Griffin’s TuneCenter is the first to ship of a new breed of ‘uber-Dock’. It offers many useful features for iPod users, and when what’s on the telly or on your iPod just don’t do it for you any more, TuneCenter also lets you access thousands of internet radio stations – though only if it’s connected to the network using an Ethernet cable. (There is a model in development that adds WiFi support, so you can access internet radio over a wireless network.)
Announced back in January 2006, Griffin’s silver dock is light and doesn’t take up much space (dimensions are (115 x 100 x 95mm). Inputs include the iPod dock (which recharges the player) and Ethernet port. The output list is more extensive: S-video, composite video, and RCA left and right audio, along with a switch to flick between the NTSC and PAL video formats (we use PAL in the UK, NTSC is used Stateside). There’s also a 14-function infrared remote control for navigating through playlists, which the TuneCenter lets you read on the TV. Being able to read what’s on your iPod’s screen on the television screen is a fairly new development in docks. You can also watch your iPod’s video on the big screen and it looks all right – not as clear as DVD, but competes fine against VHS.
The stumbling block to seamless integration of iPod (video) with television that still exists in the TuneCenter is the need to manually choose which video to watch, and to exit Griffin’s iPod browser interface. That means it’s not quite as simple to use as it could be, as you can’t casually flit between pictures, video and song. It would also be nice if you could play iPod music playlists in the background to the videos you have on board, but that’s not Griffin’s fault. (And Apple, why isn’t there a visualiser in iPods? Surely that would be incredibly useful when watching iPod TV?).
The ability to connect TuneCenter to the internet using an Ethernet cable and your router is an imaginative extra feature. There are thousands of stations online, and now you can make them as much part of your existing entertainment setup as any other media – a welcome step toward broadcasing diversity. The flaw here is the interface. The product offers a list-based interface, and seems relatively slow at scrolling through entries, so it can take an age to wander through all the stations available. In among the first few dozen stations listed were a few hits shows, a ‘60s and an ‘80s show, some rock, techno, dance and urban channels and one of the world’s most well-known conspiracy broadcasters. It was kind of fun. The scrolling performance of the final units that go on sale will potentially be much better, as the company is preparing to update the product’s firmware by the time it ships in quantity.
Music playback is excellent, whether you use the device to integrate your iPod with a TV or a stereo. We found – as is becoming increasingly common these days – that music playback offered excellent range in mid, bass and treble tones. The music sounds richer than it does if you connect the iPod to a stereo using a cable from the headphone socket to the hi-fi. This is because the sounds are sucked through the dock connector, which means you get better-quality tunes.
Griffin is first to market a new breed of dock that offers the extra features we need to make iPods a central part of the modern media experience. While there are limits to what TuneCenter delivers now, these are mainly inherent in the iPod itself. Griffin has made these evident, meaning Apple should soon create better iPod software. If you’re looking for a clever dock right now, buy this one.