Review: iHome iP90 Dual-Alarm Clock Radio for iPod + iPhone
Though iHome now sells so many different iPod and iPhone alarm clocks that we can hardly keep track of them all, the sweet spot in its lineup has for four and a half years been whatever its $100 model has been -- in 2005, that was the iH5, which was followed two and a half years later by the heavily tweaked iH9, and then last year by the nearly identical but iPhone-ready iP9. For 2010, the new model is iP90 ($100), which represents the biggest set of changes to an iHome product at this price level in years. It remains a dual-alarm, AM/FM clock radio and preserves all of the functionality of its predecessors, while making a number of improvements.
The most obvious changes from iP9 to iP90 are cosmetic, and there are a lot of them, starting with an overhaul of the entire casing. Gone is the multi-ridge surface that began with the iH5 and continued through so many other iHome models, replaced by a shape that could best be described as a bulging box—a rectangle with gentle curves rather than angular lines on almost all of its surfaces. It’s not fancy, but it looks quite nice, and borrows the best features from prior iHome designs. Only the front and back are completely flat, with a silver plastic ring across the otherwise black mesh-grilled face, and a clean, ventilated back that preserves roughly the same buttons, ports, and DST switch as before. All that’s been added to the rear is a secondary feature for the rear clock adjustment button, enabling the iP90 to quickly grab the current time and date from your iPhone or iPod in the event that the clock loses both wall power and its included twin AA battery backup.
More substantial changes, and similarly welcome ones, have been made to iP90’s top surface. The Universal Dock remains, with three included inserts for current iPhone, iPod touch, and iPod nano models, but the iP9’s buttons and dials have undergone a significant transformation. Volume and tuning dials—the weakest link in the prior iHome units we’ve tested—are gone, replaced by oversized rounded square buttons that match the ten smaller square buttons resting inbetween them. iP90’s buttons are the same as iP9’s, and are still illuminated along with the front screen, but they’ve been rearranged: the power and play/pause buttons once found in the dials are now alongside radio presets, two alarm setting buttons, an EQ button, a radio button, and a sleep button; the old “Snooze/Dimmer” bar has been lengthened and moved forwards a little. If we have any complaint about the new button design, it’s solely in that bar, which makes a slightly louder noise when depressed directly in the center. This is a very modest issue.
Another noteworthy change is in the front screen, which comes from iHome’s more expensive iP88, and remains capable of cycling through 8 dimming levels. iHome has described the new screen as bigger than the iP9’s, but a better way of understanding it is as a more effective use of space: the time digits are bigger, and though the calendar details are a little smaller, you now get the abbreviated weekday, month, and calendar day rather than just the latter two. There’s similarly just a little more explanatory detail when you’re programming the dual alarms, which continue to offer “7-5-2” (every day, weekday, weekend) settings, plus buzzer, radio, and iPod/playlist wake features; the functionality remains the same.
Sonically, the iP90 borrows the iP88’s slightly larger speakers as replacements for the iP9’s, a change that results in modestly lower lows and highs than the iP9—a little more bass presence, and a little less of an edge on the treble, in our testing, plus slight differences in 3-D spatialization—though the sonic signatures are so similar that most users would strain to notice the differences at all. For iPod and iPhone listening, the iP9 and iP90 might as well be the same, but there’s been a big change in the volume level of the radio tuner: FM stations that previously blasted at a volume level of 25, sounding considerably louder than the connected iPod or iPhone, are now much closer to sonically equivalent with Apple’s devices in amplitude; by contrast, AM stations seem to be considerably quieter than the FM ones, with a higher ratio of static to signal.
The only major oddity in the iP90 is one that took a couple months for the company to properly resolve. Initially, iHome included a remote—model Rx1—that lacked iPod play/pause/track controls, apparently the result of a decision to rush iP90 into stores a little earlier than expected. Customers who received the Rx1 will find an insert inside the package that they’re eligible for a “complimentary upgrade” to a better remote via a link on iHome’s web site. It’s the smaller of the two remotes shown in our photos.
In late April, iHome replaced that remote with model Rz1, a candybar design that looks and feels a lot like the deluxe remotes the company has included in its higher-end clock radios. This one adds 9 more buttons, largely iPod navigation controls, with shuffle, repeat, enter, menu, play/pause, and arrows. On the surface, it looks like a major improvement over the Rx1, but our testing found Rz1-to-IP90 communications to be unimpressive—even at close distances of fewer than 10 feet, without any lights on in a room, Rz1 sometimes needed two or three mushy button presses to register on the IP90. Moreover, the remote needed to be basically straight with IP90’s face in order to work; at greater distances, and at off-angles, the remote didn’t work. The summary: Rz1 looks nice, but it’s the weakest link in an otherwise great package for the $100 price.
Overall, iHome’s iP90 is a highly competent reworking of the company’s prior mid-range dual alarm clocks: when compared against options available a year or two years ago, it’s a big step forward in terms of functionality and design quality for its $100 price tag, even if it seems like a smaller, evolutionary step by reference to iHome’s complete lineup. The big issue here was and is the remote control, which in prior form was limited in features, and in current form is weaker in performance than it really should be—the single biggest caveat to a flat A rating. Although it would be easy to let this issue remain unresolved, as lower-end alarm clocks don’t always have fantastic remote controls, our hope is that iHome will make the necessary further adjustments to Rz1 or the iP90 to enable them to more reliably communicate with each other.