Review: DLO HomeDock & Griffin TuneCenter
After devoting many hours to ripping your CD collection—and perhaps even your DVD collection—and spending a good chunk of money on iTunes Store purchases, chances are you want to use your iTunes library beyond just your computer and iPod. There are many iPod docks on the market that allow you to play your music and video through your home stereo and television systems (charging your iPod all the while), but two new docks have arrived that improve the experience. DLO’s $150 HomeDock Deluxe and Griffin Technology’s $130 TuneCenter bridge the substantial gap between basic iPod docks and the Apple TV by adding on-screen menus for navigating your iPod’s library on your television screen. But unlike the Apple TV, which requires a wired or wireless network connection to the iTunes library hosted on your computer, the HomeDock Deluxe and TuneCenter docks deliver a similar experience—at a considerable savings—by using your iPod as the media source.
DLO HomeDock Deluxe
The HomeDock Deluxe is physically similar to the original HomeDock we previously reviewed . The HomeDock Deluxe retains that model’s larger-than-average dock size, 5.75 inches wide by 4 inches deep by 1 inch high, as well as its handy slot for the remote control. The unit’s color scheme has been reversed and now features a black base with silver trim. Although the case is plastic, the trim resembles metal, and the unit complements current televisions and A/V systems. Another useful feature shared with the original HomeDock is a protruding dock connector; unlike a traditional recessed slot, the protruding connector, along with an adjustable rear brace, allows the HomeDock Deluxe to accommodate any dockable iPod without having to use dock adapters. This design also accommodates most iPod cases, eliminating the hassle of having to remove and replace your iPod’s case.
The HomeDock Deluxe retains the same set of ports as its predecessor: left/right RCA audio outputs, RCA composite video output, S-Video output, a port for the included AC adapter, and an auxiliary-input port for other MP3 players (although, of course, you won’t have access to on-screen menus when using such players). There is also a USB port, but unlike the original HomeDock—and contrary to what’s claimed in the manual that shipped with early units—this port doesn’t support syncing your iPod with your computer; it’s reserved for performing software updates for the HomeDock Deluxe. The package includes all of the necessary cables with the exception of a USB cable—you’ll have to provide your own should DLO release the aforementioned software updates in the future. The inclusion of the S-Video cable is a nice touch.
Of course, the primary feature that distinguishes the HomeDock Deluxe from the original HomeDock is the ability to browse your iPod’s library using menus displayed on your television. Instead of using the iPod’s screen for navigation, you can use the range of the HomeDock Deluxe’s remote control to browse your iPod’s contents—or at least most of them—from the comfort of your favorite chair. The on-screen menus mimic those on your iPod, but with 12 selectable color backgrounds; however, the backgrounds and text quality show the effects of compression, so don’t expect the high-resolution menus you might see using the Apple TV. You also get a selection of screensavers that help prevent screen burn-in; although a nice inclusion, most are low-resolution and none will impress like the elegant screensavers on the Apple TV.
Navigation of the on-screen menus is performed using the solidly-built 18-button infrared (IR) remote control and is similar to navigating the iPod itself, except you use the remote’s directional arrow buttons instead of the iPod’s Click Wheel. This works well, but you’ll quickly remember how wonderful the Click Wheel is when you try to dig deep into a long list of artists, albums, or songs using these buttons. The remote has power on/off, play/pause, forward and back (skip and scan), shuffle, repeat, mute, and screen saver buttons. There are also volume controls used to adjust the HomeDock Deluxe’s variable audio-output level. Since the remote is IR, you’re limited to line-of-sight control, but I was able to control the dock from as far as 20 feet away by pointing directly at the dock.
You’ll have no problem selecting your music and videos from the HomeDock’s onscreen menus, but viewing photos requires that you look at the iPod’s own screen, since the HomeDock can’t access the photos to display menus on your TV. First you press the video mode button on the remote control to switch to the HomeDock’s video mode; this turns off the HomeDock’s onscreen menus and returns control to the iPod itself. (Only the normal video output of your iPod is sent to your television; menus remain visible on the iPod.) You can then either use either the HomeDock’s remote or the iPod’s Click Wheel to select photos and start slideshows, which will appear on your TV as expected. This photo-viewing process is a minor inconvenience that appears to be due to a limitation of the iPod’s dock connector.
A standout feature of the menus is the display of album art. If your audio tracks have associated album art, the HomeDock Deluxe will display that art both in the menus and in art-based screen savers. There are also fifteen other screen savers that kick in after a selectable length of time. With a few exceptions, these are very simplistic and quite dated in appearance. However, they will prevent screen burn-in if your television is susceptible to this.
The HomeDock Deluxe provides good sound and video quality. With the variable sound output, you’ll have to play with the volumes settings on the HomeDock and your home stereo or TV to get the proper mix without distortion. But thanks to the onscreen menus, you can now view the dock volume level on your television—something you couldn’t do on the original HomeDock. The S-video connection is crisp—assuming the source video is crisp, of course—with no noise and consistent colors. The composite video connection is a little less crisp, as expected. In either case, don’t expect the same quality of video as you would from the Apple TV.
The inclusion of the on-screen navigation is a welcome addition to the original HomeDock. The latest version provides a useful set of features at half of the price of the Apple TV, and it is a useful accessory for someone who already has an iPod filled with audio, photos, and video and wants a good way to use that content in their home entertainment system.
Griffin Technology TuneCenter
With no slot to stow your remote control, the base of Griffin’s silver TuneCenter is more compact than that of the HomeDock Deluxe at approximately 4 inches wide and deep by 1 inch high; however, a curved, vertically-oriented dock back, just under 4 inches high, provides an elegant backdrop for your iPod. A large IR window is visible on the front of the base. The TuneCenter also includes a traditional recessed iPod dock—one using Apple’s Universal design—and includes three dock inserts to accommodate older iPods. (Current iPods ship with the appropriate insert.) Since the dock is recessed, this form factor may necessitate removing your iPod from its case when you want to use the TuneCenter.
The TuneCenter’s connectivity includes an S-Video-out jack (cable not included), an A/V minijack (similar to the AV-capable headphone jack on fifth-generation iPods), an Ethernet port, and a jack for the included AC adapter. With no USB port, you can’t use the TuneCenter to sync your iPod with your computer. On the other hand, the TuneCenter includes an A/V cable compatible with the above-mentioned iPod headphone jack; you can use this cable both with the TuneCenter’s minijack or directly with your iPod—the latter, for example, if you want a quick and easy method to connect your iPod to a TV and/or home stereo while away from home. The ethernet port enables you to receive Internet radio stations (more on this below).
Like the HomeDock Deluxe, the TuneCenter provides onscreen menus through which you can browse your iPod’s music library. However, whereas the HomeDock Deluxe permits browsing of video using these menus, you’re limited to browsing only your music library on the TuneCenter. To select videos (and photos) on the TuneCenter, you’ll have to look at the iPod’s own screen while using either the iPod’s Click Wheel or the TuneCenter’s remote (similar to the way you view photos with the HomeDock Deluxe).
Onscreen menus and graphics are very well-designed; they look much more attractive than those on the HomeDock Deluxe. However you don’t get access to album art like you do on the HomeDock Deluxe. During playback, you get playlist, title, artist, album and timing information along with shuffle, repeat, and equalizer status. There are no screen savers/visualizers, so persistent menu elements could damage televisions susceptible to burn-in for extended use. The screen dims after 10 minutes of inactivity.
The TuneCenter remote has 16 buttons for power on/off, menu navigation, play/pause, skip forward/back, volume, and other various settings. A welcome addition are the dedicated page up and down buttons. These greatly speed sifting through multiple pages of library lists. Like the HomeDock Deluxe, the TuneCenter has a variable audio output with onscreen level indication. You’ll want to adjust both the TuneCenter and your home stereo volume levels to find the best mix. The remote control is IR-based, so like the HomeDock Deluxe, you’ll need a good line-of-sight and a distance of 20 feet or less from the dock for good results.
One feature that separates the TuneCenter from all other docks is the ability to play Internet radio stations; you don’t even need an iPod to use this feature. Simply connect the TuneCenter to your network (you must supply an Ethernet cable) and after a quick setup process, the TuneCenter downloads a list of Internet radio stations. Unfortunately, finding an Internet radio station from the downloaded list can be difficult; since the lengthy list of 100+ stations is not sorted in any discernible fashion nor arranged by genre, you’re left to the mercy of the information each station provides in their directory listing. For some, you get a good basic description of the station. For others, you might get just the station name or a call sign, and for some, you get almost nothing at all to go on (e.g. one station only listed itself as “digitally imported”). What makes this process especially frustrating is that once you find a station you like, it may not be in the same place in the list next time, and you can’t save it to a preset. Still, this is an interesting capability normally requiring a computer or a separate Internet radio device.
The TuneCenter is a good value in a compact, elegant design with clear and well-organized on-screen menus. Sound and video quality are good, but I recommend purchasing an S-Video cable to achieve the best video quality. The Internet radio feature could use some improvement, but it is a unique capability among iPod docks and gives you something even the Apple TV doesn’t currently offer.
Both of these iPod docks perform as advertised and add the welcome ability to browse your iPod library from a comfortable distance with the convenience of on-screen menus. Choosing between them depends on which features appeal to you the most. The HomeDock Deluxe lets you browse your iPod’s videos via onscreen menus and displays albums art; the TuneCenter lacks such features but boasts a better-looking interface, offers Internet radio listening, and costs $20 less. Of course, to make the most of either product, you’ll want an iPod with video-out capability.
[ James Savage is the host of the RetroMacCast, a weekly podcast devoted to collecting Macintosh computers and memorabilia. ]
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