The first “iPod alarm-clock”—a dock-cradle speaker system that included clock and alarm functions—was released back in 2005, and it quickly became one of the most popular types of accessories for Apple’s portable players. But these days, if you’ve got an iPhone or iPod touch, you can choose from among dozens of apps that, when used with a set of powered speakers, turn your iOS device itself into the alarm clock. Accordingly, vendors such as iHome and i-Luv now make alarm-clock speaker systems that work together with company-branded apps to make it easier to set alarms, customize hardware settings, and more.
But what if you don’t need—or don’t want to pay for—all those bells and whistles, or you just don’t care to monopolize the space on your nightstand or desk with a bulky system? What if you just want a place to charge your iPhone or iPod at night or while you’re working, along with a speaker so you can hear your alarm and maybe put on the occasional background music? Then you’re the target customer for Altec Lansing’s compact and affordable ($50) Octiv Mini.
At just 4 inches wide, 5 inches deep, and 3.8 inches tall, the Octiv Mini has one of the smallest footprints of any dock-cradle speaker system we’ve seen; it won’t take up much space next to your bed or on a counter. Yet thanks to Altec Lansing’s current design themes—matte-black surfaces, a dark-gray-fabric speaker grille, and lots of sharp angles—the Octiv Mini still presents a rather striking appearance.
Just as striking is the the lack of any buttons, knobs, or other controls. Behind the fabric grill sits a single 2.5-inch speaker; on top is a dock cradle that uses Apple’s Universal Dock design; and in back are jacks for the included AC power adapter and for connecting another audio source. There are no playback controls, volume buttons, or clock switches—the Octiv Mini’s surfaces are all smooth runs of plastic. Instead, you use your iPhone or iPod’s own buttons and onscreen controls to adjust volume levels, control music playback, and the like.
This control-less approach allows Altec Lansing to keep the Octiv Mini’s price down, but it’s also a judicious move: apart from the iPod classic, all current iPods (and, of course, all iPhones) sport a touchscreen that provides better playback controls than you’ll find on most docking speaker systems. And as long as you have the right Universal Dock adapter, your iPod or iPhone is stable enough when docked to use those onscreen controls. (Two adapters—for the iPhone 3G and 3GS, and for the second-generation iPod touch—are included.) Altec Lansing claims compatibility with all iPhones; all iPod touch, nano, and classic models; and the iPod (video) and iPod (color display). The Octiv Mini is Works-with-iPhone certified, so the phone and speaker don’t interfere with each other.
Because there are so many quality alarm-clock apps in the App Store, I’m not going to cover Altec Lansing’s Alarm Rock app—the app the company advises you to download to use with the Octiv Mini—here. Suffice it to say that if you have a favorite clock app, it will work just fine with the Octiv Mini. (I’m particularly fond of the TimeTuner Internet-radio alarm clock.) The alarm feature on iPods works well, tool.
The speaker itself remains in a standby state until you dock your iPhone or iPod, after which an amber light just in front of the dock shines to let you know the system is turned on. When your iPhone or iPod’s alarm goes off, the alarm sound plays through the Octiv Mini’s speaker at whatever volume level is set on the iPhone or iPod.
There’s one drawback to the Octiv Mini when it comes to alarm-clock use: As someone who doesn’t see very well without contacts or glasses—read: when in bed at night—I regularly wished I could dock my iPhone in landscape orientation, as most iOS alarm-clock apps let you view larger clock digits in that orientation. (The iLuv iMM190, also in the queue for review, offers such a feature, which offers advantages for watching video and viewing photos, as well.)
You can also use the Octiv Mini to listen to music, podcasts, and other audio when you’re awake, but remember that this is mono audio from a single, 2.5-inch speaker driver—audio quality isn’t what you’d get from a larger system, or even a similarly sized one with left and right channels. The Octiv Mini’s audio is midrange heavy, with treble that can be bit “sizzly” in places, though the speaker produces more upper-bass kick than I expected. Overall, I found the Octiv Mini to be just fine for alarms and for casual waking-up and going-to-sleep listening. It was also OK for occasional music listening at my desk, although the sound became fatiguing before too long.
While the Octiv Mini provides an auxiliary-input jack for listening to an audio source other than an iPhone or dockable iPod, this jack is useful only when you don’t have an iPhone or iPod in the system’s dock cradle. With a player docked, the system’s rear input is mixed with the iPod or iPhone’s audio, but at a much lower volume: even if you turn the other source’s volume all the way up, its audio is barely loud enough to hear. Even worse, if you remove your docked iPhone or iPod, the volume level of the auxiliary input jumps dramatically—enough to hurt your ears if you’re too close.
I also found that the Octiv Mini’s matte surfaces are easy to scratch—after a few weeks of use, the top of our review unit was noticeably scuffed just from late-night attempts to seat an iPhone in the cradle.
But the Octiv Mini’s biggest flaw, considering the system is likely to be used near a bed, is that whenever its dock cradle is empty, the speaker produces an audible hiss. The hiss isn’t especially loud—you likely won’t notice it from across a bedroom—but when the Octiv Mini is on a nightstand right next to your bed, the hiss can be loud enough to be distracting.
Macworld’s buying advice
The idea behind the Octiv Mini—a simple, compact charging dock with a decent speaker for casual listening and alarm-clock use—is a good one. And while Altec Lansing could have gone with a cheap look, the Octiv Mini’s austere design, love it or hate it, looks impressive for a system at this price. The system even provides decent sound quality given the contexts in which you’ll likely use it. However, the audible hiss from the speaker and the system’s poor auxiliary input mixing (which could potentially damage your hearing) hold it back.