You may have an iPod dock that can pump music through your stereo, but are you still watching the latest episode of Ask a Ninja on your computer monitor or losing your eyesight from watching the "Dick in a Box" video twenty straight times on your iPod's video screen? Gadget makers have moved beyond stereo docks: Now, in addition to playing all your favorite tracks, the docks will also play videos and photo slideshows on your television.
The iTunes store offers convenience, but smart users can rip their own DVDs to the iPod for free or convert those network TV shows you got off BitTorrent to iPod's format. Many programs can help with the task: Handbrake (link: http://handbrake.m0k.org/) for Mac OS X did a great job ripping Austin Powers from DVD and was free. Cucusoft (http://www.cucusoft.com/) on Windows ripped from DVD and converted a large variety of movie formats, though you'll have to pay for the software.
Every dock reviewed has a composite video out jack (it's the yellow one) as well as an S-video port for better playback. Still, it's important to realize the limits of your multimedia iPod. The iTunes store now features videos at near-DVD quality, but you will notice the difference. We tested the pilot episode of Lost, with its mix of daytime and evening scenes, and checked out the sharp contours of the animated The Incredibles. Both looked decent, but scenes with lots of motion will make it obvious you're not watching a DVD. You'll catch some occasional pixilation and banding (poor color separation), but at least you won't have to worry about VHS-tape degradation.
Each dock offered comparable video quality. Daytime scenes were bright and nicely colored, with good shading. Nighttime scenes were a mixed bag, with artifacts cropping up during scenes with lots of motion. The Incredibles was sharp, though darker scenes showed definite pixilation. Austin Powers, ripped from DVD, lacked some color vibrancy, though its quality, poorer than the iTunes-provided selections, was probably somewhat due to the settings used with the ripping software.
Here are some thoughts about the docks we looked at:
Griffin stands out for certain features, although it manages to fall short on some basic functionality. Where the other docks make you queue up your tracks on the iPod screen, Griffin's product lets you browse by album, genre, playlist and every other normal iPod menu on your television screen. Being able to select music with butt firmly planted on couch definitely enhances the laziness benefit of the dock.
Video playback doesn't fare quite as well. Due to the way the iPod video output is engineered, you'll have to select your video on the iPod screen to get it going initially. But volume controls failed to work during video playback and, worse yet, rewind and fast forward features wouldn't work, a real hindrance for those with itchy trigger fingers. Skip forward/backward did work, so you can at least navigate those videos broken up by chapter.
Build quality is decent. The remote sports the elongated cylinder of a normal remote shrunken down, and has an abundance of buttons, including a four-way direction pad. Unfortunately the remote is IR-based, so you'll have to keep a good line of sight with the dock to make sure it picks up the signals.
If you have an Ethernet cord handy, you can hook the dock up and get Shoutcast Internet radio stations. Unfortunately, there's no organization of the stations, so the feature won't do much unless you have the patience to scroll through a long list and find something that appeals to you. The stations work reasonably well, with no more interruptions than normal Internet streaming radio.
Kensington Entertainment Dock 500
Kensington gets a lot of details right with its dock. The unit features solid construction, with a partly metal base that can act as shelf for the remote, extra long cables to reach your television, and a power plug that fits horizontally into your power strip. The remote is comfortable, with rounded edges, and it illuminates when you press the keys and features RF technology so you can operate it without worrying about the cat getting in the way. The controls may be reminiscent of an iPod control pad, but two arrows and a select button are used for navigation and the part looking like an iPod scroll wheel actually controls volume.
Playback was solid. The Kensington doesn't offer Griffin's video navigation of your tunes, but it gets the basics down perfectly. Volume controls were responsive and covered a good range during music and video
playback. More important, all the fast forward and rewind controls worked perfectly throughout, including video playback.
Kensington does not include iPod dock adapters, so if you have an older iPod you may need to kick in a little cash to get your player fitting flush. It's an unfortunate omission considering all the other design elements they get right, but if you have a drawer full of never-used dock adapters, it's a minor point.
Belkin TuneCommand AV
This dock disappointed from the outset. The remote feels ungainly, with corners that dig into your hands. Inserting the battery proved to be harrowing, with an overly complex loading bay. The manual specifically warns against forcing the tray out of the remote's housing-undoubtedly because some engineers knew that was the natural motion of the abomination they created.
Continuing on the design front, the cables were woefully short, limiting the ability to place the dock far enough from the television. Belkin does include audio RCA jacks on the dock, so if you prefer pricey
Monster cables, you can string those from the dock to the stereo inputs. Belkin's ideas of extras are gimmicky; you can attach the remote with a clip to your belt buckle or to a lanyard, useful for keeping track of the remote and making you look like a dork.
Playback was reasonable. The remote does feature RF technology and convenient shuffle/repeat buttons. Video controls could not be used unless the videos were played in a playlist, an odd restriction considering the Kensington had no such problems. Belkin did the basics, but its inattention to detail was disappointing.
Future tech solutions
The Griffin TuneCenter has a new version that adds Wi-Fi access, so you don't need to run cable to enjoy Internet radio stations.
The Apple iTV, or whatever they decide to name it, is set to drop in the first quarter of 2007. The deck, which looks like a shorter Mac Mini, doesn't dock with an iPod but allows streaming from your iTunes software collection to your televisions. It will come with a higher price tag, $299, but with component and HDMI video outputs, it will probably feature better video quality than the docks featured here.
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