Editors' Note: As of December 2007, this product has been replaced by the iHome iH9, which offers an updated design and some feature upgrades for roughly the same price.
With all kinds of accessories available for the iPod, it didn't shock us when an iPod-compatible clock radio hit the market. And the truth is, when you stop and think about it for a minute, it's a pretty good idea. Even better, the folks at SDI Technologies have done a decent job of pulling it off with their $99 iHome iH5, which comes in iPod white or black.
The concept is simple: make a digital clock radio with a pleasant design (we can't decide whether the iHome iH5's look is truly modern or retro-futuristic in a 1960s Space Odyssey sort of way), and build an iPod dock into the top of it. The product ships with several inserts that make earlier dockable iPods fit snugly and securely in the cradle. Of course, if you opt for a colorful iPod Mini or iPod Nano, they won't match the iH5 as readily.
When your iPod is in the dock and the iH5 is plugged in, your iPod will draw power from the clock radio and recharge. You choose songs, playlists, or podcasts with the iPod's scrollwheel as usual but hear the audio through the iH5's speakers. Of course, you can't get today's news and weather on the iPod--yet--but you can toggle to the iHome's AM or FM band at the touch of a button. We also appreciated the line-in connection on the back of the unit, which would allow you to connect other audio devices, including the first and second-generation iPod Shuffles that aren't dockable. A line-out connection is also available for hooking up to larger audio systems.
We found setting the alarm easy enough (you can choose to wake to your iPod, the radio, or a buzzer), and the display is amply sized and easy to read. Nice touches include backlit buttons on the radio, the ability to dim the LCD, and a well-placed snooze bar.
Though not a deal-breaker, the radio could use a preset (favorites) option for radio stations. To change stations, you have to turn one of the faux iPod scrollwheels on top of the unit--the other is for adjusting the volume--and make sure you don't go past the station you want. We had mixed feelings about the slippery dials, but they were somewhat ameliorated by the inclusion of a small credit-card style remote control. Using that remote allows you to autoscan for radio stations and skip forward and back through your songs. Even with the remote, you'll still have to use the controls on your docked iPod to navigate through menus and playlists. As with all dock-based iPod accessories, using the scrollwheel when the device is docked is a bit awkward, but at least the remote gives you some rudimentary navigation if you want turn the iH5 into a mini home-stereo system.
From a sound standpoint, the iH5 isn't on a par with more expensive clock radio/mini stereo systems such as the Bose Wave Music System or Boston Acoustics' MicroSystem CD, but it doesn't sound bad, and it costs far less. The system actually sounds best when you're sitting or lying just a few feet away from it, but it can fill a small room or office with sound. Again, that sound may seem a little thin at times, and as with most tiny speaker systems, the iH5 doesn't deliver much in the way of bass. But so long as you don't crank the volume too high, tunes hold together well, and the sound compares favorably to other similarly priced external iPod speaker systems from folks such as Logitech and JBL.
Since its 2005 release, SDI has implemented some subtle upgrades to the iH5. In addition to including the remote and additional cradle inserts (both of which were formerly sold separately), the alarm now slowly elevates (and the sleep function slowly decreases the volume), eliminating the jarring wake-up delivered by early models. Those improvements address many of the earlier criticisms (seen in some of the initial user reviews), making the iH5 an easier recommendation. Furthermore, SDI has released the iH7BR, essentially an iH5 doppelganger that adds radio presets and an auxiliary speaker (for the other side of the bed) for an additional $50. It also offers the iHome iH4, a smaller, cheaper bedside iPod dock that doesn't even offer a radio. Of the three, the iHome iH5 offers the best combination of features for its price and remains the best value.