Developer: Digital Lifestyle Outfitters (DLO)
Requirements: 4G or 5G iPod, 1G or 2G iPod nano, or iPod mini
Am I the only one who derives some amusement from the flurry of devices released in recent months in advance of the Apple TV? I’m talking about devices intended to provide access to your multimedia via your home theater—products as simple as the AirClick or as complex as the TuneView. Since I seem to have gotten on a little bit of a roll with reviews about such products, I’ll continue with DLO’s new HomeDock Deluxe. I say “new” because there was a prior version—non-upgradable—which did not have many of the current version’s features, such as on-screen navigation, display of album art, improved remote control, etc.
The HomeDock Deluxe includes a space to caddy its remote control. The dock connector design is such that you should be able to attach your iPod without removing its case, as long as the docking port is completely accessible through the case.
Like the TuneView I previously reviewed, DLO’s HomeDock Deluxe purposes to enable access to an iPod from a distance when it is attached to a television, and still be able to use all the iPod’s features. Also like the TuneView, the price point is one that may not be worthwhile to some people—especially owners of iPods that cost less than these dock products.
Unlike the TuneView, however, the HomeDock Deluxe is simply a disappointment in nearly all respects. For all I know, DLO already knows about the troubles I found and possibly others I haven’t found, and may be planning a firmware update. But this review is based on the product that was shipped to me, so on we go.
iPods are supported by an adjustable brace that slides forward and backward to accommodate various thicknesses of iPods and/or cases. The dock has standard RCA outputs instead of the single 3.5mm plug on Apple’s dock. There’s also an S-Video output and a standard B-type USB jack for connecting the dock to your computer.
First of all, I very much like the dock design. The choice to not sink the dock connector into an indentation and instead provide a brace to hold up iPods from the rear means that there are no dock adapters to klutz with. It also means many styles of cases don’t have to be removed before connecting the iPod to the dock.
Another nice touch is that the dock includes a 3.5mm auxiliary audio input jack. So, if you used up your last audio input in your amplifier by attaching the HomeDock Deluxe, you’ll still have an easy way to temporarily connect another audio device without reaching around to the back of your amp.
The one good thing the remote control has going for it is that it most definitely does not feel like the chintzy piece of junk, which is often the case with remotes this size. It’s solid, and feels like it can easily survive some abuse. There’s even a very nice pad of rubber on the bottom, presumably for anti-slip purposes.
Unfortunately, the remote’s flat shape is not an easy fit to your hand, and the button layout is not one that lends itself to fast memorization.
Aside from the fact that the sound coming out of the HomeDock Deluxe into my amplifier was as good as anything I’ve tried, I’m afraid the rest of this review is pretty much downhill from here.
I’m not a typical geek. I do at least skim through user manuals. I found myself repeatedly puzzled over a few items in the manual, which didn’t match what I was seeing with the HomeDock Deluxe. Turns out, the manual had to be printed before DLO had completely finished the firmware, and some last-minute changes were made. DLO does reveal this tidbit on the product’s support FAQ page (note, I said support FAQ, not the general FAQ on the main product page) and provides an updated manual as a PDF download, but I imagine there’ll be some customers who’ll not figure this out. Aren’t you glad you read about it here at ATPM?
Since I’m talking about the manual, I’ll also point to one little nugget that is still written in the revised manual. Page 22 talks about connecting standalone powered speakers to the HomeDock Deluxe. Step two says to “Connect the included RCA-to-mini Audio Adapter…” The box I received—which did appear to be a standard off-the-shelf retail box—contained no such adapter.
Once I actually began playing some music files, I was reasonably impressed by the on-screen user interface.
The HomeDock Deluxe’s on-screen display is a color-customizable extension of your iPod’s interface. The “My Jukebox” feature is essentially identical to the iPod’s “On-the Go Playlist” feature.
Being the customization junkie that I am, I headed straight for the HomeDock Settings item to see what I could fool with. After very quickly selecting the black color scheme for the menus (seen above), I began looking at the screen saver visualizations that were available.
OK, that was quite blunt, but that word truly came out of my mouth—audibly—when I looked at the visualizations. They’re absolutely pathetic and look as if they came straight out of the 8-bit gaming world of the 1980s. Consequently, the Now Playing display and the Status Bar display were the only two screen saver modes I feel are worth using. Please note that all of these modes—the various information displays as well as the visualizations—are all treated as screen savers. This tidbit will factor again later in this review—several times.
Once I gave up on the visualizations, I started skipping to different tracks. Correction, I started trying to skip to different tracks. The first skip went OK but, within the first second of playback, I knew I wanted to skip that song as well. I pressed the track forward button, and nothing happened. I pressed it again. Still nothing. Finally, on the fourth try, my ears were treated to the next random song. This is when I looked at the display on my television and noticed something peculiar. Turns out, you’ll have to wait for about 10 seconds, plus or minus a few, into a track before you can advance to a new track. The HomeDock Deluxe won’t accept a skip command until after it’s finished gathering data about the currently playing track—something it does at a snail’s pace.
Since when does the WoW contemporary Christian music compilations include Nickelback?
Here’s the scenario: as you see in the above photo of my television screen, a track from a music compilation series known as WoW had been playing when I skipped to the next track. The Status Bar display immediately updated with the artist name, song title, and album title of the next track (by Nickelback), but the album art from the previous track remained.
I should point out that this Status Bar screen saver (remember, I said earlier that all those display modes are screen savers) refreshes itself approximately every 4–6 seconds, appearing in a different location on the screen each time. When the Status Bar refreshes a few seconds after showing the prior track’s album art with the current track’s information, it shows nothing at all except for your iPod’s name!
Stage two of the delay implies that no news is good news.
You’re treated to this information-less box for another 4–6 seconds before the screen saver updates itself again with the album information and correct cover art.
NASA talks to astronauts on the moon with less delay time than the HomeDock Deluxe’s delay in retrieving track data.
The button to skip to the next track is completely unresponsive until this point. Once the proper album art is showing, you can then advance to the next track. As a comparison, I can skip through songs very quickly on the Keyspan TuneView—and it even has to perform communication over RF to the LCD display on the remote!
Another gripe about those screen savers—I would probably have rather used the Now Playing mode since it displays larger cover art and a playback progress indicator. But this display remains at a fixed point on the screen. What’s the point of a screen saver if the visualization stays in the same spot instead of floating up and down? This is why I opted for the Status Bar screen saver since it does move the bar around every few seconds. You can opt to completely disable any screen saver choice, but then the main menu remains on the screen with song information and progress at the top.
Looking at the song/artist/album/etc. lists in the user interface, DLO really needs to improve the scrolling and incorporate the same jump-to-letter feature found on the 5.5G iPods and in the recently released firmware update to Keyspan’s TuneView. It is extremely difficult to get to a specific spot in a long list without a lot of trial and error with holding down the scroll to pick up speed and simply (and slowly) clicking through two or three at a time. I found myself blowing clean past a desired artist numerous times—forward and backward—before managing to time the scrolling well enough to reach the name I wanted.
One last item about song playback is a pretty serious bug. I wanted to see what the HomeDock Deluxe would do after playing the last song of an album with nothing else to play. So I chose an album, navigated to the last track, started playing it, then scanned forward to the last 30 seconds.
When the song was over, the Status Bar mode that I was using changed to the blank box with my iPod’s name, as seen in the image above. I hit an arrow button on the remote and saw what looked like the background of the navigation menu, but the menu items were gone. Only an up arrow icon and a label pointing left to the album’s name remained, and I could move nowhere within the menus. The upper portion, normally occupied by the track data and playback progress bar, was also empty.
With the user interface in this state, I saw no other choice but to simply unplug the power and plug it back in. Several times, I repeated the steps to cause this phenomenon which didn’t occur 100% of the time, but definitely far more often than not. It seems like albums or playlists with only a couple tracks are less likely to crash the firmware when the end is reached. I tried testing this by invoking the crash at the end of a longer album, and then just leaving it for about 10 minutes. I came back and the controls were still unresponsive. I gave up on it.
There’s continued abnormality in the video playback. Either I was sent a defective unit, or there’s a serious glitch in the HomeDock Deluxe’s code that takes an iPod’s video signal and converts it for a television. The best way to describe this is to simply show you:
Playing videos from the HomeDock Deluxe result in a picture filled with horizontal bands.
What you’re looking at in the shot above is a photo taken of my television while playing a video from my iPod, through the HomeDock Deluxe, and connected to my entertainment system. For those who care, the shot is a music video with scenes of a live concert—a brightly lit stage in the distance. The bright bars on either side are just the excess area from a 4:3 program being shown on my widescreen television. The horizontal bands, however, are a major problem and completely unacceptable.
I’m 100% positive my iPod is not to blame because, as soon as I saw this, I immediately connected my iPod to the TuneView that I previously reviewed and played the exact same video. It was perfectly clear. I went back to the HomeDock Deluxe, making sure to firmly seat the bottom of the iPod into the dock connector. I played the same video again, and the bands were still present.
Curiously, as positive as I am that my iPod is not to blame, I’m nearly as confident the video output circuitry (meaning the RCA and S-Video jacks) are also not faulty. Scroll up and look at the menu/user interface screenshots. No banding. Clearly, the problem lies within the portion of circuitry that acquires video from the iPod and not with the portion that outputs video to a television.
For the record, I’m not completely discounting that the dock I received may simply be defective and that a replacement will solve the issue. Even still, my Okay rating is only bolstered by this glitch and does not hinge on it, especially considering the aforementioned firmware lock-up.
The last concern I’ll describe is less of a bug and more of just a poor programming choice about the screen savers. If you plan to watch a lot of videos through the HomeDock Deluxe, assuming DLO can eliminate the banding in the videos (or that my dock was defective), you’re simply going to have to turn the screen saver function off entirely. It will actually still come on while playing a video at the time set in the preferences (you can choose 10 seconds, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, or 10 minutes). Yes, you’re reading me correctly. The television will switch from your video to the chosen screen saver at the chosen time! I did discover a workaround that involves scanning the video playback forward and/or backward before the screen saver activates. You can then scan back to the beginning and watch the video without the screen saver interruption. But this is utterly unacceptable. DLO, you must temporarily block screen saver activation when a video is played.
In the interest of completeness, I’m told that Mac OS X also doesn’t disable its screen saver or dimming feature when videos are playing, but I believe that’s only if media is playing in a portion of the display. Full-screen videos from DVDs, as I understand it, do disable screen savers, and I believe things like full-screen mode from QuickTime Player (Pro version) do as well, but someone could demonstrate otherwise. Personally, I’m indifferent about it because I don’t run a screen saver and the time before my screen dims is about 15 minutes—longer than typical videos I watch online.
I’m taking for granted that most of what I’ve mentioned about the HomeDock Deluxe can be corrected with a firmware update. Hopefully, it won’t take a complete recall, hardware correction, and re-ship to fix the problems. I’ll keep an ear open for news of a major firmware update from DLO. If changes are sufficient to help the HomeDock Deluxe crawl out of the Okay rating, I will both post a comment to this review and write about my findings in the E-Mail section of a future issue.
But, until that happens—if it happens—I must recommend looking elsewhere, such as the TuneView, for an iPod dock solution that interacts with your home entertainment system.