Review: Memorex Mi4290 Clock Radio for iPod and iPhone
Disruptingly impressive are the two words that most come to mind after testing Memorex's Mi4290 ($80), the least expensive iPhone-compatible alarm clock we've yet tested. For Memorex, which has focused squarely on high-value, budget-priced iPod accessories for the past few years, Mi4290 is an even better offering than we'd initially expected: it brings most of the features of iHome's competing dual-alarm clock iP9 into an attractive new enclosure, simplifies the controls, and includes one smart new feature that we haven't seen before. Its omissions -- iP9-rivaling speakers and an AM radio -- are acceptable given the merits of the rest of its design, and its price.
Like the iP9 and its predecessor iP99, Memorex has equipped Mi4290 with a high-contrast white text on black background screen, adjustable here through six levels of backlight brightness, as well as twin alarms that can independently be set to go off on weekends, weekdays, or every day of the week, as well as performing iPod/iPhone audio, FM radio, or a gradually more powerful buzzer. Virtually everything has been streamlined in this design, with a very simple set of oversized tuning, volume and alarm buttons positioned between the top-mounted Universal Dock and snooze bar, collectively making alarm setting and other functionality almost as obvious as could be.
Save for the need to set the alarm’s time with the volume buttons rather than the tuning buttons, Memorex’s menu and control system is really pretty smart. The weekend, weekday, and seven-day alarm settings are indicated by flashing icons showing which days are active, and a volume bar appears on the side of the screen to make obvious what level each alarm will go off on when triggered. Mi4290 also makes clock setting almost effortless: in addition to manual buttons on the top, a DST-adjusting switch on the back, and a 12/24-hour toggle that’s also on the back, Memorex includes a “sync” button that grabs the current time and day of the week from your iPod or iPhone with a single button press. That’s just plain smart, and a lot easier than having to fidget with a bunch of buttons.
Speaker performance is very good for the price, but not mindblowing. Mi4290’s chief limitations by reference to the iHome clock radios are two in number: it reaches roughly half or two-thirds the maximum volume of the iP9 and iP99, which is more than enough for the music and wake-up duties expected of a bedside clock radio, but not enough to fill a room. Additionally, whereas iHome includes some simple bass and treble controls alongside a faux 3-D spatializer, Memorex uses only a single EQ button that activates five possible settings, one with a treble boost, the next with more of a bass boost, the next with treble and bass boosts, the next flatter, and the final completely flat. Though it’s quickly apparent in direct testing against the more expensive iHomes that the Mi4290 isn’t as powerful sonically, the system delivers solid enough treble and midrange performance—bass too, if the right EQ’s on—that virtually no one would complain except when doing comparative tests.
Mi4290’s radio performance is strong. With the exception of the fact that it tunes in 0.1 increments rather than 0.2, offset by its speedy seek mode and six presets, there’s not much to complain about with the FM radio: though there was a low level of static evident when it tuned channels, they came in strong and bold, and without significant problems finding local channels. The integrated, tightly coiled antenna’s placement can reduce the static to very modest levels.
It’s also worth noting that the Mi4290 did better in screening out iPhone interference than the iHome models, exhibiting no obvious EDGE- or 3G-related noises whatsoever when performing iPod mode audio, and only a little EDGE noise when serving as an FM radio—a common issue. For users of the iPhone 3G who actually have local 3G coverage, which is to say almost everyone, interference is basically non-existent. Memorex has done a very good job on the engineering here by comparison with many of the supposedly interference-free “Works With iPhone” products we’ve tried.
As expected, Memorex has cut some corners in order to achieve its $80 price. There’s no AM radio, and its remote control is smaller and less sophisticated than iHome’s, possessing only seven buttons with the most basic of features. You’ll also need to self-supply the two AAA batteries required to provide backup memory for the integrated clock and radio presets; iHome typically includes these in its packages and pre-sets the clock so that you won’t have to. While none of these differences is trivial, you’ll need to decide whether they collectively add up to $20 in value for your personal needs; in our view, the fully usable remote here is totally fine, the lack of AM radio isn’t a show-stopper, and the absence of batteries is offset by the direct-from-iPod/iPhone clock setting button, but those who need either AM radio or FM presets may feel otherwise.
From our perspective, what Mi4290 achieves for its price is still seriously impressive: it offers a very nice industrial design, simple controls, true iPhone shielding and compatibility, and the right combination of solid FM tuning and dual alarms. While those seeking additional functionality or sonic horsepower should look to the iHome iP9 as the next right step up, Mi4290 is an excellent starting point in terms of features and performance for the dollar, and worthy of our high recommendation to both iPod and iPhone owners.