions are supposed to work besides the following odd manual language: “if the device is NOT charging, try moving the USB Mode Switch to a different position (A or B).” While this was probably done to enable iDM5 to charge non-Apple devices, this ambiguity is somewhat odd.
Ambiguity continues with the unit’s support for iPad charging. Despite iDM5’s obvious iPad focus—including pictures of an iPad 2 that appear on the packaging—iHome surprisingly makes no guarantees that either of the USB ports will deliver full-speed charging for iPads, and the unit doesn’t appear to do so; we noticed that a third-generation iPad running at full brightness actually showed a drop in power while connected to iDM5. Earlier, less power-hungry iPads may not have as much of a problem during charging, but we were definitely taken off guard by iDM5’s lack of full support for the devices it was clearly designed to accommodate. Both ports do appear to support 1-Amp charging, appropriate for iPhones and iPods, with slower-speed iPad charging. As with audio input, you have to supply the charging cables yourself, and they’ll most likely look a little odd by comparison with the integrated Dock Connectors found in most of iHome’s iOS-ready accessories.
Overall, iHome’s iDM5 is more of a mixed bag than we’d initially expected: it’s a solid concept that’s been let down by less than ideal execution. While the speaker and speakerphone performance were at least as good as we were expecting, and the stand functionality is acceptable for an accessory of this sort, the keyboard responsiveness and USB charging performance were both disappointing—enough so that we’re really hoping that iHome will address them in the near future. It’s possible that a simple firmware update will be enough to improve keyboard responsiveness, and if that happens, we’ll gladly revisit our rating. For the time being, however, iDM5 rates only a limited recommendation: iOS users should consider it if they feel that the combination of wireless speaker, speakerphone, and keyboard functionality will outweigh the less than ideal typing and charging it delivers.