Sleep may be one of our most basic needs, but how much do you really think about it? The iHome iA5 alarm clock and its software partner, the iHome+Sleep iPhone app aim to help you get the best sleep experience possible, using everything from integration with your iPhone's music library to keeping stats about your sleep habits.
The iHome iA5 itself is a fairly spartan system: at 9.34 inches wide by 5.83 inches tall by 3.9 inches deep, it's about medium size for a bedside unit, fitting comfortably on my nightstand. A black-plastic grill covers most of the unit's face, aside from a plastic, protruding dock that sports Apple's 30-pin dock connector. The display, which shows the time in large, white numbers against a dark background, is to the left of the dock behind the grill; the iA5's single, mono speaker driver is hidden behind the grill on the right. Along the bottom of the unit are four large buttons: Bedtime, Wakeup, and a pair of controls (+ and -) for adjusting settings such as volume level and the alarm time.
On top of the iA5 is a large, easy-to-hit snooze button which also adjusts the brightness of the display in four levels, including off. As a light sleeper, I love the ability to dim the display completely, even if it means that I have to cycle through the brightness levels to check the time in the middle of the night. (Alternately, you can just hit the Sleep/Wake or Home button on your iPhone, if it's docked.) There's also a large power button that toggles the dock connection to your iPhone.
On the rear edge--the iA5 is triangular in shape--are the controls for setting the time and the alarm time, adjusting the equalizer, and toggling the display mode. There's also a connection for the included AC adapter and a 1/8-inch line-in jack for connecting another audio source. One particularly nice feature is that if you dock your iPhone and press the iA5's clock-set button, the iA5 will automatically its time to the iPhone's (presumably more accurate) time; you can also set the time manually, if you prefer.
The iA5's sound quality isn't bad, but it's not particularly impressive either, especially in the bass department. The unit's equalizer adjustments help somewhat, but they can do only so much with the unit's single speaker.
The unit contains a backup battery, so you won't miss your wake-up call if the power goes out. You can also adjust snooze time from the default 9 minutes by using the plus and minus buttons while holding down the snooze button.
One feature I missed on the iA5 was the inclusion of a radio: it would be nice to have the option to wake up to the morning news, for example--without an iPhone docked, the iA5 provides only a built-in buzzer to wake you. However, iHome has said that support for waking to Internet radio is due in a future version of the iHome+Sleep app.
Speaking of software, you can use the iA5 without the free companion iPhone app, but the real question is why would you? If you're merely looking for an alarm clock for charging and listening to your iPod or iPhone, there are better options. The iA5's real strength comes from its integration with the iHome+Sleep app, which allows you to customize alarm presets (separate from the iA5's own alarm setting), view weather forecasts, and even get social networking updates delivered to you when you wake up in the morning.
iHome+Sleep uses a "Sleep Cards" metaphor for its alarms. Each card includes a different alarm preset which can include the alarm time, on which days the alarm should occur, the length of the snooze time, and options for music, reminders, and social-networking messages. (There are also two types of sleep cards: naps, which sound an alarm after a preset duration, such as 20 minutes, and alarms, which are for a specific time, such as 8:30am.) The number of options for each card are staggering: you can pick music from your iPod library to fall asleep to (along with a sleep timer); one of seven alarm tones, or any music, to wake to; text reminders that pop up when you go to sleep or wake up; and even Facebook or Twitter messages that can be sent out at bedtime or when you wake.
You set an alarm by first swiping the desired card down into a slot that magically appears at the bottom of the screen; you then activate that card by hitting the Bedtime button on the iA5 or by swiping the Bedtime slider on the iPhone. Using this procedure, you can set multiple alarms simultaneously--handy if you have people that need to wake up at different times. You disable a sounding alarm bu hitting the iA5's hardware Wakeup button or by swiping the Wakeup slider on the iPhone.
I found the interface for setting cards to be at times unintuitive and touchy--it wasn't always clear where you had to press to make something happen, or what gesture to use, and sometimes the area you need to hit is very small--the Settings (gear) icon on a card, for example--and difficult to hit precisely.
When your iPhone is docked in the iA5, you also have the option of managing the iA5's own alarm using the application, a useful feature that's decidedly more friendly than fiddling around with the buttons on the back of the alarm clock. It's also worth noting that you must keep the iHome+Sleep app running while docked in order to use its alarms and features, but you can turn off the iPhone's display (or use the app's built-in dimming preference) if you're a light-sensitive snoozer.
The app also tracks sleep stats--what time you go to bed, what time you wake up, and so on--although I found that those stats didn't always jibe with what I had observed myself. (Then again, if I'm getting as little sleep as the app suggests, then perhaps that's just my own fallibility.)
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On its own, the iA5 would be just another iPod-compatible alarm clock--if you don't have an iPhone or iPod touch, the iA5 isn't the bedside alarm for you. But the addition of the iHome+Sleep app, despite some interface wonkiness, makes the iA5 a pretty capable device. The lack of a radio is a bit of a bummer, especially if you like to have a bedside device that does everything, but if you take waking up seriously, the iHome A5 and its software counterpart will help you make sure you get your day started off on the right side of the bed.