Generally, we don’t have to play the “good news, bad news” game when it comes to iHome: the long time clock radio maker most often improves its products enough between generations that there’s only good news to share. So the color-shifting iPod- and iPhone-compatible alarm clock iP18 ($60) is something of an exception to the rule, an update to 2009’s impressive kids’ speaker iH15 that has more features, but falls short in performance on its signature functionality.
iH15 looked like a modern update to Sony’s cube-shaped Dream Machine alarm clocks, but iHome stripped out both the alarm and clock functionality in favor of releasing an inexpensive, nightstand-ready, iPod-only speaker system. Largely glossy white with silver accents and ultra-simple controls, iH15 played music through front and side speaker grilles while either staying locked to a single body color, or shifting between colors at your choice of two “flow” speeds. The colors glowed clearly through the white body, and were visible during day or night, albeit fixed at a single brightness level. Last year, iHome released iA17, a considerably more expensive and deluxe version shaped like a bowl, but it made the color-shifting far less visible from the front and had a problematic device dock at the top.
iP18 tries to compromise somewhat between the two earlier designs. The shape reverts to the same rounded cube seen in iH15, but now there’s far more silver—the entire top, much of the front, both of the sides, and all of the back are opaque and metallic rather than glowing. iHome has replaced the front speaker grille with a square clock, and surprisingly pulled the speakers entirely off the sides, instead using a rear-firing single speaker grille that sits below a wall power port and a backup battery compartment for the clock. iHome requires you to install the backup battery on your own, a small inconvenience, and ships iP18 with sparing frills: three optional Dock Adapters for the highly case-compatible top dock, and a wall power adapter. That’s all, and no great shock given that iH15 was similarly sparing.
So if iP18’s most distinctive feature is its ability to change colors, why would iHome cover so much more of the top with silver this time out? The answer: there are now three times as many buttons. iH15’s power, volume, and locked/blank/fast/slow color-shifting buttons have been joined by track controls, a play/pause button, sleep timer and time-setting buttons, plus two separate alarm buttons, and a large snooze/dimmer bar. Some users will appreciate all of these controls, as they represent the addition of new features: iH15 had no alarms, no timer, and no dimmer. Moreover, these 12 buttons are fewer and more manageable than on many of iHome’s twin-alarm clocks, simple to figure out, and aided by iP18’s ability to automatically set its clock from the docked Apple device’s settings. That said, other users—particularly Click Wheel iPod owners—may find the track and play/pause controls to be unnecessary, and may not like that iP18’s clock syncs and beeps each time you dock another device, until you play with a setting.
From our standpoint, the biggest issue with iP18 is its color-shifting performance. Unlike the two prior models, which positively glowed with colorful LED lights, iP18 seems dim even at its brightest setting, and if you use the dimmer, it becomes even worse. In natural lighting, you can just barely make out the shifting of the white body portions to purple, green, yellow, and red—blue is a little more visible—while the front screen’s matching color changes are imperceptible until a room goes dark. There’s an additional reduction in color changing because so much of the new model is silver, but the primary issue is that the LEDs inside iP18 just aren’t bright enough. They’re nowhere near as bright or saturated as the packaging suggests; more lights and possibly more color options would have helped.
iP18’s sonic performance isn’t great, either. By firing its driver through the back rather than through the front and sides, iP18 effectively strips out treble and some midrange details when music’s heard from the unit’s front, leaving you with pretty flat, lower midrange and mid-bass focused sound. While this is acceptable by low-end alarm clock standards, and isn’t much off the mark for what people might expect from AM/FM radios, iP18 doesn’t have any radio functionality built in—you’re left to supply it yourself via an Internet radio application such as the $2 iHome+Radio. Higher-quality music you play through iP18 winds up sounding very radio-like, albeit loud enough to stir even a heavy sleeper without volume-specific distortion; the alarms wake you to your choice of colors, and an ascending series of beeps if a device with music at the ready isn’t plugged in.
Overall, iP18 is only an “okay” option, and a disappointment given how promising iHome’s color-changing audio systems have been: while its clock and alarm features are welcome additions to the earlier iH15, and its addition of iPhone compatibility expands its appeal to users of Apple’s most popular pocket devices, it’s hard to be impressed by its LED lighting or audio—the two key things buyers of a “color changing speaker” are most likely to care about. The only saving grace is the relatively low $60 asking price, which is aggressive enough for a twin-alarm clock that it’s hard to be totally down on the iP18; the system does a reasonable job by “cheap dock” standards, and younger kids won’t mind the so-so sound. That said, we think the company came closer to getting things right with its regrettably unreleased 2010 model iH150, and hope that it continues to work on this distinctive category of chameleonic speakers.
Company and Price
Company: SDI Technologies/iHome
Compatible: iPod classic/nano, iPod touch 2G/3G/4G, iPhone 3G/3GS/4/4S