Review: Philips DCD778 Under-Cabinet Docking Entertainment System for iPod
Pros: The first video screen-equipped under-cabinet entertainment system with an iPod dock, capable of adding TV, AM and FM tuning, DVD playback, and iPod functionality to any kitchen, as well as bathrooms or laundry rooms with ceiling-mounted cabinets. Includes fold-up 8.5-inch LCD screen, dual speakers, and slide-away DVD player with 40-button remote control, plus iPod adapters, mounting parts and templates to help you install unit under your cabinet. Silver design matches many contemporary kitchen appliances; all features work at least decently, and speakers sound pretty good.
Cons: Offers weak iPod integration, especially for the high price relative to other under-cabinet video systems without iPod docks. Screen quality is only a step or so above passable; FM radio tuning is more challenging than necessary and not as clean as in best accessories we’ve tested. Remote control permits only limited iPod access, and confusing interface for certain other functions.
If you’ve been following iLounge reviews for the past year or more, the premise behind Philips’ new DCD778 ($399) won’t be entirely new: like iHome’s then-novel iH36, DCD778 is an “under-cabinet” docking station for your iPod, designed to fit under kitchen, laundry room, or bathroom cabinetry, and allowing you to hear your iPod without filling valuable counter space with a speaker system. But DCD778 goes a lot further in concept than iH36: you don’t just get iHome’s twin speakers, FM radio tuning, and TV audio. You also get a 8.5” LCD display, DVD player, AM tuner, and more. No matter what you want to watch or hear, DCD778 has a way to let you do it.
While DCD778 represents a brand new accessory category for iPod owners, under-cabinet displays have been around for a while: Philips, Sony, and smaller companies currently sell iPod-less but DVD and CD-ready units with screens ranging up to 10” in size. Most, however, have 7” screens and sell for under $300, and for now, only the DCD778 has an iPod dock built-in; you’d otherwise have to buy a standalone dock and remote package, such as Apple’s iPod AV Connection Kit or Kensington’s Entertainment Dock 500, to add similar iPod functionality to another system.
Philips’ complete package includes the silver, gray, and black DCD778 unit, which measures 14 1/2” by 11 3/8” by 3 1/2” when folded up, plus a wall power adapter, six iPod dock inserts, mounting pieces and screws, a template, and a matching silver remote control. The unit’s coloration—largely silver—was welcomed by a female iLounge editor, who noted that DCD778 was unlike iHome’s iH36 in that it matched newer, stainless steel kitchen design trends, and was preferable to a typical countertop TV thanks to its smaller size. If you want to connect another audio or video device, such as an older VCR or a game console, there are composite video and audio ports on the rear, though as with attaching an iPod dock to one of DCD778’s competitors, this may well detract from the unit’s compact, space-saving mission.
To that end, Philips hides its DVD player behind a simple digital clock face, and folds its 8.5” monitor and iPod dock combination upwards when not in use, leaving your countertop bare. Like iH36, angled speakers on the bottom front left and right corners fire diagonally downwards, and offer substantially more audio power and fullness than a similar Philips alternative, the portable iPod video display DCP850. As with its display, while DCD778’s two speakers can’t rival the sort of audio system you could buy for half its price, you’re paying for the complete system functionality here, not just a single component.
It’s therefore somewhat unfortunate that DCD778’s various features are uneven, but rarely truly impressive, in quality of implementation. Most positively, the system’s AM/FM radio and TV tuner work pretty well: using the unit’s integrated radio antennas, we had no problem pulling in AM or FM radio stations, though they can be—as is normal for systems like this—impacted by walls and other possible sources of interference in your home. In challenging areas of our test environment, FM stations locked in, but with moderate static, while less challenging areas predictably had less FM static. For these reasons, we’d categorize the FM radio tuner as above-average rather than great, but the AM tuner typically does better. A channel scan feature lets you skip signal-less stations, which are regrettably a little too common because the FM tuner moves in .1 increments; U.S. stations only broadcast on odd stations in .2 increments, so manual tuning will take lots of extra button presses.
The TV tuner also works well, but has similar tuning ideosyncracies. Initially, it might seem not to be working at all no matter what buttons you press on DVD778’s face, but it turns out that you can toggle between analog and digital TV reception using the included remote control. This is done only once, after you connect a coaxial TV cable to a coax port on DCD778’s back, which may require you to run a new cable line behind or under the cabinet to your TV. Then, you’ll have to learn to somewhat awkwardly switch stations with the remote, as Philips hasn’t made TV tuning as simple as using a channel up and down button. Once tuned, though, TV stations come in better than radio stations: they look very clean on the LCD screen, and sound good through the speakers.
As with Philips’ DCP850, it’s our feeling that the company spent more of its energies on the DVD player and LCD screen integration than anything else. The unit’s included, aesthetically attractive remote control looks to have been designed almost entirely for the DVD player, featuring 40 different buttons, many of which are devoted to menu, chapter, audio and display settings that don’t work in the unit’s other display modes. Subtitles, chapter skipping, language and zoom toggles all perform as expected here, and as with most DVD players, you can call up the DVD player’s and DVD’s separate menus at any time to adjust settings. Despite substantial similarities between the DCD778’s screen and the 8.5” widescreen display in the DCP850, the overall audiovisual experience is superior on the DCD778 thanks to the larger speakers and some screen tweaks.
DCD778’s screen isn’t the best iPod add-on display we’ve seen, but it’s not bad, either. On a positive note, you have 270 degrees of twist capability, allowing the screen to be viewed straight-on even if you’re working in another part of your room, and the screen’s contrast and blacks are both a bit better than the DCP850’s, so images don’t look quite as washed out. Philips still uses a somewhat pixelated display, however, resulting in sharp-looking edges to on-screen menus, subtitles, and anything else that hasn’t been smoothed out by the video source you’re playing back. The monitor also features hyper-saturated rather than neutral color, which looks fine for certain types of video, but isn’t accurate. We found its too-rich purples and reds to be distracting in normal TV programming, as just one example.
DCD778’s real problem is in its iPod integration. When you look at the product’s box or photos, you’re left with the incorrect impression that Philips has taken the time to fully or even thoughtfully integrate the iPod into the system’s integrated or remote controls—the sort of step that is nothing short of necessary given that your iPod is placed inside a transparent, flip-open dock without any access whatsoever to its controls. But Philips’ quick start guide provides a “tip” that the “remote control is limited in iPod video support,” an understatement of significant proportions.
Need to pick a song or video? DCD778’s remote includes buttons that seem ideally designed to let you navigate the iPod’s menus from inside the dock, and for this sort of price, allowing you to see those menus on the integrated LCD screen wouldn’t be an unreasonable expectation, either. Yet the remote does nothing more for the iPod than advance forward or backwards track by track, and pause playback. You’ll need to pull the plastic dock compartment open and use the iPod’s controls for anything else - another sign that Philips’ approach to iPod integration is generally little more than to slap a Dock Connector on an existing product design and let iPod owners fend for themselves on controls.
Another issue is aspect ratio distortion. In iPod mode, the screen can’t be switched between 4:3 and 16:9 modes, which isn’t a problem for DVDs, but can (and does) result in distortion of other video sources, such as iPods. Everything displays in a stretched widescreen format, even when the iPod’s turned off of its own widescreen mode, and unlike the DCP850, there’s no button to just switch between aspect ratios. Again, this just feels like sloppy iPod integration—the type we hope Philips will start working to improve in the immediate future. As an audio-only iPod dock with models other than the fifth-generation, video-ready iPod, DCD778 is similarly fine, but not as versatile in iPod remote control as the far less expensive iHome iH36.
Overall, our feelings about the DCD778 are very similar to the ones we had about the DCP850: while this succeeds on some level as a jack-of-all-trades multifunction device, only one of its constituent parts—here, the DVD player—seems to have been entirely thought through, and though its TV and radio features are fine, its iPod functionality borders on the unacceptable. As noted at the start of this review, there are many devices similar to this one, minus only the iPod dock, sold with larger screens at lower prices. For the $399 asking price, you could buy one of them and an iPod AV Connection Kit or a less expensive alternative and wind up ahead in all ways save for separate remotes. We’d call that choice almost a wash; you’ll need to decide whether the modest degree of iPod integration here justifies the added price, the reason for our limited, B- recommendation.