Review: iHome iHome+Sleep App
To say that the alarm clock experts at iHome have taken a big step forward with their iHome+Sleep application (Free) for the iPhone and iPod touch is an understatement: the only question is whether they have bitten off more than they can chew. For five years, the company has dominated the iPod and iPhone alarm business with a series of good to great plastic-shelled accessories that all functioned in generally the same way, containing their own radio, alarm, and/or clock hardware rather than depending on Apple's devices for anything but optional access to their music libraries. This month, with the new clock radio iA5, iHome officially enters a new age in which its iPhone OS software will certainly augment and possibly replace the integrated capabilities of its hardware; this review looks at the iHome+Sleep app, while a subsequent one will cover the iA5 accessory.
iA5 and its more powerful upcoming brother iA100 are on the surface radically simplified versions of earlier iHome alarm clocks: each contains a screen with a clock and an alarm indicator, speaker hardware, and a streamlined collection of buttons to handle volume, power, and clock setting features. Use either with old iPods and it’ll seem more or less like a prior iHome unit, cosmetically redesigned. But plug in the iPhone or iPod touch for the first time and the iHome+Sleep will download, by default automatically disabling the accessory’s clock screen to replace it with something new and arguably better: a clock custom-designed to fit Apple’s 3.5” touchscreens.
iHome could have followed the same route as virtually every other company that has created a clock application for the App Store, offering a single-screen clock with a simple alarm and some flashy graphics to animate the clock’s motion. Nothing’s to say that more visual pizzazz would hurt a future version of iHome+Sleep, but that’s not what was done here. Instead, the company’s clock has one available visual customization—background art—which can come from your iPhone or iPod touch Photos library. Additionally, the time is always presented with the device in vertical orientation, which limits its size but offers plenty of other screen real estate for other features. Yes, iHome+Sleep is packed with other features. A slider underneath the clock lets you catch up on whatever updates your Facebook and/or Twitter accounts have gathered while you’ve slept. Information on the clock accessory’s integrated alarm is presented, alternating with a list of additional alarms that you can create as “cards” from within the app. Weather is presented as sliding “Current,” “Tonight,” and “Tomorrow” panes at the top of the screen. And where appropriate or desired, a play/forward/back window appears to let you control the music you’ve designated for waking up or falling to sleep.
This much needs to be said up front: these new features are just some of many in an impressive list, and iHome deserves commendation both for aiming so high with this feature set and for generally succeeding in implementing them all. iHome+Sleep is currently at version 1.1.3 and still needs some work, but whomever the company selected as its iPhone developer was way beyond the level of ambition and competence we’ve come to expect from app makers in general and clock developers in specific. iHome+Sleep gets an A for effort, without any doubt.
That said, the application’s sheer breadth—and its need to interface with Dock Connector-based iHome accessories—has left a lot to be polished. Introducing a new and arguably confusing clock control paradigm, it offers “Sleep Cards” rather than just plain old “Alarms,” referring to card-shaped windows that are completely loaded with options—everyday, weekend, weekday, and even custom day-of-week alarm repetition, minute-adjustable snooze timers, programmable iPod music playlists, bedtime and wakeup reminder text, and the separate abilities to post your advance-typed messages automatically to Facebook and/or Twitter. This is a lot more functionality than any iHome or other iPod/iPhone alarm clock has ever offered from a single screen.
But it’s also a lot more clicking and setup for the user, especially when you consider that these settings can be specified for multiple “Sleep Cards”—both alarms, and now also for “naps,” which are designed to help you fall asleep to music, rest during a sleep timer, then wake you to a buzzer or music as you prefer. Naps can have their own Facebook and Twitter updates, and so on. In every case, you have to confirm the social media messages before they’re sent, click on the reminders to close them when they’re presented, and navigate your iPod playlists with the aforementioned on-screen buttons. iHome+Sleep feels like it needs a simplified mode for dummies, but then, you can always ignore all of its settings and just use the ones on the iA5 or iA100, instead.
Even putting the Sleep Cards aside, the number of settings and other features found within the iHome+Sleep app is pretty incredible. You can set the level of your iPod or iPhone’s screen dimmer, change the clock’s background art, and even control the connected iHome accessory’s own settings from within the app, adjusting its treble and bass levels, individual alarm or alarms, its sleep timer, and its integrated clock—we found that the app actually did a better job of synchronizing the connected iPod touch’s time to the iA5 clock than the sync button on the clock itself. Another later of content hidden within the app is called “Stats,” tracking your sleep cycles, hours of sleep, bedtime and wakeup time, favorite albums, artists, and genres to sleep and wake up to, and averages for all of the sleep stats by day, week, month, and year. For some, all of these features will be geeky or creepy; others, like us, will just find their inclusion to be somewhat amazing.
As noted above, iHome+Sleep still needs some work—we found that the app crashes sometimes without explanation and needs to be manually reloaded, an issue that seemed to occur more in the process of gathering Facebook and Twitter updates and changing Sleep Card settings than elsewhere in the program; its general stability for putting you to sleep or waking you up is less likely to be an issue than an unexpected crash before or afterwards. Our impression is that there are still some communications issues yet to be ironed out with the iA5, as well, as the interaction between the two devices’ screens and the app’s ability to control the iA5 hardware are occasionally glitchy due to what seems like less than perfect synchronizations between the iPod or iPhone and the accessory. These are non-trivial problems, particularly for a clock application. Thankfully, iHome’s working on updates: in addition to bug fix releases, the company says that forthcoming version 1.3 will add worldwide weather support and downloadable instruction manuals to the prior feature set.
Thus, what iHome+Sleep offers now is an impressive collection of features that truly constitute a next-generation alarm clock, based on both the considerable horsepower of the iPhone and some impressive development work on iHome’s side. What’s needed next is additional stability on the app’s side—a non-negotiable feature for users who depend upon their alarms for work and other events—and an early toggle to let expert users fish through the features while helping everyone else to learn how to use what’s here. This is a good start for iHome, and a far better application than we’ve seen from any other hardware accessory maker to date, but the next layer of polish will be the one that determines whether it’s worth relying upon in place of a traditional, app-unassisted alarm clock.