There's a growing trend in iPhone/iPod speaker docks. Instead of building in a bunch of features like an LCD display for the clock, and AM/FM radio, or fancy alarm systems, companies like Altec Lansing are bringing out simple speakers that leverage the iPhone or iPod Touch's impressive capabilities that include the ability to run custom-designed alarm apps.
Some recent examples of the trend include the "app-enhanced" iHome iA5 (not a bad little system) and the iLuv iMM190, which we have not yet reviewed. But Altec's Octiv Mini M102 (reviewed here) is more successful than the iHome because of its smaller, more attractive design and lower price.
Like iHome, Altec offers a free downloadable alarm-clock iOS 4 app. When you first plug in your iPhone or iPod Touch, you're prompted to install the free app, which is nice, and if you have a wireless connection, you'll be taken straight to the App Store to download it. Alas, the app won't automatically launch when you dock your device (that's an Apple issue).
iHome's app is currently more robust, feature-rich, and snazzier-looking, but Altec says it's in the process of upgrading its app, which is called Alarm Rock. Even if it isn't all that slick, you do get the ability to set alarms only on certain days, so you could, for example, have a weekend alarm and a weekday alarm (you can set the alarm to only go off on particular individual days as well).
The speaker itself is 3.8 inches high by 4 inches wide by 5.3 inches deep, though it has a unique cutaway design that gives it a more angular, modern look (it's thinner at the back of its base). Altec has also raised the speaker grille in the middle, splitting it in two and turning the square into to two triangles. Kudos to the designer for making what could have been a boxy little speaker a lot more interesting to look at.
In terms of features, you get virtually nothing. A slim LED lights up green when you dock your device, but there are no buttons on the speaker whatsoever. Everything is controlled through your iPhone or iPod, which means you can't just reach over and hit the snooze button; instead, you have to carefully touch the screen on your device.
Though Altec has included an auxiliary input (for connecting other audio devices) with the first units to hit stores, company reps told us that in the future it may eliminate that input. We hope that Altec reconsiders. Yes, this product is geared toward iPhone and iPod Touch owners (though it does work fine with most non-touch-screen iPods), but it's nice to have the flexibility to plug in another phone or audio device should you choose to give up your iPhone at a later date.
This is a single-speaker mono system (read: no stereo) that Altec told us shares a lot in common with its Orbit portable speaker but has a deeper enclosure and a slightly more powerful amp, which helps improve the sound quality.
As for that sound, as you might expect from a speaker this small, it's not great, but it does play bigger than it looks and offers just enough bass to keep it from sounding too thin. In other words, for casual listening and background music in a bedroom or dorm room, it's just fine. (We ended up listening to a lot of Pandora radio and it's certainly well suited to lower-bit-rate music because it doesn't accentuate its flaws like some higher-end speakers do).
All in all, we really like the whole concept of the Octiv Mini. It's very compact, so it takes up little room on a nightstand or wherever you put it; is attractively designed; and puts out half decent sound considering its tiny chassis. Yes, we wish its list price of $59.99 was little cheaper, but hopefully we'll see this selling in the $40 to $45 range, where it would be an excellent buy.