12 Essential iPod Gadgets

Want even more out of your Apple iPod? We examine 12 add-ons that can transform your iPod into an entertainment center, a DVR, or a car video player.

May 12, 2007

27 Min Read
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There's no denying it: The iPod has become ubiquitous. As a result, there is now a slew of add-ons available for iPod owners. While many of these are merely cosmetic -- such as faceplates, cases, and wristbands -- there are a lot of honestly worthwhile devices available that enhance or increase the iPod's functionality.

What follows is an opinionated examination of the most useful iPod add-ons out there. Keep in mind that this isn't a compendium of everything you could possibly have for your iPod. It's not. It is a collection of devices for the home, office, or on the go that I've actually spent time with. Some of them I actually bought for myself, and all of them are things you might seriously consider as add-ons for your own iPod.

Viewing Videos

DLO HomeDock Deluxe

Videos on tiny iPod displays are all well and good, but if you're sitting in your living room, you'd be a lot better off with DLO's HomeDock Deluxe, which lets you use your own TV as an iPod display.

The $150 HomeDock is easy to set up: Put the dock down on a flat surface, connect its AV and/or S-Video outputs to your TV or media center, plug it in, place your iPod in the dock, press the power-on button on the remote, and you're ready to go. (You'll also need to switch your TV or media center over to use its AV inputs, but you knew that, right?)

If any of that challenges your technological know-how, the HomeDock Deluxe has a manual that explains everything you'll need to do -- but if you've ever hooked up a component AV system and/or used your iPod, you probably don't need it. I would suggest that you stop by page 22, however, where DLO describes how you can use the HomeDock Deluxe as a substitute iPod docking port for your computer. It has its own USB port for that purpose (but you'll have to supply your own cable).

Although it's difficult to recommend the HomeDock Deluxe for audio-only applications, it will, if you need it to, also accommodate the original iPod, first and second generation Nanos, the Mini, and iPods with color displays. An adjustable back plate is provided so you can custom-fit your iPod to the dock.

A remote gives you complete control of your iPod menu system -- including switching all of its video output to an external destination rather than the internal display. If you're wondering, "How is that 2-inch picture going to look on a big TV?" don't worry about it. I used it on a 37-inch digital set and there was no distortion or pixilation (which was honestly a huge surprise).

My only real complaint is that the remote control's response is slower than I'd prefer. Other than that, the HomeDock Deluxe validates the video iPod as an honest video device that doesn't require earbuds and squinting.

DLO HomeDock Deluxe

Belkin TuneCommand AV For iPod

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Belkin TuneCommand AV For iPod

Belkin offers a lower-cost ($90) alternative to DLO's HomeDock Deluxe with its TuneCommand AV. The device is not as elegantly designed -- it is simply a dock and a remote, both in white (to match the typical iPod), and comes with a range of adapters to accommodate most existing iPods. Still, it works on the same principle -- but you might need to fiddle a bit.

Unlike the HomeDock Deluxe, Belkin's product doesn't produce an on-screen menu and doesn't interact with the iPod's menu system very well. For example, while you can use the remote to start and stop your video and adjust the volume, you need to start the iPod using its own controls. On the other hand, you must use the remote to crank up the audio -- when, at first, I just tried to raise the volume using my TV and the iPod, I could hardly hear a thing.

Belkin is very generous with its accessories. You get a lanyard and belt clip for the remote so you can keep it on your person. There's a self-adhesive surface-mount for the remote in case you want to hang it somewhere. The iPod AV cable that delivers audio and video is also included -- but you'll need to supply your own S-Video and stereo audio output lines if you want to use either of those alternative connection methods. (S-Video should deliver slightly better image quality and the separate audio outputs will work with your component system without leaving a spare RCA plug hanging out.)

I had no complaints about the video that came through the AV cable. The quality was the equal of DLO's HomeDock Deluxe. However, because it can get confusing as to which device -- the iPod or the TuneCommand -- you use to adjust different features, the reason for the price difference between it and the DLO HomeDock Deluxe is evident.

Stereo Sound

Apple iPod Hi-Fi

While I confess to being in the upper age range of Apple's iPod demographic, it was still dismaying to read this quip about its iPod Hi-Fi, a compact home sound system: "...pop in six D-cell batteries, grasp the sleek, reinforced handles, and take it with you."Carry the beast? Even with the packaging removed and six D-cells added it might take an Incredible Hulk, and not Bruce Banner, to tote its 16.7 pounds around all day.

That's where the carping stops, however. The $349 iPod Hi-Fi does an excellent job of carrying its own weight in the music world. The audio is spatial, brilliant, and encompassing. Think about closing your eyes and being immersed in the music you're listening to, being floated on a cushion of sound, of playing your tunes loud because the quality of the audio cries out for them to be played that way, not because it doesn't sound good if you don't.

There's a jack on the back that will accommodate either a 3.5mm stereo miniplug or a TOSlink miniconnector for audio input from other devices. You'll need to supply your own cables.

The included Apple Remote works well with audio iPods but is only partially functional for video iPods -- it doesn't work well with the on-screen menus. Instead, you'll have to use the touch-sensitive volume controls on top of the unit itself.

There are 10 iPod adapter bases for almost any iPod available (except the new Shuffle). However, because the iPod mounts on top of the unit, the iPod Hi-Fi may not work in a more restricted space, such as a bookshelf. And while some have complained about the lack of a video connector -- in other words, the base will accept Video iPods but will only transmit audio -- this is a speaker system. Get over it.If you need video, tap into the jack on top of your video iPod and hook it up directly.Should you buy an iPod Hi-Fi? If you're looking at the high end of available iPod speakers and you have a good ear, the answer is a definite yes.

Apple iPod Hi-Fi

XtremeMac Tango

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XtremeMac Tango

If you want something that resembles Apple's iPod Hi-Fi but weighs -- and costs -- less, you probably want to take a look at XtremeMac's Tango. Lop off a few inches -- and a few pounds -- fill in the handles, and this 2.1 speaker system bears a remarkable resemblance to the iPod Hi-Fi. The most striking difference, however, might be its price -- at $200, it's $150 less than the iPod Hi-Fi.

The Tango comes with the usual assortment of iPod adapters. Unfortunately, like the Hi-Fi, the iPod mounts vertically on the top of the unit, making it difficult to use on a shelf.

Unlike the iPod Hi-Fi, the Tango has a down-firing woofer. This means that the sound can change depending on the material that it sits on: A wooden desk will emphasize the higher ranges while a carpeted floor will muffle the audio. However, the device is also highly adjustable -- the unit's remote includes not only a volume control but also bass and treble level controls. There's even an LED indicator (which doubles as the power-on light) to tell you when you've hit the limits of the adjustments and should stop pressing the buttons.The other important difference is that the Tango has AV and S-Video out jacks, making it easier to connect to a television without having to attach cables directly to your iPod.

When it comes to sound quality, however, the Tango can't lay a glove on the iPod Hi-Fi. It's not even close. I found myself fiddling with the bass, treble, and volume controls for almost every song in my somewhat eclectic music collection. While I was always able to get it right eventually, the Tango was never able to achieve the same audio presence.

However, while the lower-cost Tango may not be top-of-the-line for a living room sound system, if I needed something for a dorm room or a kid's room, or just to sit on the desk in my office, I'd jump on it.

More Stereo Sound

Kensington SX 3000R Speakers With FM Radio for iPod

Somewhere between the iPod Hi-Fi and the Tango sits Kensington's SX 3000r speaker system for your iPod.

Few speakers are less intrusive than this $170 package, thanks to Kensington's use of NXT SurfaceSound, a flat-panel speaker technology (NXT supplies its speakers to Daimler for the Mercedes). The speakers in the 1-inch-wide grille of the SX 3000R radiate both to the front and the rear, so they make use of background material (wood, plasterboard, etc.) for reflective sound.

In practice, the audio quality is mellow with a slight lean toward rich -- better than your average 2:1 PC speaker system but not quite at the level of a 4:1 system. The audio quality is best when played loud from a distance rather than midrange or low.

Most of the iPod's click wheel functionality is available through the remote but you still need to be able to see the iPod's screen to know what you're doing.

The built-in FM radio is nice to have and, if you're near strong signals that the wire antenna can pull in, works without static. However, there's no scan function, which means it can take forever to find working stations. The SX 3000R will let you set presets for your favorites, but the process is so awkward that your taste in music may change by the time you finish. There's also an audio miniplug input for additional play-through of non-iPod devices.

Finally, the SX 3000R lets you use your iPod's built-in clock as a timer so you can be awoken to the soothing sounds of P Diddy, 50 Cent, or whatever tunes you hold near and dear.

Kensington SX 3000R

Belkin TuneStage

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Belkin TuneStage For iPod

So you have a ton of music that you want to move off your iPod and into your media center? If that's what's on your mind, you might want to try Belkin's TuneStage for iPod wireless adapter for your iPod 3G, 4G, 4G photo, or mini.

The TuneStage is not a dock. It's a 6.5 x 4.5 x 1.2-inch Bluetooth device that sits atop your receiver (or wall mounts) and connects to your media center. The transmitter is a 1.6-by-1.5-by-0.5-inch dongle that plugs into your iPod's docking port and is powered by the iPod, switching on and off as the iPod itself does. Audio from your docked iPod is transmitted to the base unit and, from there, to your media center and your stereo's speakers.

The TuneStage is really easy to operate. Most functions are selected via your iPod's menus. However, volume control is only supported on the Video iPod, and first- and second-generation Nanos. Otherwise, you'll have to settle for your stereo's volume control.

The TuneStage lets you get great sound through your stereo's speakers. One caveat: It will chip away at your iPod's battery life -- how much will depend on the condition of your battery. I easily went through two and a half hours of music without a problem. The TuneStage includes a USB cable that allows you to recharge your iPod from the base station through the transmitter.

The TuneStage's suggested retail price of $150 is a bit higher than others of its type, but with its Bluetooth controls you won't be repeatedly jumping up from the couch to change music selections. This is one of those times when you pay for convenience.

On The Record


Ever wanted a DVR for your video iPod? Right now, all of the video for your iPod comes from one of two places: iTunes or files you've captured, rendered, and transferred to the device. The first costs you money. The second costs you time and labor. Well, plunk down $200 for an iRecord and you can have a DVR -- and a little bit more.

The iRecord is a small box that sits between your AV source (TV, camera, whatever) and your iPod. Installation is very simple: connect the supplied AV cables to the source, connect your iPod's USB/dock cable to the iRecord, plug it into your wall outlet (there are a variety of end caps supplied so you can match power outlets world-wide), power it on, start your source device, and press the record button.

What you've done is to start H.264/AVC video encoding and AAC audio encoding directly to your iPod. IRecord handles it in an orderly fashion, storing the contents in Videos/Movies List, using a naming convention that begins with "iRecord" and is filled out with the date and time of the recording to keep each unique.

When you're finished recording, press the record button again and everything comes to a stop. (To save battery life, the iRecord shuts itself off if it remains inactive for more than 10 minutes.) You can then take your iPod on the train or plane (or in the lecture hall), and watch your video.

While all of this sounds great (and works like a charm), there may be a flaw in the process. You have to be there to start and stop the recording -- there isn't any automatic timing function. That means that if you have something else needing your undivided attention -- like a writing deadline for a feature on iPod accessories -- the iRecord become very inconvenient to use.The folk at iRecord have recognized the potential problem and are working on a solution that should be available soon: They're developing a scheduling application so you won't return to find things you didn't want taking up space on your iPod. At the point at which this scheduling tool arrives, iRecord could evolve from being a good idea to a great one.


Belkin TuneTalk Stereo For iPod

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Belkin TuneTalk Stereo For iPod

Admit it -- you carry your iPod everywhere, even into the classroom. If you have a second-generation Nano or a video iPod with some extra storage room, you can add some additional functionality with Belkin's TuneTalk Stereo for iPod.

This little $70 gizmo attaches to your iPod via the standard docking port and provides stereo recording capability through its two omni-directional microphones. It also has a clipping indicator and a gain control. An onscreen option allows you to switch the recording quality between High and Low (which affects the size of your final audio file) and there's even a plastic stand if you're not recording in stealth mode and want to look semiprofessional. A miniplug connector at the bottom of the TuneTalk's base lets you use an external microphone.

Keep in mind that anything that is powered by your iPod will drain the battery more quickly than usual. Belkin offers a potential solution by providing a USB port on the bottom of the TuneTalk (along with a USB cable) through which you can charge/power your iPod while you're recording.Testing showed the built-in microphones to be excellent at close range (within five feet from the source) and still good at 15 feet, although foreground noise did impose itself when present. My longest timed recording was 49 minutes. There were no noticeable drops in quality or gaps in the sound, and the battery in my 80-Gbyte Video iPod didn't seem to care.

Video On The Go

Sonic Impact Video-55

If you're looking for something that's artistically pleasing as well as useful, there's always Sonic Impact's Video-55 portable video player. The $150 black Video-55 and a black Video iPod are a perfect match for each other.

The display is a 7-inch LCD panel with a 480 x 234 resolution that looks absolutely perfect -- or at least close enough to make little difference. As with any small screen, images aren't great at a distance but overall, it's a major improvement compared to the iPod's 2.5-inch display. The viewing parameters (such as contrast and brightness) are adjustable from within the Video-55's menu, as is the screen's aspect ratio (16:9 or 4:3 to match the iPod's widescreen on/off option).

Sound is equally impeccable, thanks to a passive radiator built into the Video-55's hinge assembly, which also houses the unit's stereo speakers. Headphones are optional, but although Sonic Impact's Web site indicates that there are dual outputs, I could only find one. (If it's important to you, splitters are commonly available.) Hidden under the same rubber side-panel are AV inputs and outputs for external connections as well as a USB port so you can update your iPod while it's docked in the Video-55.

You can control the Video-55 via its touch-sensitive controls, via your iPod's scroll wheel, or by way of a remote that's not much bigger than a matchbook. (Just so you won't lose it, there's a spring-loaded dock on the front of the Video-55 that lets the remote retract into the case.)You'll get an honest four hours and a wee bit more of battery life; it takes just about as long to recharge. You can extend that by using headphones and turning down the screen brightness.

And don't let the fact that Sonic Impact included a power cable for your car escape you. If you've got a couple of kids in the back, then a couple of movies downloaded from iTunes will make for a far more enjoyable drive.

Sonic Impact Video-55

DLO TransDock

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DLO TransDock

When you open the box holding DLO's TransDock, you might think you've just spent your $100 on a kit to build a Transformer. However, once you thumb through the user manual, you'll discover that every gizmo and widget in the package is there to let you send audio and video out of your iPod and into your car.

The TransDock is compatible with first- and second-generation Nanos, the iPod Mini, the Video iPod, the iPod with color screen, and the plain vanilla iPod, so there's quite a bit included (side and back pads, and dock adapters) to make sure everything fits the way it should. In fact, there's even a replacement faceplate for the unit should you prefer the flat titanium look to that of black plastic.There's also a caveat: According to DLO, "No installation required; simple to move from car to car." That's only true if you're going audio only. In that case, the TransDock will happily send your tunes to your car stereo over an unused FM radio channel, using an audio input port at the bottom of the unit. The TransDock comes with six preset channels in the 88.1 to 107.9 range and you can change them to whatever happens to work for you locally.

On the other hand, video or still images require that you have a monitor of some type in your vehicle. You're also going to need something akin to the Apple iPod AV Cable, a $20 adapter, to connect the TransDock to the display. You must then hardwire the adapter to your onboard audio and video -- which puts a damper on the transportability issue unless you're fine with cables slung through your car.

The TransDock also works as a device charger: While your iPod is charged through its docking port when connected to the TransDock, the unit has a USB port you can use to charge any other device you'd normally plug into your computer for a fill-up.

I did have initial problem with the device. Rather than a flexible gooseneck stand to attach your iPod to your car's cigarette plug (er, auxiliary power connector), the TransDock comes with what looks like a plumber's pipe contraption, with an extension that you can use if your power connector is too low on the dashboard. There are four lockable ball joints so you have a considerable degree of flexibility. However, once everything was locked in place, I found that the stand lacks the elegance of gooseneck, it also has none of the wobble inherent in that design either.

Interesting Add-Ons

ViewSonic VX2245wm ViewDock LCD

ViewSonic's VX2245wm is a 22-inch LCD panel with analog and digital connectivity, a 5ms response time and a 700:1 contrast ratio. It also has an iPod dock on the top section of the base, set so your iPod sits just below the display itself.

To begin with, I'll stipulate for the record that, as a monitor, the VX2245wm is up to par in every way. Blacks are quite close to black in appearance (rather than the odd reddish tint of bluish-purple I've seen on ViewSonic's Value Series of LCDs). The 1680-by-1050 resolution takes a bit of getting used to, but it grows on you (assuming your graphics card can reach those dimensions).

However, it's the base of this monitor that concerns me. It's a busy place -- with an 8-in-1 card reader on one side; three USB ports, a microphone, and headphone jacks at the front; and, of course, the iPod dock. It's so busy that the base requires its own power connection, adding a small brick to your AC extension bar along with the main power cord for the monitor itself.

There's also a small subwoofer in the base, used to complement the pair of speakers mounted in the lower bezel of the display. While the arrangement wasn't designed to promote ear-bleeding volume (there's only a total of 8 watts delivered from all three speakers), it does transmit iPod audio in quite a pleasing fashion.

But while I got surprisingly good sound from the VX2245wm's speakers, I could only get video on the iPod's small screen. A call to ViewSonic's tech support yielded the information that if I wanted to see the video on the big screen, I had to play it through iTunes on my computer, not the iPod. Well, heck, what's the big deal then? You can do that with any monitor.

ViewSonic has dropped the suggested retail price of the VX2245M to $436, only $7 more than the non-iPod enabled VX2235wm. But if you're going to need your computer to see the video, you might as also well use those 5:1 speakers you already own for the audio, buy the less expensive version of the display, and pocket the extra cash.

ViewSonic VX2245wm ViewDock LCD

Griffin Dock Adapter For iPod Shuffle

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Griffin Dock Adapter For iPod Shuffle

Like its cousins, Apple's latest Shuffle seems to have spawned a few interesting accessories. However, if you own a new Shuffle and want to interface it with all the other interesting add-ons that exist in the big iPod world, the Dock Adapter is essential (and costs a measly $20).

It's just a plastic base about 2.75 inches long, an inch deep, and about 0.75 inches high. There's a standard docking connector on the bottom and a new Shuffle docking connector on top. Installation is intuitive: It's designed to sit firmly in any device with a standard iPod dock -- the Shuffle is held in place just as if it was sitting in its own dock.

In fact, it's the kind of gadget that you smack yourself on the side of your head and remark, "I could have done that!" Better still, it's the kind of gadget that worked with every device I tried it with.

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