Challenging though it may be, we try to review every new product without letting a company’s previous releases color our coverage — this approach allows us to honestly acknowledge weak products from historically impressive companies, and breakthroughs from previously uninspired developers. So when we note that the otherwise brilliant lamp designers at Yantouch have delivered an unimpressive first iPhone accessory in Black Diamond ($80, aka 3D Dock for iPhone), we say that despite our serious excitement about the company’s other products, and with the sincere hope that it will do better with iPhone accessories in the future.
Black Diamond is a half-faceted, half-globe-shaped dock made from translucent black plastic, sold with a USB cable that enables it to serve as a simple charging station—assuming that you’re willing to supply a USB power adapter, which really should have been in the box. There’s a hole in the top of the unit large enough to fit any iPhone model without a case, and a Dock Connector plug deep inside, plus two holes in its rubberized bottom to pass through speaker and microphone audio from the docked iPhone. A tiny etching on Black Diamond’s back alongside the mini-USB power port suggests that an audio output port was at one point considered for the design, but left out, a point that makes sense when you actually go to use the dock.
Yantouch’s idea is that you’ll place your unencased iPhone inside Black Diamond after activating a free application of the same name, and basically just relax alongside the iPhone while watching the dock glow with different shifting colors. The app lets you choose from Plasma, Breath, Rainbow, Lightning, Flames, or Remix effects, most akin to simple Windows PC screen savers that produce very simple screen-filling visuals underneath the iPhone’s signal, time, and battery status bar.
Viewed outside of the 3D Dock, the effects look trippy but not particularly engrossing; inside the unit, they create semi-interesting colorful light effects that could stand to be more visible and dramatically amplified through the black plastic. Despite their obvious differences when the iPhone’s outside, they all look pretty much the same inside, and only put out enough light to be seen clearly when the iPhone’s screen is turned up above its 50% level. Power-conserving users probably won’t want to leave their devices at peak brightness all the time, or manually adjust the iPhone’s settings, just to power this dock on occasion.
Yantouch’s business has been built on creating beautiful ambient lighting systems based on novel touch and gesture control interfaces, so it’s easy to understand why it wanted to use the touch-based iPhone as the heart of a small lamp. Unfortunately, the concept just isn’t a good one, at least as it has been executed here. An iPhone is too important to a user to leave sitting for any extended period inside something that obscures its screen, preventing access to its interface, and effectively the ability to answer phone calls.
Audio quality from the iPhone’s bottom speaker is also reduced once it’s inside, thinning bass performance and volume to even lower levels—enough to make speakerphone calls sound really quiet—though microphone performance doesn’t appear to be impacted in any way, at least with the iPhone 4.
Is there even a way to practically make or receive calls with an iPhone inside of the 3D Dock? Not really, unless you’re willing to pull the phone out when it vibrates or rings, then place it back inside. Yantouch suggested that the Black Diamond app would allow you to sort of see callers by indicating people with specific colors—say, green for a family member so you can know to pick up a call, and then knock gently on the 3D Dock to answer the call—but in its current form, the app doesn’t seem to do anything like that. Instead, it has a noise-detecting meter that can switch between the visual effects when it “hears” dockside knocks, but that’s it. A lot of additional work is going to need to be done on the software side to make the app more practical, and even then, losing the ability to see your callers’ names and photos is going to be a pretty big lump for iPhone users to swallow. This is just one of several reasons that iPod touches might have been better suited than iPhones as a target device for this accessory.
Overall, the Black Diamond 3D Dock is an odd little iPhone accessory, and not one that we’d recommend to most or even any clearly defined subset of our readers.