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Since the release of the third-generation (3G) iPod nano, all screen-bearing iPods feature the ability to connect to a TV to display video and photos. This means there are more users than ever before who might be in the market for an iPod dock that can take full advantage of this video-output feature. Last year, we reviewed DLO’s HomeDock Deluxe ( ) and Griffin Technology’s TuneCenter ( ), two of the first video docks that also allow you to browse your iPod’s media on your TV, rather than forcing you to use the iPod’s own screen. Tekkeon recently became the latest company to offer such a product, the new $130 NavDock. How does the NavDock compare?
The most-basic iPod docks simply charge your iPod and let you connect it to a speaker system or stereo for audio playback; others output video, as well, but still require you to navigate your iPod’s media using the iPod’s own screen. Docks such as the new NavDock take iPod-TV connectivity a step further by allowing you to navigate the contents of your iPod from the comfort of your favorite chair—you use a remote control to navigate menus on your TV screen.
The NavDock is compact at 5 inches wide by 3.5 inches deep and 1 inch high. The case is elegant, with a curved top trimmed in silver plastic and a handy slot aft of the iPod dock to store the included infrared (IR) remote control. A small, blue light on the front panel of the NavDock lets you know if the NavDock is on. The dock uses Apple’s Universal design. Three dock adapters are included to accommodate the second-generation iPod nano, 30GB fifth-generation iPod (“with video”), and 60GB/80GB fifth-generation iPod; newer iPods ship with the appropriate adapter. Dock inserts aside, the NavDock is fully compatible with all dock-connector iPods up to and including the latest 3G nano. The NavDock also works with the iPod touch and iPhone, however, there are caveats to the compatibility-more on this later.
Audio and video connections, on the back of the unit, are standard fare for docks of this type: left and right RCA outputs for audio, a composite video output, and an S-Video output. (There’s also a port for the included AC adapter.) Tekkeon includes RCA audio and video cables, but not an S-Video cable. The S-Video connection provides a slightly sharper picture, which is nice for viewing photos and videos—you’ll want to purchase a separate cable if your television supports S-Video. There is also an NTSC/PAL switch to choose the video output for your particular television. Unlike DLO’s HomeDock Deluxe, the NavDock does not include an auxiliary audio-in port for connecting another audio source. The NavDock is also missing a data port, so you won’t be able to use the NavDock to sync your iPod with your computer.
Once you have the NavDock connected to your television and your iPod docked, you can access your iPod’s library through menus displayed on your television. Using the remote control, you use the remote’s four-way control pad to navigate a series of menus to listen to music, watch videos, or view photos. Counting the control pad, there are a total of 21 buttons on the remote control. In addition to the standards controls—power on/off, play/pause, forward and back (skip and scan), shuffle, repeat, mute, and volume up/down—you also get a settings button, as well as home, music, photos, and videos buttons to quickly jump to the respective top-level menus. I found the remote’s infrared signal to have excellent range, easily covering the 30+ feet length of my living room. Surprisingly, it also operates beyond the 180 degrees in front of the dock—I was able to use the remote from the sides of the NavDock, too.
The NavDock’s onscreen menus are well-organized, making it easy to quickly access the different features. You can customize the menu appearance from among four color choices, and while the menus themselves aren’t the kind of high-resolution versions you’ll see on an Apple TV, they’re easy to navigate and look good given the limitations of composite video. While its probably more a matter of personal preference, I find the NavDock’s menus to be the most elegant and easy to use when compared with the HomeDock Deluxe and the TuneCenter.
From the Home menu, you can select Music, Photos, Videos, Shuffle Songs, or Settings. While you’re playing from your music library, key track information and album art are displayed. However, album art is not available for the iPod touch and iPhone. Lyrics can be displayed, as well; unfortunately, this feature isn’t supported on the 3G nano, iPod classic, iPod touch or iPhone—Tekkeon claims this is a bug with these particular models, not the NavDock. Album art on all but the iPod touch and iPhone is also displayed as a screensaver that appears after a user-defined time. The screensaver also has the nice addition of displaying track progress. While you won’t be able to scroll though your library with the speed that an iPod’s Click Wheel allows, you can adjust the scroll settings to move ten items at a time—handy for moving quickly through long lists. If you’re familiar with your iPod’s menus, you’ll have no problem finding your way around the NavDock menus.
While selecting music and videos are a seamless experience, the NavDock shares the same limitation as the HomeDock Deluxe and the TuneCenter when it comes to viewing photos. Thanks to limitations of the iPod’s dock connector, none of these docks are able to access iPod photos directly; you’ll have to navigate your photo library on the iPod’s screen using either the iPod controls or the NavDock remote control. (The NavDock provides helpful, onscreen instructions when you switch to photo mode.) Once a photo slideshow begins, your iPod does output the video, and your photos are displayed on your television as expected. This is a minor inconvenience; unfortunately, it seems it can’t be overcome as none of the docks we’ve yet tested have been able to bypass this limitation. For the iPod touch and iPhone, the limitations of photo access extend to videos as well so you’ll have to use their controls and screens to browse your video library. Additionally, once you play a slideshow or a video, you’ll have to undock and redock the iPod touch or iPhone to display another slideshow or video.
The NavDock’s sound and video quality are very good, but of course that’s a function of the quality of media on your iPod. The NavDock’s audio outputs provide a variable-level signal, which means you can fine-tune the level to work best with your stereo system or television. You can also choose from among 22 equalizer presets to best match your your choice of music with your stereo system. I would have liked to have seen an optical output for audio, but unless you’re using lossless formats, you’re unlikely to benefit from an optical connection. For the iPhone, I didn’t encounter any GSM interference noise so you won’t have to place the iPhone in Airplane Mode. On the video side, don’t expect HD-quality video—this is an iPod hosting your video, after all—but the NavDock does a great job of preserving the quality of iPod video and displaying it on a larger television. Just remember that the larger the television you use, the more you’ll expose the resolution limitations of your iPod.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
The NavDock does a fine job of making the most of your iPod and its library of media. If you’re choosing among the NavDock, HomeDock Deluxe, and TuneCenter, only the NavDock and the HomeDock Deluxe offer video-output compatibility with the 3G iPod nano and the iPod classic. These two products also display album art (the TuneCenter does not). Otherwise, the NavDock is functionally very similar to the HomeDock Deluxe and, thanks a lower retail price, it offers a better value, even if you decide to purchase an optional S-video cable. And if you can live without album art, and are willing to put up with the quirks of the video and photo use, it also provides reasonable compatibility with the iPhone and iPod touch.
[James Savage is the host of the RetroMacCast, a weekly podcast devoted to older Macintosh computers.]