The Humble Alarm Clock

Bear with me on this one, it's a bit random. I was looking at alarm clocks recently, it's a device most of us use each morning (well, on work days anyway). I had an iHome iPod one and it worked fine, but there were some small problems with it, such as the fact that my model didn't charge the iPod Touch I have, its screen was very bright, even with the brightness turned down to the lowest setting, and it didn't keep great time.

So what I was looking for was something fairly simple with (ideally) the following features:

  • Dim-able (LED) display

  • Multiple alarms (to save having to mess around setting one each time it changes)

  • Automatic time-setting

  • FM radio (I hate buzzers)

  • Ideally some sort of gradual volume increase when the alarm goes off to avoid jolting me awake


Now that's a pretty basic set of requirements, but could I find something that did all that? No. In fact, it seems alarm clocks are one of those gadgets that have stagnated, much like heating controls (until an ex-Apple engineer decided to update them, at least).

Getting something with automatic time-setting was easy enough, there are plenty that use the radio transmission from the National Physical Laboratory via Anthorn (previously Rugby) to set the time, and anything with a DAB radio takes it from the radio signal. Unfortunately the clocks using the NPL signal all seemed to come with LCD displays you couldn't see at night without hitting a button to light them up. So it looked like DAB was the answer.

Actually, there was an option from Roberts which seemed to have automatic time-setting with an LED display, but it only did it when you switched it on, it didn't update when it had power, so it still got out of sync. Why I don't know. Some others used the iPhone to keep the time accurate, while others used GPS.  There seems to be some sort of trend towards hooking up your smartphone to the device, but I didn't really want that.

Is it a cost issue? No, clocks that use the radio time signal were usually at the cheaper end of the scale. Which begs the question of why all alarm clocks (or all clocks in general) are not accurate all the time.

Displays were another problem, with some using the old fashioned LEDs, which do the job very well in my experience, but don't support flexible displays, so most typically fell back on LCD. If they choose the backlit option with the number in negative it's likely to be too bright, so that rules them out (even though some had dimming functionality of some sort.

In the end I settled on a Philips AJB3552/05 (catchy name), which had a DAB radio so takes the time signal from there (strangely it doesn't show the same time as the radio controlled one I have, but it's close enough and it does stay in sync).  It sort of increases the volume rather than starting full blast, but over a short enough period of time it's hard to tell.  It was easy to setup though and has a nice big display that auto-dims with the ambient light.  Only the one alarm though, but you can set it to only go off on weekdays only (or weekends, or all week), so it can stay on permanently.

For me, it could do with an additional couple of alarms (how hard would it be to add a good number, say 10 or more?), if I'm very critical the display is still a little too bright, though much better than the old unit.

All in all I'm please, but I'm surprised we haven't had alarm clocks that have wifi built in, or bluetooth, so you can set them with an app on your phone or PC, allowing for much easier configuration.  Likewise more info on the display, like local traffic alerts, how the bus is running and weather.  Then again, why aren't these sorts of things appearing on your fridge or your toaster too?

There are a lot of variables in most people's morning commute and knowing about them as early as possible (like delayed trains) makes it easier to deal with, so why aren't we getting more information delivered at a more relevant time?  I wonder if low cost computing will mean we'll finally see these things start to appear as some of the Raspberry Pi projects gets rolling.

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