Aliph Jawbone Icon
Aliph's $100 Jawbone Icon is the latest in the company's line of Bluetooth headsets, sporting a stylish new look--or more accurately, six different new looks, as Aliph offers the Icon in six dramatically named styles: Hero, Rogue, Thinker, Ace, Catch, and Bombshell. (I tested the Ace.)
Each Icon is tiny at just 1.8 inches long, 0.9 inches tall, and 0.7 inches thick. Yet despite this small size, the hidden buttons on previous Jawbone models such as the Prime are little more than a bitter memory: The Icon includes a visible, tactile button for core actions such as initiating, accepting, or ending a call, along with an easily usable slider for powering the device on and off. (Volume control is handled by your phone, although the Icon remembers the last volume setting between uses.)
My only complaint about the power switch is that it's tough to access while the device is on your ear; during my testing, if I forgot to power up the Icon before putting it on, I regularly removed the headset unintentionally while trying to slide that switch. Similarly, although you can trigger the iPhone's Voice Control mode by holding down the Icon's main button, it takes about two seconds for the Icon to enter its own voice dialing mode, and then another two seconds for the iPhone to play its "ready to listen" chime.
Like the Prime, the Icon comes with an assortment of earbud tips to customize the fit. I loathe earbuds, which frequently pop out of my ear, so I took advantage of the Icon's included earloop attachment. Coupled with a larger earbud tip, the earloop ensured that the headset stayed in my ear, while being comfortable enough that I often forgot I was wearing the Icon.
The Icon sports an LED to indicate battery status, but you needn't take the headset out of your ear to check on your battery: Pressing the Icon's main button (when you're not on a call) triggers a pleasant voice that speaks a message such as "About three and a half hours of talk time remaining." Even better, if your Icon is paired with an iPhone, the Icon's battery level appears in the iPhone's status bar, alongside the iPhone's own battery-life indicator--a feature previously available only from Apple's own (and now-discontinued) Bluetooth Headset. Aliph claims battery life of 4 to 4.5 hours of talk time.
The Icon comes packaged with a very tiny charger, but you can use any standard micro-USB cable to charge the Icon via a USB charger or a computer's USB port. According to Aliph, it takes about 40 minutes to charge the Icon to 80 percent of full, and an additional 50 minutes to top it off. I wasn't able to test those claims completely, but the estimates did seem to mesh with my experience with the Icon.
Once the Icon is fully charged and comfortably nestled in your ear, the most important question remains: How well does it work for conducting calls? The answer, disappointing though it is, is "merely adequately." The Icon employs a couple of technological tricks to improve call quality: NoiseAssassin, which eliminates most background noise, and the Voice Activity Sensor, a physical bud that's meant to rest on your cheek and detect when you're actually speaking. According to people on the other end of my test calls, NoiseAssassin performed capably at masking road and vent noise while driving, but I had trouble with the Voice Activity Sensor. Specifically, it didn't always rest directly against my cheek the way it was supposed to. I'm not sure how much that affected call quality, because the people on the other end of my calls reported no change in clarity or voice quality even when I pressed the Icon directly against my skin (which obviously isn't a long-term hands-free solution, anyway). In addition, the people I called indicated that my voice sounded a bit tinny, and several wondered whether I was on a speakerphone. Most also remarked that my voice sounded different from normal, even though they didn't know I was testing a new headset.
On my end, calls sounded fine, although the voices of people on the other end of the line generally sounded tinny, as well. Also, the Icon would occasionally drop the initial sounds whenever the person on the other end started speaking; however, I noticed this most frequently early in calls, and the issue seemed to smooth out as calls progressed. Overall, call quality is passable, but the mediocrity is a disappointment.
The Icon does have one more trick up its sleeve. A feature called MyTalk offers two types of apps that you can install--for free--on the headset itself. MyTalk AudioApps let you personalize the Icon's voice (for battery status updates or Caller ID readings); options include a sexier voice, a heroic one, or French, Spanish, and German translations. MyTalk DialApps let you replace the "hold down the main button" functionality (voice dialing, by default) with other features, such as a free 411 service or integration with Jott. The MyTalk feature is still in beta, but it worked great in my testing, letting me update my Icon's settings (via a USB cable connected to my computer) using a simple Web interface.
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Overall, I love the Icon's look and its comfortable fit. The new main button works great, and the audio alerts and apps are a nice touch. Ultimately, though, the most important feature of a Bluetooth headset is call quality, and the Icon's early-90s cordless-phone audio was a significant let-down.