iBolt xProDock Connect review: Dock your Android phone and drive with this NFC-powered cradle
iBolt's xProDock hardware and Dock'n Drive software put your Android phone and car apps at your fingertips.
The iBolt xProDock Connect is is a bundle that combines a strong suction cup mount for smartphones with a simple, effective Android app that fills the phone's screen with a car-friendly interface. Joining these two halves of a whole is near-field communication (NFC) technology that works well, but feels a bit like a hack.
The xProDock itself is a pretty nice bit of hardware. Extending from a suction cup mount, a curved arm meets the back of the cradle with a ball joint that provides 360 degrees of rotation, and about 180 degrees of left-to-right and up-and-down tilt. The ball joint holds its chosen position with a twist of its locking collar.
The cradle holds your phone at three points with three arms. The two bottom arms are mostly fixed in their positions, but can be adjusted slightly to accommodate thick handsets or phones in thick cases. The third arm is found at the top of the cradle and is spring loaded. The phone is placed into the cradle by pushing it against this third arm until the handset settles into the two lower hooks. Then the moderate pressure of the top arm holds everything in place securely.
The xProDock holds phones ranging from 2.6 to 3.7 inches wide (6.6cm to 9.4cm).
iBolt includes a 6-foot (just under 2m) Micro-USB cable (which most Android phones use for charging), but you'll need to bring your own USB power source (either built into your car or a using an USB adapter). The cable locks into place on the cradle with a pair of clips on the back side. A removable panel allows you to pass the cable through the back of the xProDock or to flip the cable if you'd rather mount your phone in a different orientation.
The suction cup locks into place with a lever and the rubber disk itself is made of a semi-adhesive, sticky-tacky material that creates a doubly strong seal on glass. This tacky suction cup also allows the xProDock to mount to most hard surfaces (such as a hard plastic dashboard) without assistance. For soft surfaces, iBolt includes a Dash Disc that permanently attaches to the dashboard with a 3M adhesive, providing a hard surface for the xProDock's suction cup to grip.
The Dock'n Drive app
The xProDock is designed to work with a pair of free apps for the Android phones that it cradles: iBolt Dock'n Drive and iBolt Dock Mode. Both apps are found in the Google Play Store and feature no in-app ads. Additionally, there's nothing forcing you to use these apps with the iBolt xProDock, if you don't want to. So you can use your own car mode apps or even use iBolt's apps with another car cradle.
Dock'n Drive is a simplified interface that's designed to put commonly used car functions at your fingertips. The Dock'n Drive can also automatically change certain phone settings that you'll want active when in the car. For example, powering on Bluetooth, increasing the volume to full, setting the screen brightness to max, and setting the screen timeout to "always on."
The interface displays six, large customizable shortcuts at a time that can be swiped from left to right to reveal up to five banks of buttons. The app defaults to shortcuts for Google Maps Navigation, Google Voice Search, the People app (your address book), an "It can wait" text message-blocking function, and a shortcut to the iBolt Dock Mode app.
The "It can wait" function silences notifications for incoming messages while returning a customizable canned response to the sender that lets them know you're driving and will get back to them shortly.
From there, you can populate the many blanks with shortcuts to your favorite driver apps, smartphone functions, or commonly accessed contacts.
To the right of swipeable, tappable shortcuts you'll find a digital speedometer that lets you know how fast you're currently driving using the phone's GPS receiver. Below that are buttons for settings and to quit the app.
When you've tapped an app and left the Dock'n Drive app, there's an option to overlay a floating shortcut (like a Facebook chat head) that gives you a quick shortcut back to the simplified interface.
The iBolt Dock Mode is a helper app that toggles the Dock'n Drive interface by invoking a little-used Android feature called Car Mode. Tap its icon or wave your phone near the included NFC chip once to activate car mode and bring up the Dock'n Drive interface; tap again to deactivate and return to your normal home screen.
What I expected vs. what I got
I was under the impression that the iBolt xProDock featured a built-in NFC chip that would automatically trigger the Dock'n Drive app, but the cradle does not feature a built-in NFC tag.
Instead, the NFC tag is included in a separate card and looks more like a keychain charm. Users have the choice of either tapping the Dock'n Drive tag to the back of their phone before and after removing the phone from the cradle at the beginning and end of each trip. Another, simpler option is to stick the Dock'n Drive tag onto the xProDock's face using the same double-sided tape that holds the tag to the box card.
The tape is pretty strong (if you're careful and get it removed from the card cleanly) and seems like it would be hard to knock off accidentally, but an internal tag would be much more secure. However, by letting the user mount the NFC tag themselves, it allows the tag to be positioned correctly for their particular phone. For example, my Nexus 5's NFC reader sits just above the centerline of the phone's back panel, which meant that I had to offset the mounting position a tad to ensure that the Dock'n Drive mode was triggered consistently.
Owners of phones that locate the NFC receiver near the extreme ends of the device may not be able to mount the tag on the xProDock's inverted-T shaped chassis.
Of course, this isn't an issue for owners of phones without NFC. They can just tap the Dock'n Drive app icon on their phone's touchscreen.
The iBolt xProDock Connect's NFC gimmick feels a bit hacked together and could be better integrated. The stick-it-yourself tag that comes in the box feels like something that I could just DIY and is hardly a selling point for the iBolt bundle. But that's just one small con on the other side of a decent list of pros.
I really like the xProDock hardware. The cradle sticks to a wide range of surfaces without damaging them and it holds the phone securely, but gently enough that I was able to place and remove my handset with just one hand. I also liked the inclusion of the long, secured Micro-USB cable, which adds to the overall value. Some will lament the lack of a USB charger to go with that cable, but I'd rather pick my own charger anyway. And at a list price of $40 (£25, AU$43 converted), I don't think the price could stand any more inflation; it's already at the top end of what I'd consider acceptable for a car dock.
I also like iBolt's Dock'n Drive app. It doesn't do much but provide easy to see and tap shortcuts to my favorite car apps and contacts, but it doesn't need to do much more than that. Even if you don't pickup up the xProDock Connect bundle, this free app is worth taking for a spin.