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Review: RCA RP5500i iPod alarm clock

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Alarm clocks, for many people, are as integral to their lives as their mobile phones and computers. After all, if you’re late to work everyday, what’s the good of all the other fancy gadgets you have? Though RCA’s RP5500i may not be the most eye-catching iPod alarm clock around, it’s stocked with features, easy to use, and less expensive than many competitors.

At first glance, the RP5500i looks much like your typical alarm clock. The front has a large LCD display with enormous, glowing amber numbers that make it easy to read the time, even if you’re half-asleep. Two rows of small, white buttons sit beneath the display. Underneath the display, to the right of the buttons, is a nifty, spring-loaded iPod dock that retracts into the body of the clock until you want to use it. (Another nice touch is that the system’s time display actually shifts to the left when you extend the dock, so your view of the time won’t be obscured by the iPod.) The unit is about the size of a standard alarm clock, measuring in at 7.75” wide by 5.25” high by 3.5” deep; it won’t dominate your nightstand, unlike some of the other iPod alarm clocks we’ve tested.

The controls on the front of the RP5500i include dedicated buttons to switch to Radio, iPod, or USB mode, and another to turn the system off. There are also buttons to control playback of your iPod or a connected USB player: forward, reverse, shuffle, and repeat. (You can still use your iPod’s own controls, if you’d prefer.) On top of the unit you’ll find a large, central Snooze button, controls for Sleep and Nap functions, and buttons for each of the two independent alarms. Behind that row of buttons is a USB port for attaching music players or flash drives, as well as a jog dial for adjusting the clock time, alarm times, and other settings. The right-hand side of the RP5500i hosts a tuning dial for the radio and a switch for choosing the radio band (AM or FM); the left-hand side is where you’ll find the Volume dial and a button that toggles between two display brightness modes. On the bottom of the unit you’ll find a battery compartment, power connector, and switches for time zone and daylight savings time (more on that later).

The RP5500i’s iPod dock uses Apple’s Universal design. Included are eight different dock adapters to accommodate the iPod mini; the 20GB fourth-generation iPod; the 40GB fourth-generation iPod; the 20GB and 30GB iPod photo; the 40GB and 60GB iPod photo; the first-generation iPod nano; the 30GB fifth-generation iPod; and the 60GB fifth-generation iPod. However, the system works fine with any dock-connector iPod. I tested it with a variety of iPod models, as well as the iPhone, and none had any problems (the iPhone needs to be switched into airplane mode in order to work, since the RP5500i is not shielded from GSM interference). The RP5500i will also charge your iPod as long as the iPod is docked and the system is connected to AC power.

The clock comes pre-set from the factory; two pre-installed AA batteries keep the time in memory when the unit is not plugged in. All you have to do is pick the correct time zone (Eastern, Central, Mountain, or Pacific) using the switch on the bottom of the unit, and then toggle Daylight Savings Time mode on or off (a little sun icon shows up on the display when DST is on). Should you need to adjust the time, all you do is hold down the Set button on the top of the unit until the clock icon flashes on the display, and then turn the time-set knob until the desired time is reached. Turning the knob slightly will adjust the time by small increments, whereas turning it further and holding it will advance or reverse the time at a faster rate. One minor criticism: although this a straightforward procedure, if you need to adjust the time more than an hour or two, holding the knob in its fullly-twisted position isn’t very comfortable.

The system’s two alarms each allow you to wake up to an alarm buzzer, the radio, audio from an attached USB MP3 player or flash drive, or, of course, your iPod. Toggling back and forth between the modes is as easy as repeatedly pressing the Wake 1 or Wake 2 button on the top of the unit. As you cycle through the modes, an icon corresponding to the audio source appears on the display next to the alarm number (1 or 2, respectively). To set the alarm time, you press the Set button until the desired alarm flashes, then use the jog dial on top to choose the alarm time. If you choose to wake up to the radio, USB, or iPod, the RP5500i will use the most-recently-played station or track. The volume of the alarm will be whatever the volume dial is set to, except in the case of the alarm buzzer, which will gradually increase.

When the alarm sounds, you can turn it off by hitting the Off button, on which the manufacturer has thoughtfully placed a small dimple that makes it easy to find, by feel, even for the bleary-eyed. You can also hit the large Snooze button on top of the unit, or the Sleep or Nap buttons, to pause the alarm temporarily (for the length of time you choose, as discussed below). If you just hit the Off button, the alarm stays set for the next day; if you want to deactivate it permanently, you have to cycle through the alarm options by hitting the corresponding Wake button until the alarm icon disappears from the screen.

The RP5500i also includes both Sleep and Nap functions. The former allows you to go to bed to music and automatically turns it off after a preset amount of time. The Nap function acts as an ad-hoc timer that can play an alarm after a desired amount of time; for example, you can set it to wake you after 30 minutes. And just to make sure you don’t miss that important morning meeting, the same backup battery that keeps the time set, even during a power outage, also lets the alarm function continue to work (although the clock display is disabled and the system reverts to buzzer mode).

One thing I appreciated about the RP5500i is that RCA has gone to great lengths to let the user adjust many aspects of its operation. For example, you can choose the length of Snooze time—from 1 to 30 minutes—by holding down the Snooze button and turning the jog dial on the top of the unit. Likewise, although the alarm clock’s Sleep and Nap functions provide a choice of common preset times, you can change each to any desired length by holding down the respective button and then pressing the track forward or reverse button to choose the time.

Although the small buttons on the front of the unit are sometimes difficult to distinguish, RCA has thoughtfully relegated less-frequently-used features to the left and right sides of the RP5500i and used controls that are more suited to particular functions. For example, Volume and Tuning both get dial controls (though the latter still adjusts only in discrete units), while the radio-band control uses a switch. Similarly, the Snooze button on top is prominent and easy to hit, while the alarm buttons are flush with the top of the unit, making it less likely you’ll hit them by accident.

When it comes to sound performance, the RP5500i sounds a lot like your average clock radio. You won’t get superb audio from the unit: while treble reproduction isn’t too bad, there’s a decided lack of bass, and tracks with significant low end quickly muddle the overall sound. In other words, this is a system you buy for its clock-radio functionality, not its sound quality.

In terms of radio reception, the RP5500i doesn’t impress: since it relies on integrated antennas, reception varies strongly depending on where you physically position the unit; in some cases, repositioning the entire unit can help with AM reception, but not always. In addition, in my testing, a lack of fine-tuning controls meant static-filled reception for many stations on both FM and AM bands. Finally, as there are no radio presets, you must re-tune the radio every time you want to change stations.

As a sound system, the RP5500i might disappoint, but as an alarm clock, it succeeds admirably with a variety of timer and alarm options. If you value versatility and user customization, the RP5500i won’t disappoint, as long as you don’t mind the poor radio reception and sub-par audio performance.

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