Review: Keyspan TuneView for iPod
Pros: A combination of an iPod dock with a powerful, color-screened remote control capable of closely emulating the iPod’s audio and video menus, enabling users to access any song from an iPod’s catalog at any time, with clean sound. Works reliably and quickly from distances of over 100 feet away, includes audio cable, USB cable, and wall charger.
Cons: High price will deter all but hard-core users. Button-based menu scrolling can be tedious. Despite S-Video support,
composite video out is not supported by dock; cable must be purchased separately and connected to iPod’s top. Cannot use remote’s menu system and iPod’s own controls at same time, but can use remote in Simple mode with iPod shuffle-like button access. Power off (sleep) feature hidden in a menu.
As we noted in our review of ABT’s previously-released iJet Two-Way LCD Remote for iPod (iLounge rating: C+), the idea of an LCD screen-equipped remote for the iPod has been a holy grail for some time now: while it’s fine to be able to skip forward or backward, iPod shuffle-style, through a home stereo-connected iPod’s library from a distance, many people have wanted to have true iPod-style menu access, and traditional remotes just can’t do that. Unlike iJet Two-Way, KeySpan’s TuneView for iPod ($179) comes admirably close to achieving this challenging goal, but at an iPod-rivaling price that will appeal only to hard-core iPod enthusiasts and/or wealthy users. Post-Review Update: A firmware update released by Keyspan subsequent to our review has remedied one of the issues noted herein; details are provided at the end of this review.
The Concept: Why Would an iPod Remote Need a Screen?
Today, the iPod remote market consists of several alternatives: Infrared screenless remote controls, Radio Frequency (RF) screenless remote controls, Bluetooth wireless home stereo kits, and RF screened remote controls. All of these options are designed to let you control your iPod when it’s performing audio and/or video through speakers, a television, or something other than its headphone port and screen, but they offer somewhat different types of experiences.
The first two types of screenless remotes are designed to do one thing: give you limited, iPod shuffle-style access to an iPod’s music library from a distance. Infrared remotes let you control your iPod while you’re in the same room, but at a distance of 15-30 feet away; RF remotes can extend this distance to as far as 150 feet away, but work most reliably within 60-100 foot distances. Companies such as ABT, Apple, Belkin, and Griffin generally sell these sorts of iPod remotes for between $30 and $50; some now include iPod docks and sell for between $70 and $100.
For obvious reasons, iPod shuffle-style controls aren’t ideal when you’re trying to find a song on a 30- or 80-Gigabyte iPod’s library, or even a smaller iPod nano library, so developers have been working on ways to let you have superior remote control of your stereo-docked iPod. Prior to late 2006, the options took a different direction from TuneView, instead using Bluetooth technology to broadcast an iPod’s music wirelessly to a stereo receiver unit. With devices such as Griffin’s $100 BlueTrip (iLounge rating: B+), you could use your iPod as a super remote control for your stereo, sending any tune you want to a stereo connected up to 33 feet away. Many developers feel that the iPod is its own best remote control, and that the challenge is solely to insure that its sound is faithfully replicated through speakers connected wirelessly. iPod battery drain and distance concerns aside, we tend to agree with this, and though currently available options for the iPod fall just shy of CD quality sound, much of the music on iPods falls short as well.
TuneView and ABT’s iJet Two-Way approach the situation differently, and to their credit, from the angle of superior performance. Both are intended to link a Dock Connector-equipped 4G, 5G, mini or nano iPod directly to a stereo system, eliminating concerns over audio fidelity, as well as offer at least triple the distance performance of Bluetooth systems, plus on-screen navigation of the iPod’s content. Both systems enable you to walk one room, two rooms, or even a flight of stairs away, and still control the iPod’s playback - conceptually great if you’re listening from outdoors, distance DJing for a party, or just moving around throughout your home. Though ambitious, the biggest problem with iJet Two-Way was that the quality of its navigation experience was marginal, which we found unacceptable given its high price. By contrast, TuneView is even more expensive, but it virtually replicates the iPod menu navigation experience; while not perfect, both its user experience and overall package are substantially better values for the dollar.
The Package: Contents and Omissions
When it was first announced some months ago, TuneView was going to be sold in separate pieces: a color LCD-equipped RF remote control for $99 and a full iPod dock for $79. Since they wouldn’t do much good without one another, Keyspan now sells both pieces in the same box, and includes an minijack-to-RCA-style audio cable, USB cable, and wall charger. Together, these parts allow you to connect your iPod to a home stereo system - or, with your own S-Video cable, a TV - and have complete, high-fidelity access to iPod music and video content from up to 150 feet away. You can attach the wall charger to the USB cable to charge your iPod while in the dock - the combination is a bit unwieldy in shape for packed power strips - or detach the charger and use the dock for iPod synchronization with your computer.
Other than its black coloration, Keyspan’s TuneView Dock is highly similar in design and limitations to the company’s earlier AV Dock for iPod: there’s an iPod Universal Dock well in the center, and three black Dock Adapters in the box; today’s iPods include white inserts that will alternately fit inside. The front face has a single LED that glows whenever a command is entered on the remote; on the back, there’s a port labeled Line Out, another for S-Video Out, and finally, a USB port for use with the included cable and charger.
It’s worth a note that TuneView needn’t have come with a full-fledged dock - ABT’s iJet Two-Way includes only a Dock Connecting adapter that fits into many other dock or speaker systems. While modestly more limiting - if your iPod-specific speaker system is one of the rare ones without an auxiliary-in audio port, you can’t use it with TuneView - Keyspan’s decision to include a dock here was ultimately the right one. Without a separately purchased dock of some sort, an iPod connected to iJet Two-Way ultimately won’t look right or charge while in use; TuneView’s solution handles both of these concerns. It’s also ready to be attached with only small inconveniences to any existing stereo you may have, or a home AV system.
Regrettably, TuneView neither includes nor allows direct-to-dock connection of a composite video cable - its Line Out port is solely for audio, and doesn’t carry a video signal. As with the AV Dock for iPod, you’ll need to go out and buy a $19 Apple (or third-party) AV Cable, then connect it to the top of your iPod if you want to output video, or go out and buy your own S-Video cable if you want to use TuneView with a TV set. We were willing to forgive these omissions in the AV Dock because of its extremely aggressive pricing, but for $179, we’d expect to find both a video cable in the box and composite video-out support in the TuneView dock - every other docking solution in its price range includes both. When asked about this issue, Keyspan said that the feedback it had received did “not support the idea that video is important, or that a video cable is expected.” You can decide for yourself whether this is correct; as we told Keyspan, we strongly disagree.
TuneView Remote: Innovative and Powerful Features
It’s no surprise that the star of the TuneView package is its included 10-button, color-screened remote control - the part that required a lot of innovative engineering, and most contributed to the package’s high price point. Keyspan deserves considerable praise for what it’s accomplished here - a design that provides nearly complete iPod menu navigation without directly duplicating the famous Click Wheel, and tries its best to remedy those problems introduced by the Click Wheel’s omission. While the gray metallic plastic front casing’s not gorgeous, it’s acceptable, and feels comfortable in your hand.
In place of the Click Wheel is a joypad-style circle with 9 buttons. Up and Down are for menu scrolling, left and right for track backwards and forwards. Upper left is play/pause, bottom left is Menu, upper right is volume up, lower right is volume down. The center button selects menu options, much like the iPod’s center Action button. We won’t say that we prefer this interface to the iPod’s - it actually shows just how hard it is to fit all of the iPod’s commands into buttons on a regular controller - but apart from its scrolling speed (noted below), it’s good enough for what it does.
What will really grab your attention is the six-line (plus header) display, which features menus that are aesthetically halfway between the interfaces of iPod nanos and earlier black-and-white iPod minis. With a Chicago-like black font, a blue scroll bar, and blue play/pause icons, the menu options of a full-sized iPod are found on TuneView virtually intact - minus Photos, Extras, and Settings - and the screen looks close enough to the iPod’s in all respects to serve as a near-perfect replacement.
In all ways, the intuitively-marked buttons and nice screen combine to form an interface that’s far superior to the two-line display found in ABT’s iJet Two-Way. Unlike iJet Two-Way, we handed it off to a non-techie iPod owner who had never used it, and she figured it out within seconds with only the slightest of complaints. Apart from a system power on/off button - a “sleep” option’s hidden in a menu - all that’s missing is the ability to scroll quickly or proportionately through long lists of songs with something approximating the iPod’s touch-sensitive Click Wheel. While ABT dealt with this by enabling fast scrolling when its buttons were held down - an idea we’d like to see in a firmware update here - Keyspan tries to handle that omission with a dedicated Wizard button, separate from the larger circle of buttons, which provides “Go to Start,” “Go to End,” and “Go to Middle” options whenever you’re in a list, so if you’re tired of scrolling with the medium-speed joypad, you can pick your preferred starting place and go from there. In practice, despite this feature and TuneView’s automatic shift from line-by-line scrolling to page-by-page scrolling, we still found movement through long lists to be somewhat tedious.
In Now Playing mode, you can still go forward or reverse through songs, but there aren’t any colored progress bars or album art, only song/artist/album text, a countdown timer, and a total duration timer. Though the Dock and Remote both include USB ports for future firmware upgrades, and will apparently benefit from improved performance as a consequence, Keyspan has said that Album Art is unlikely to appear on current-generation versions of the remote, and that it will be added in a subsequent version of the hardware in the future. For now, we’re more than OK without it.
Rather than duplicating the iPod’s own settings screen, TuneView includes its own Setup menu, which is limited but still somewhat useful. It currently lets you change the remote’s language from English to Spanish, French, or German, plus initiate shuffle and repeat features. Shuffle can be switched off, to songs, or to albums, and Repeat to all, one, or off.
The aforementioned Wizard button contains additional features, such as the in-menu scroll assistant, a Mute feature, a Sleep mode for the system, and a remote control Mode toggle; it wouldn’t have hurt to include the shuffle and repeat modes under the one-touch Wizard button, as well, or to allow a full-system Sleep/power off mode to be initiated simply by holding down the Wizard or Play/Pause button for several seconds.
TuneView Performance: Control, Video, and Responsiveness Concerns
Despite its many positive features, TuneView has some performance limitations and oddities that prospective buyers may want to be aware of. For instance, when the remote is in TuneView (iPod-like menu) mode, the iPod’s own display and controls can’t be used at all - instead, the Click Wheel is locked, and Keyspan’s logo appears on an OK to Disconnect screen. However, unlike ABT’s similarly limited iJet Two-Way, TuneView offers a Simple Remote mode that turns its remote into a menuless iPod shuffle-style commander, restoring the iPod’s own interface to full functionality in the process. We were impressed that Keyspan anticipated and worked around this limitation.
The only odd thing we noticed about this mode was that it keeps the remote’s screen on anyway, draining the remote’s battery in the process. Keyspan says that the remote’s included two AA batteries will last for 4-5 months, a claim we can’t yet verify, but find rather amazing given the nice backlighting and clarity of the included screen. Offering a dimmed display during Simple Remote mode might further improve the unit’s battery longevity.
When the remote’s in Simple Remote mode, the screen displays this message, and when it’s not getting a reliable connection to the dock, it puts up the red icon shown on the screen above to warn you that you’ll need to move closer to restore full reliability or functionality. If the dock’s fully unplugged, the remote will display its current firmware revision, nothing else, and if the dock and remote are completely unpaired - thankfully, a rarity - you’ll need to press a small button on the bottom of the dock, and potentially reset the remote, which quickly re-pairs them.
On a second and more serious note, though we were initially very enthusiastic about TuneView’s video-related remote control features, it didn’t do so well in real-world performance*. The good news is that a connected iPod displays video cleanly, and can be navigated at least as well as with all of the other remote control solutions out there now - sometimes better. It was a pleasant surprise to discover our full lists of movies, music videos, TV shows and video podcasts sitting in a 5G iPod-style Video menu alongside all of our audio content, and even better, to find that searching these lists seemed exactly like using the 5G iPod itself.
The final issue worthy of identification is TuneView’s occasionally imprecise keypress recognition. One of the great things about the iPod - a feature that Motorola screwed up in its iTunes Phones - is its quick reaction to user input; move on an iPod’s Wheel or hit a button, and you know always what’s going to happen next. Sometimes TuneView is a little slow in responding to button presses, moving you further down a menu or into a choice that you didn’t realize you’d signaled. Our hope is that a firmware upgrade remedies this; as-is, it’s a small knock on the unit’s otherwise very iPod-like user interface.
TuneView’s Impressive Audio and Distance Performance, Plus Conclusions
Thankfully, TuneView redeems itself substantially as an audio jukebox controller. With the exception of its occasional keypress issues, we found its ability to navigate an iPod’s music collection to be impressively smooth and complete, and the audio performance of its included dock to be very strong.
Though it’s not always fast on the draw with keypresses, the TuneView remote was predictably faster than iJet Two-Way in communicating with its iPod-connected receiver: iJet generally required two button presses before the receiver responded, versus TuneView’s one, and TuneView’s dock response was almost instantaneous. On distance, the two remotes were competitive, but TuneView had a narrow advantage - both worked from 100 feet away, through walls and rooms away on a second floor, and even when when taken outdoors with a dock found next to a family room AV system, but besides its snappier response, TuneView worked reliably from a slightly greater distance. It’s one of the strongest iPod remotes we’ve tested on broadcasting power, which is especially impressive given its versatility.
We were also impressed by its overall audio quality. Like Apple’s Universal Dock, TuneView includes a variable Line Out so that you can decrease your volume using either the included remote or the one that comes with your stereo or TV, depending on your preference and audiophile leanings, and at peak, we didn’t hear any significant noise in the dock’s audio signal. iJet Two-Way, by comparison, occasionally had little high-pitched beeps in its audio when the remote was used.
With all of that said, how does TuneView stack up in the bigger picture of iPod remote control accessories? In its current incarnation - not accounting for any firmware or other performance enhancements that may be made in the future - it’s our view that Keyspan has put together a very good new accessory. Not only is it the first color-screened iPod remote, but it’s more importantly the first to fully realize the potential of such a device, at least for audio purposes.
What dogs TuneView today are two factors that are largely under Keyspan’s control: the device’s performance as a video navigation tool for fifth-generation iPods, and its price. In our opinion, TuneView’s reliability and quality for audio library navigation and stereo listening will undoubtably endear it to certain iPod owners, but its price and dodgy video support will limit its appeal to the masses, and to the increasing number of people with video-ready iPods. While it provides a better listening and long-distance control solution than today’s iPod Bluetooth audio systems, users with smaller budgets or no need for 30-plus foot, pristine audio quality remote control will find existing, cheaper solutions more attractive. It won’t be lost on any prospective buyer that TuneView’s $179 asking price could buy both an iPod nano and matching Apple dock - that’s a lot to ask for a remote control system, even a spectacular one.
Had TuneView been a perfectly implemented color-screened remote and docking solution for both audio and video at a mass-market price, it would have rated our flat A high recommendation. Though it doesn’t reach that rare rating level, its strong B+ rating recognizes how sharply it improves upon ABT’s similar, C+ rated iJet Two-Way, and how superior it is even given their considerable difference in prices. If you can afford it, want complete, long-distance control of a clean-sounding, docked iPod, and don’t want to wait for its inevitable 2007 competitors, TuneView is most certainly worthy of your attention - right now. If not, there are other options out there at lower prices, but you’ll have to compromise on features to use them.
Updated 12-21-06, 6-19-07
Following publication of our review, Keyspan updated TuneView’s firmware (version 1.5 remote, version 1.1 dock) to remedy the video loading problems identified above. Using the included USB cable and the company’s firmware updater, easily found from the company’s TuneView web page, we updated each unit in under a minute total.
According to Keyspan, the use of an iPod’s song shuffling setting was to blame for also randomizing the selection of videos; now the system properly selects videos regardless of whether the iPod is in or out of shuffle mode. Though we aren’t updating our rating, this bug fix definitely improves the TuneView experience, bringing it more into line with what we would have expected out of the box.
In May 2007, Keyspan changed the color and design of the packed-in remote to a simpler black version, shown above. We updated this review on June 19, 2007 with the photograph above; the remote is functionally identical to the prior metallic gray version.