Alarm clock speaker docks have been a big business for a small number of Apple accessory makers, with iHome, Philips, and Memorex producing most of the best options we’ve tested over the years. Many competitors faded from the market after discovering that it wasn’t as easy as it seemed to build these specialized speakers: merely keeping the clocks accurate was difficult enough, as were a variety of interface issues — setting complex alarms, separating input volume levels, and achieving the right brightness level for the clock itself — that experienced companies succeeded in solving iteratively over numerous products.
So it was with some interest that we began testing Gear4’s new Renew SleepClock ($200), the latest alarm clock radio from a company that has become increasingly impressive at industrial design, and kept a toe in the alarm clock market when others withdrew. Gear4 knows more about building alarm clocks than some companies, and tried to do something different with Renew SleepClock: its central feature is a non-contact sleep monitor, which the company says is chiefly responsible for its price. Most alarm clock speaker docks these days sell for $100, with a handful of noteworthy, feature-packed models at higher prices; Renew instead is hanging all of its hopes on that sleep monitor as a justification for its premium. Unlike most $200 clocks we’ve tested, nothing besides an oversized wall adapter is included in the package; remote controls, AM radio antennas, spare batteries and the like are nowhere to be found here.
On a positive note, we generally liked Gear4’s design. Rather than going for the now-familiar wide box seen in numerous iHome models, it instead has created a minimalist black unit that looks somewhat like a plastic and fabric jellybean, notched with a wide-open, iPad-ready dock at the top behind six buttons, and a small but high-contrast clock below them on the unit’s face. Fabric wraps around to cover the two internal speaker drivers, and a small gunmetal plate below the clock houses the sleep monitor, beaming waves out to determine how well you’re sleeping.
Renew SleepClock is supposed to achieve this feat by monitoring and noting your movements while you sleep, helping you to achieve deeper periods of rest. It’s aided in this task by a free downloadable application that shows you signal strength—whether Renew SleepClock can “see” you, as you need to be within roughly four feet of its sensor—and a colorful sleep measurement meter, which requires you to lay on your back to be properly monitored.* The app tracks daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly sleep averages, providing you with information such as the number of hours you spent in bed, how many times you were interrupted when sleeping, and the time you took to fall asleep, plus the amount of time you spent in a deep sleep. [* Note: Gear4 contacted us after this review was published to say that despite imagery in its instructions that might have suggested this, and what appeared to be flatlining of app graphs when we tried certain other positions, Renew SleepClock is capable of monitoring sleep even in other positions, even including curling up in a ball.]
As this is the central feature of Renew SleepClock, we’d have hoped that it would have worked in a satisfying, entirely believable way, but we didn’t find that to be the case. Between the requirements of the sensor—do we really have to sleep in that position to be monitored?*—and the operation of the app, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Gear4 would have been better off following the simpler and less expensive (though still unfulfilling) example set by Jawbone Up, monitoring sleep by mounting a sensor on one’s wrist. There’s no great sense that the clock and app are properly tracking one’s sleep, and the fact that the docked device turns off and locks its screen overnight doesn’t provide the greatest confidence in the accuracy of any results that are being generated. Hopefully Renew is doing accurate measurement without the app, and communicating it when the app wakes up again, but you’re never really sure.’
Even if you assume that everything’s working correctly, what you wake up to is a pretty graph that tells you very little: you supposedly slept deeply for only a fraction of the time you were sleeping. When we went to check the FAQs on Sleep Stats to see what that really meant, we came upon unformatted text that looked like it was in need of additional editing: “check BiancaMed comfortable with this definition?” appears next to the question, “what is deep sleep,” with an incomplete definition beside “what is light sleep?”
The rest of the app looks nice, but similarly feels as if it’s missing that last layer or two of polish that might have made the whole sleep monitoring and clock setup experience seem special. Renew tries to be cool and different by using a slider to set two Wake Up alarms, each capable of operating on specified days of the week, from your choice of three audio sources, using checkmarks. The slider optional offers the ability to gently wake you within a range of times—apparently based on when you’re not in a deep sleep—if you want it. And the app even has a small collection of built-in sound effects and songs to wake you from. But the interface winds up feeling a little gimmicky, overcomplicated, and confusing for something that should be as simple as setting a digital clock’s alarm; the slider is used again and more appropriately for Renew’s integrated FM radio tuner, though even then, there’s a brief but unselling lag as it swipes in one-tenth increments through the dial—no U.S. setting for 0.2 tuning is available. Nothing feels quite right here.
On that note, Renew SleepClock’s own value as an alarm clock is so-so—Gear4 has sacrificed independent clock usability in the name of reducing the number of buttons, offloading features to the app. So while the tiny clock face isn’t bad, you’ll need to rely upon the app to make granular brightness adjustments. Thanks to a good chip and an external antenna, the FM radio tuner is surprisingly clear, but the only button on the clock to tune it is a “scan” button that skips forward. There are no alarm-setting buttons on the unit, only in the app, and the clock can’t even hold its own time in the event of a power interruption; it effectively re-syncs itself every time you connect your iOS device. Add to that the fact that the speakers inside aren’t fantastic—quiet, flat with a lower midrange focus, and noticeably very bass distorted in the top 25% of their bedside listening-only amplitude—and the whole thing just doesn’t make a lot of sense as executed. A final issue, but one you’ll likely discover early on, is that Renew looks case-compatible but really isn’t: despite the use of an extended Dock Connector plug, the plastic around the plug has been molded such that every non-shell iPhone or iPad case we tested needed to be pulled off before docking. Most iPod touch cases will work, though.
Overall, though we wanted to like Renew SleepClock, it ultimately didn’t come close to what should be expected for a $200 asking price. Of all the features that could have been well-implemented, only the FM radio struck us as a strong performer, and even then, it was saddled by an app-dependent tuning interface unless you want to scan button your way through the FM dial. Everything else—from the so-so sleep monitoring to the weak speakers and the device-agnostic but case-resistant Dock Connector—was at least one if not two or or three steps below the standards of premium clock radios we’ve tested at this price point. It all works, though not spectacularly. So while Renew SleepClock isn’t a bad accessory, it’s not a particularly good one, either, and the value proposition could really stand to be rethought before Gear4 considers a sequel. Users have demonstrated that they’re satisfied with clocks that attempt to do less and get everything right at a lower price; this concept would need a lot of work to be worthy of an even lower price point. As-is, it’s only okay.
Company and Price
Model: Renew SleepClock
Compatible: iPod touch 2G/3G/4G, iPhone 3G/3GS/4, iPads