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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Apple iPad Keyboard Dock

If there's any company in the world that we'd trust to make a great keyboard for a computer, it's Apple -- we've been using and loving its Mac keyboards for years, following their evolution from chunky beige telephone-cabled boxes to clear and white trays and eventually ultra-thin aluminum plates with just enough plastic for keys on the top and elevation on the bottom. We use one every day, and wouldn't replace it with anything else. So the iPad Keyboard Dock ($69) arrived at our door with a certain level of immediate confidence and trust: we know this aluminum-bodied, matte plastic-keyed thing already, understand that the iPad dock behind it is almost exactly the same as the standalone iPad Dock Apple previously released, and like the way it feels almost instantly.
But is it really the same as a Mac keyboard—say, an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard? The short answer: there are differences, some non-trivial, but they’re far more alike than not. The iPad Keyboard Dock is just as wide as the Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, with only one less key—function (fn) is gone—and the previously function (f1, f2, f3…) keys are labelled differently. At furthest left is a Home button, which works just like hitting the iPad’s own Home button, the first time any accessory has been able to mimic this feature, while automatically enabling the Keyboard Dock to wake the iPad from its locked mode without any swipes. Then there’s a Spotlight search button that interrupts whatever you’re doing to bring the iPad back into Spotlight mode, brightness down and up buttons, a button to activate Picture Frame mode, and a button to call up the virtual on-screen keyboard should you need it for something you can’t easily do with the Keyboard Dock.
Next is an empty button, the subject of some pre-release speculation, which appears at this point to have no assigned function, followed by track backwards, play/pause, and track forwards controls for iPod music playback, volume mute, down, and up buttons, and finally a lock key. Pressing that merely turns the iPad’s screen on and off. The rest of the iPad Keyboard Dock’s keys are just like a standard Apple keyboard’s, again missing only “function,” with widened “control,” “option,” and “command” keys to fill the same space. Some of the keyboard shortcuts Mac users are accustomed to finding—“command-C” to initiate copy, for instance—are included in the iPhone OS, and more will likely come with time and additional applications. Arrow keys work perfectly to move upwards and downwards within word processing (Notes, Pages) documents, and can highlight text in conjunction with the shift key, but do not appear to have any ability to interact with the Home screen or the iPod application to highlight items or make selections.
Otherwise, using the keyboard after becoming accustomed to Apple’s Mac keyboards is completely intuitive. This entire review was typed on the iPad Keyboard Dock with instant familiarity, and just as much speed and accuracy as using either a wired or wireless Apple keyboard. The feel of the Keyboard Dock’s keys is identical to the Mac accessories, and very similar to using the keyboard on a MacBook computer, for that matter. From these standpoints, it’s a winner. On the back of the Keyboard Dock, just as with the standard iPad Dock, there are both Dock Connector and 3.5mm audio ports, which can connect to Apple’s Dock Connector to USB cable for charging and syncing, and an audio cable for audio-out, neither cable included.
The “normal” way to use the iPad Keyboard Dock, of course, would be either without a wall charger connected, or with the Dock connected to the 10W USB Power Adapter, rather than to a computer. Connecting this keyboard dock to a computer with a keyboard for charging and synchronization wouldn’t make a lot of sense—the reason our rating of the Keyboard Dock isn’t being markedly reduced based on some weirdness we saw when trying to sync the docked iPad with an iMac, something that the Keyboard Dock’s instruction manual claims is one of its capabilities. Several times when we tried to sync the iPad using this Dock, iTunes went through a bizarre, extended process of attempting to re-authorize all of the device’s applications, at two points threatening to delete them. The problems disappeared when we disconnected the iPad from the dock for a sync, and reappeared when we reconnected the iPad to the dock. After switching USB ports on the iMac, we couldn’t replicate the problem again. It’s hard to know what caused the issue, but we hadn’t experienced anything similar with the iPad and a standard Dock Connector connection during prior synchronizations to the same computer.
Sonically, the iPad Keyboard Dock seems to be trouble-free. As with all Apple docks we’ve tested over the past seven years, the Keyboard Dock’s line-level audio is powerful, and appears to have been properly engineered to match the slightly different Dock Connector audio characteristics of the iPad. Unlike Apple’s remote controllable Universal Docks for iPods and iPhones, the volume buttons on the keyboard do not attenuate the line-level audio output; this is left for the connected speakers. Mute, however, does work to cut off the audio output to the line-out port altogether.
The single biggest problem with the Keyboard Dock is one that’s unavoidable based on its all-in-one design: it doesn’t work on a standard slide-out desk keyboard tray unless you’re willing to make some awkward accommodations for the iPad, which leans back on the dock, shadowing the unusually deep plastic accessory as it reclines. Consequently, we found ourselves using it on top of a desk with our palms hanging off the desk’s edge, a less than totally comfortable position for typing. Another compromise is the screen’s orientation, which is forced by the Keyboard Dock into tall vertical mode rather than widescreen; some users may prefer one to the other. A final issue: the iPad Keyboard Dock only accommodates an unencased or super-thin-covered iPad, so if you’re keeping your device protected, you might have some inconveniences to contend with here.
These issues might well push people to prefer Apple’s standard iPad Dock or a third-party stand to hold the iPad, while a separate Bluetooth keyboard goes on a lower desk tray or in the lap. If you’re buying all-Apple items, the cost of either alternative solution will be even higher than the iPad Keyboard Dock’s already iffy $69 asking price, but third-party options may cost less.
One thing that third-party solutions will struggle to beat Apple on is build quality. Though it mightn’t be the most practical or versatile design for traditional desktop use, the iPad Keyboard Dock is every bit as excellent as Apple’s desktop and laptop keyboards for actual typing, assuming that you can get the positioning right. Palm-cramping aside, we churned out this review at a brisk pace with relatively few typographical errors, and felt confident about the stability of the attached device at all times while we were typing. That’s a lot more than we can say for any of the virtual keyboards Apple has produced over the past three years, including the ones on the iPad, and though the Keyboard Dock’s not the perfect implementation of its concept, it’s a good enough start to merit our general recommendation.

Incase Combo Charger for iPod, iPhone & iPad

Though months have actually passed, it feels like only yesterday that Incase released the Combo Charger for iPod & iPhone, a hybrid home and car power adapter that we liked. With the iPad now in stores, Incase rapidly updated last year's model to become the Incase Combo Charger for iPod, iPhone & iPad ($40), preserving the same price and aesthetics while changing a couple of features.
On a positive note, the new Combo Charger has the same general look and feel as its predecessor: it uses soft touch black rubber to cover a 4.25” long car charging bulb with wall blades on one side and a car charging plug on the other, using glossy plastic for the side that faces outwards in a car or upwards in a wall outlet. A second color is not yet available for iPad users, but the prior iPod and iPhone Combo Charger was also released in a white and gray variation. Incase uses an illuminating white leaf on the glossy side to let you know that power’s running to the USB port, and as with last year’s model, provides no audio-out from the accessory—it’s solely for power. No iPad-ready charger currently offers audio output, but we expect that will change in the months to come.
The USB port is the focus of Combo Charger’s two big changes. First, there’s only one USB port—last year’s model included two, making better use of the relatively large bulb’s body, while enabling users to connect two devices at once for charging. But the bigger difference is under the hood: the iPad version of the Combo Charger is capable of outputting three different levels of power: 0.5 Amps for iPods, 1 Amp for iPhones, and 2.1 Amps for iPads. Consequently, any Apple device you connect to it indoors or in your car will recharge as fast as it’s capable of charging—a real boon for the iPad, which can take as long as 16 hours to fully replenish its battery if it’s not fed enough juice.
We had no problem charging iPods, iPhones, or iPads with the new Combo Charger, and it worked as promised when connected to the wall and when used in the car. Incase discloses on its web site that the Charger may feel warm to the touch when it’s in use, and with the iPad, we did notice the warmth—thankfully, it’s nowhere near as hot as some of the early iPhone-only chargers we tested, as Incase is apparently using cooler-running parts. The single biggest ease of use issue with the Combo Charger turns out to be its size, which will require you to make a little extra space on your wall outlet, or turn the bulb upside down. Incase’s nice roughly 40-inch USB-to-Dock Connector cable matches the Charger, detaching for use with your computer or for easier storage; the wall blades also fold inwards to lower the accessory’s profile in a bag.
If there’s any other issue with the Combo Charger, it’s just the price: to the extent that dual-port, dual-purpose chargers were just about right-priced at $40, Incase is charging a premium here for the novelty of iPad compatibility, and it goes without saying that you can add a car-only iPad charger for $25 or less to the wall charger that comes with your iPad. For that reason, travelers are the primary audience for this new version of the Combo Charger—all-in-one convenience makes it a solid option for people who don’t want to carry two separate accessories around, and are willing to pay a little extra for the versatility.

Simplism Emergency Battery, Dual USB Charger Slide + Dual USB Charger Air

On our most recent visit to Japan, one thing was clear: Simplism has become a major player in the iPod and iPhone accessory market. Unlike Power Support, which built its brand by delivering Japanese-designed, Japanese-manufactured, and universally high-quality accessories -- all at higher prices -- Simplism has come in from the other side of the market, marketing clean but cheaper Chinese-made options at lower prices. Most of the Simplism accessories we've looked at are cases, but there are three power options in the collection, as well: the Emergency Battery ($25), the Dual USB Charger Air ($17), and the Dual USB Charger Slide ($17). They're sold separately from one another, each in black or white versions, and offer a slightly different twist on accessories we've seen before.
One thing that needs to be said about all three of these items: they all work as expected, and they look nice, but they also all feel cheap—cheap in the sort of deliberate, measured way that enables a company to ask unapologetically, “what did you really expect for $17?” Many iPod and iPhone accessory makers pride themselves on following Apple’s design examples, removing seams from plastic, providing a “right” weight, and providing reassuring clicks or gentle, graceful sweeps when hinges or other parts are moved. These three accessories substantially discard these principles. And that’s part of why they’re so inexpensive.
Take the Emergency Battery, which isn’t actually a battery, but rather a glossy plastic shell capable of turning any set of three AAA batteries into an emergency charger for a depleted iPod or iPhone. There’s a Dock Connector at one end, a compartment on the back to insert the batteries, which you supply yourself, and a cap for protection of the Dock Connector when it’s not in use. It borrows the general look of a black iPhone 3GS, complete with silver Myriad Pro branding on the front to match a plastic-chrome bezel shaped like the iPhone’s, and there’s a little yellow lightning bolt that appears to indicate that it’s charging.
While three AAA batteries aren’t the most convenient choice for a charger—these batteries aren’t generally sold here in three-packs—this combination of thickness and capacity has the advantage of fitting in an enclosure that’s as thin as an iPhone or iPod classic while offering enough power to bring one of these devices back to life from a complete discharge. Based on a set of three fresh Energizer AAAs, we were able to get a dead 120GB iPod classic to roughly the 70% recharged point—around 400mAh of power, we’d estimate—which is enough to get an iPhone to around a 1/3 charge. Yes, it’s for emergencies, and yes, it works.
The Dual USB Charger Air also borrows from Apple’s designs. Air is so named because it uses a pop-open compartment similar to the MacBook Air’s to hide two USB ports for wall charging, enabling it to fit everything in an enclosure that’s tapered to look even smaller than its slightly-less-than 2.5” by 2” by 1” dimensions. Seams are visible on its sides, and the compartment opens with a less than satisfying motion, but it does click into place, and the twin USB ports work exactly as expected. Two standard Apple-style USB cables fit without a problem into these ports, if you supply them yourself, and ratcheting rear wall blades—ones that were a little too tilted outwards, requiring pressure to bend them inwards—fold out to plug into US or Japanese wall ports. Interestingly, the blades ratchet enough that you can have the Charger Air plug straight into an outlet with both USB ports facing directly outwards—a convenience for those with limited space between wall or power strip outlets; otherwise, they’ll face upwards or downwards depending on how you connect the Charger to the wall.
By comparison, the Dual USB Charger Slide has a slide-closed compartment to shield its two ports while you’re traveling. While Slide is a little smaller than Air, its ports face in a different direction—outwards from its longest side—so even though its wall blades ratchet in the same way, the USB outlets are positioned in a place that’s better for unencumbered wall or end-of-power strip positions. Given that they both carry the same price tags and otherwise offer the same functionality, the choice of one version over the other is merely a matter of personal preference. Neither comes with an iPod/iPhone-compatible Dock Connector to USB cable, which accounts for part of the price difference between these $17 models and the $20-$30 competitors from companies such as Griffin.
In sum, all three of these charging accessories are good but not great budget options—if you’re willing to self-supply the batteries or the cables they need, they’re useful and well-designed enough to be worthy of $17 to $25. All three merit our general-level recommendation. That said, spending $10 or $15 more per accessory will yield both design and functional benefits from competing products, a tradeoff that Simplism obviously understands and is willing to make in order to offer its products at such aggressive prices.

Square Enix Final Fantasy + Final Fantasy II

Given the overwhelming international popularity of Square Enix's Final Fantasy franchise -- one of the key reasons Enix merged with Square some years ago -- it's not surprising that the Final Fantasy series has debuted on Apple's iPhone and iPod touch; in fact, given that the first two games in the series, Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II were re-released on other platforms, Square's decision to port these titles to the App Store seemed all but inevitable. Often sold as a bundle on other platforms, the iPhone versions of Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II are being sold separately on the App Store for $9 each, and are based upon the 2007 PSP releases, titled Final Fantasy + Final Fantasy II Anniversary Edition. Both games are very similar in design and gameplay, so we discuss them collectively in one review.
It’s worth mentioning up front that due to a difference in international Final Fantasy naming conventions and release dates, the titles shown here are the actual first and second titles in a series that started in 1987 on the Japanese version of Nintendo’s NES, the Famicom. Square had a very limited presence in North America back then, and waited until 1990 to release the original Final Fantasy with Nintendo’s assistance over here. It then skipped North American releases for Final Fantasy II and III, renaming the 1991 Super NES game—the fourth game in the series—Final Fantasy II. Retroactively, Square adopted the Japanese naming conventions for the entire series, so the Final Fantasy II released for iPhone is the original Final Fantasy II, not Final Fantasy IV.
Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy is a role-playing game (RPG) where you guide a party of four characters—the Warriors of Light—on a quest to save their world from the forces of darkness. To accomplish their quest you must lead your characters through towns, dungeons and the countryside, interacting with townsfolk and other non-player characters,  gaining experience by battling various creatures.
The game begins by letting you name and decide the types of characters that will make up your party, choosing each character’s attributes from among six character classes: Warrior, Thief, Monk, Red Mage, White Mage or Black Mage, with each class providing specific skills in terms of fighting and magical abilities. You must also name each character by either entering a name manually or having the game automatically choose a name for you.
The characters start in the town of Cornelia where you discover that the king’s daughter, Princess Sarah, has been kidnapped by the evil knight Garland. The four Warriors of Light undertake their first quest: to rescue the princess.
Final Fantasy’s game world is divided into two general areas: a large-scale world map that you use to travel the countryside between locations, and smaller scale maps that you use when in towns, castles or dungeons. Controls for moving your character in the game are provided in the form of a four-way virtual touchpad on the left side of the screen. When moving around on the smaller-scale town maps, a button appears on the right side of the screen that you can tap and hold to increase your character’s speed.
Most towns contain non-player characters (NPCs) that you interact with by walking up and tapping anywhere on the screen, initiating a conversation. As is the RPG norm, some characters will provide useful information, and others supply little more than idle chatter.
While the characters you’ll encounter in towns are generally friendly and mostly harmless, wandering around the world map will result in random combat encounters with various creatures. This will initiate a turn-based battle sequence in which you choose actions for each character: attack, defend, cast a spell, use a piece of equipment or try to run away. Each successful skirmish raises your characters’ experience points and thereby increases your ability to fight larger and stronger creatures as you progress through the game.
A blue box displaying character stats appears in the bottom-right corner whenever you’re not moving. Touching this box brings up the in-game options menu which provides more detailed character status, access to inventory items and the game’s save and configuration options. Tapping on a character will bring up even more detailed statistics; each character has a number of different attributes that are initially determined by their character class and increased as the character gains more experience in battle and completes various quests.
Towns have shops where you can buy and sell items such as weapons, armor, potions and magic spells, and the selection of items varies from town to town. Most towns also have an inn where your characters can pay for lodging to rest and recover their health, and a church or clinic where you can revive a member of your party who has been killed in combat.
An in-game help system is hidden away at the Cornelia inn as a group of NPCs who explain various game concepts when you speak with them. Beyond this one area that players are left to discover for themselves, documentation and in-game help is pretty much non-existent. Although the game will be completely familiar to fans of the Final Fantasy genre, new players may take some time to figure things out before they’re completely comfortable with the game. Notably, Square Enix has tweaked the game’s difficulty and pacing from the 1987 original, making it easier for first-timers and angering some old school players in the process.
The game also includes a Bestiary that can be found under the Configuration menu, providing a summary of the different types of creatures that you’ve battled and details on individual creatures.
Your progress within the game is automatically saved so that you can resume from where you left off after returning to the app. You can also manually save your game in one of the three provided save game slots. There appears to be no way to load a saved game or start a new game from within the app itself—you must exit the app and then reload it in order to access the main menu on the opening screen. Note that you cannot save your game during a battle nor is it automatically saved—exiting and reopening the game during a battle will resume in your location prior to the encounter.
For the most part the on-screen control system works quite well, although the ability to tap anywhere on the screen to initiate a conversation with a character and progress though the conversation sometimes caused a bit of frustration—we found ourselves restarting the same conversation by tapping the screen one too many times. Gamers accustomed to full freedom of analog joystick movement will find Final Fantasy’s limited, two-axis character movement to be a little cumbersome, as the on-screen touchpad only lets you move up, down, left, or right when navigating the world map; there’s a tendency to want to slide your finger around the touchpad to change direction, and since characters cannot move diagonally the controls end up feeling a bit unresponsive as your characters make the sharp 90 degree turn. Lifting your finger from one arrow button and tapping the button for another direction works much better but feels less natural.
We encountered a few other minor game play issues such as NPCs frequently blocking our path in narrow corridors, however such issues are not unique to the iPhone release; they’re part of the original game code, which apart from the aforementioned difficulty and pacing tweaks has been largely left intact, preserving an early classic RPG experience. On the flip side, the game’s lack of customization is somewhat annoying: it provides minimal configuration options, and no way to adjust music or sound effects volume. This was particularly a concern as we found some of the sound effects loud relative to the background music, and it was difficult to find an iPhone volume level that achieved a proper balance.
Final Fantasy II
The second game in the Final Fantasy series uses most of the same general UI design and gameplay as its younger sibling with slightly improved graphics and a few notable differences.
The characters that form your party in Final Fantasy II have more well-rounded skills. Rather than assigning character classes that restrict a character to a specific set of abilities, the characters in Final Fantasy II begin with a breadth of basic skills which are refined based on how you use them in battle. For example, characters who regularly cast spells will see their magic abilities increase while a character who regularly wields a sword will improve their sword fighting skills. Weapon-related skills in Final Fantasy II are specific to each weapon.
Final Fantasy II also introduces an extra level of interaction with NPCs in the form of “Key Terms” that you can learn and later ask other characters about to gain additional information. Key terms appear highlighted during conversations and you can memorize them for later use by choosing the “Learn” option from the conversation menu. A list of memorized key terms can also be found within the in-game menu.
Characters in Final Fantasy II are left- or right-handed, and when equipping players you choose which hand will hold a weapon or shield. Further, since every character is capable of using magic in at least a basic way, spells are now purchased as tomes rather than being learned directly in the magic shop. A tome can be used later to teach that spell to specific character.
Final Fantasy II is otherwise very similar to its predecessor, with the same user interface/on-screen control system, and most of the same menu options. The majority of the issues and limitations described for Final Fantasy also apply here: Square Enix provides little to no in-game assistance to get new players started, retains the “fine, not great” graphic style from the 2007 PSP release, and the sound effects and music are not as balanced as they should be. When the company released the Final Fantasy titles for Sony’s PlayStations, it updated the artwork from the original 8-bit sprites and backgrounds into what’s essentially slightly glossed up 16-bit artwork, approximating the looks of Super NES titles Final Fantasy IV and V with enhanced color palettes and faux 3-D movement reminiscent of the SNES’s “Mode 7.” The music has similarly been upgraded to roughly 16-bit SNES chip quality rather than the 8-bit chip music of the original; it’s acceptable, but well short of the orchestral compositions of more recent games in the series, and again drowned out somewhat by the effects. Both titles feel like quick and dirty ports to the iPhone and iPod touch, though admittedly, Square Enix could have just ported the original Japanese Famicom versions of the games and some people would have drooled all over the “retro” 8-bit graphics and sounds, anyway.
So, while the graphics and soundtrack in the iPhone versions of Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II are definitely nothing special by comparison to many other iPhone games we’ve seen, these versions of Final Fantasy are faithful adaptations of a game series that has become classic, and it’s fair to accept that the presentation of the games form a part of the classic Final Fantasy experience. Despite the aesthetics, the games both have good storylines, strong RPG elements and provide a good length of gameplay, and Final Fantasy fans will almost certainly enjoy these adaptations. It’s also worth noting that both games also include the bonus dungeons first introduced in the 2004 Dawn of Souls re-release for the GameBoy Advance.
Although the $9 asking price for each of these titles is high compared to similar iPhone games—enough that we’d call the titles a little too expensive for what they offer—fans will note that the 2007 PSP versions still sell for around $20 each as retail packages of the game in UMD disc form, not that the packaged versions are directly comparable in price. Regardless, Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II should definitely be of interest to classic RPG fans, and those who haven’t tried RPGs before will find both of these to be simple and straightforward enough to use as a starting point to whet their appetites for the genre. Should you like what you find here, there are at least 11 more and arguably better direct sequels in the series. Hopefully they too will come to the App Store, in even more impressive versions.

iHome iHome+Sleep App

To say that the alarm clock experts at iHome have taken a big step forward with their iHome+Sleep application (Free) for the iPhone and iPod touch is an understatement: the only question is whether they have bitten off more than they can chew. For five years, the company has dominated the iPod and iPhone alarm business with a series of good to great plastic-shelled accessories that all functioned in generally the same way, containing their own radio, alarm, and/or clock hardware rather than depending on Apple's devices for anything but optional access to their music libraries. This month, with the new clock radio iA5, iHome officially enters a new age in which its iPhone OS software will certainly augment and possibly replace the integrated capabilities of its hardware; this review looks at the iHome+Sleep app, while a subsequent one will cover the iA5 accessory.
iA5 and its more powerful upcoming brother iA100 are on the surface radically simplified versions of earlier iHome alarm clocks: each contains a screen with a clock and an alarm indicator, speaker hardware, and a streamlined collection of buttons to handle volume, power, and clock setting features. Use either with old iPods and it’ll seem more or less like a prior iHome unit, cosmetically redesigned. But plug in the iPhone or iPod touch for the first time and the iHome+Sleep will download, by default automatically disabling the accessory’s clock screen to replace it with something new and arguably better: a clock custom-designed to fit Apple’s 3.5” touchscreens.
iHome could have followed the same route as virtually every other company that has created a clock application for the App Store, offering a single-screen clock with a simple alarm and some flashy graphics to animate the clock’s motion. Nothing’s to say that more visual pizzazz would hurt a future version of iHome+Sleep, but that’s not what was done here. Instead, the company’s clock has one available visual customization—background art—which can come from your iPhone or iPod touch Photos library. Additionally, the time is always presented with the device in vertical orientation, which limits its size but offers plenty of other screen real estate for other features. Yes, iHome+Sleep is packed with other features. A slider underneath the clock lets you catch up on whatever updates your Facebook and/or Twitter accounts have gathered while you’ve slept. Information on the clock accessory’s integrated alarm is presented, alternating with a list of additional alarms that you can create as “cards” from within the app. Weather is presented as sliding “Current,” “Tonight,” and “Tomorrow” panes at the top of the screen. And where appropriate or desired, a play/forward/back window appears to let you control the music you’ve designated for waking up or falling to sleep.
This much needs to be said up front: these new features are just some of many in an impressive list, and iHome deserves commendation both for aiming so high with this feature set and for generally succeeding in implementing them all. iHome+Sleep is currently at version 1.1.3 and still needs some work, but whomever the company selected as its iPhone developer was way beyond the level of ambition and competence we’ve come to expect from app makers in general and clock developers in specific. iHome+Sleep gets an A for effort, without any doubt.
That said, the application’s sheer breadth—and its need to interface with Dock Connector-based iHome accessories—has left a lot to be polished. Introducing a new and arguably confusing clock control paradigm, it offers “Sleep Cards” rather than just plain old “Alarms,” referring to card-shaped windows that are completely loaded with options—everyday, weekend, weekday, and even custom day-of-week alarm repetition, minute-adjustable snooze timers, programmable iPod music playlists, bedtime and wakeup reminder text, and the separate abilities to post your advance-typed messages automatically to Facebook and/or Twitter. This is a lot more functionality than any iHome or other iPod/iPhone alarm clock has ever offered from a single screen.
But it’s also a lot more clicking and setup for the user, especially when you consider that these settings can be specified for multiple “Sleep Cards”—both alarms, and now also for “naps,” which are designed to help you fall asleep to music, rest during a sleep timer, then wake you to a buzzer or music as you prefer. Naps can have their own Facebook and Twitter updates, and so on. In every case, you have to confirm the social media messages before they’re sent, click on the reminders to close them when they’re presented, and navigate your iPod playlists with the aforementioned on-screen buttons. iHome+Sleep feels like it needs a simplified mode for dummies, but then, you can always ignore all of its settings and just use the ones on the iA5 or iA100, instead.
Even putting the Sleep Cards aside, the number of settings and other features found within the iHome+Sleep app is pretty incredible. You can set the level of your iPod or iPhone’s screen dimmer, change the clock’s background art, and even control the connected iHome accessory’s own settings from within the app, adjusting its treble and bass levels, individual alarm or alarms, its sleep timer, and its integrated clock—we found that the app actually did a better job of synchronizing the connected iPod touch’s time to the iA5 clock than the sync button on the clock itself. Another later of content hidden within the app is called “Stats,” tracking your sleep cycles, hours of sleep, bedtime and wakeup time, favorite albums, artists, and genres to sleep and wake up to, and averages for all of the sleep stats by day, week, month, and year. For some, all of these features will be geeky or creepy; others, like us, will just find their inclusion to be somewhat amazing.
As noted above, iHome+Sleep still needs some work—we found that the app crashes sometimes without explanation and needs to be manually reloaded, an issue that seemed to occur more in the process of gathering Facebook and Twitter updates and changing Sleep Card settings than elsewhere in the program; its general stability for putting you to sleep or waking you up is less likely to be an issue than an unexpected crash before or afterwards. Our impression is that there are still some communications issues yet to be ironed out with the iA5, as well, as the interaction between the two devices’ screens and the app’s ability to control the iA5 hardware are occasionally glitchy due to what seems like less than perfect synchronizations between the iPod or iPhone and the accessory. These are non-trivial problems, particularly for a clock application. Thankfully, iHome’s working on updates: in addition to bug fix releases, the company says that forthcoming version 1.3 will add worldwide weather support and downloadable instruction manuals to the prior feature set.
Thus, what iHome+Sleep offers now is an impressive collection of features that truly constitute a next-generation alarm clock, based on both the considerable horsepower of the iPhone and some impressive development work on iHome’s side. What’s needed next is additional stability on the app’s side—a non-negotiable feature for users who depend upon their alarms for work and other events—and an early toggle to let expert users fish through the features while helping everyone else to learn how to use what’s here. This is a good start for iHome, and a far better application than we’ve seen from any other hardware accessory maker to date, but the next layer of polish will be the one that determines whether it’s worth relying upon in place of a traditional, app-unassisted alarm clock.