There's nothing quite like the shock of the alarm going off in the morning. For most, it signals the arrival of yet another dreary day of work. For some, like me, it heralds the tragic end of what was probably a poor night's sleep: intermittent, anxiety-filled, and barely coaxed with the aid of half an Ambien. Many of us prolong the act of getting up by repeatedly hitting the snooze button until we accidentally turn the damn thing off. Why do so many alarm clocks greet us with sadistic, high-pitched screeches? Is there a better way to wake?
The alarm clock has, of course, improved greatly since its invention. Chris Bailey, curator of the American Clock & Watch Museum in Bristol, Conn., dates the earliest alarm clocks in America to grandfather clocks that colonists brought from England. According to Bailey, the first drum-type alarm clock was patented in 1877, though he says it is a matter of some dispute as to whether the Seth Thomas Clock Company or the Ansonia Clock Company first put it into production
Today's alarm clocks have an astounding number of features: built-in radios, nature sounds, dual alarms, CD players, iPod docking bays, sunrise simulators, programmable snooze buttons … some even offer aromatherapy. And inventors continue to seek out ways to make them more sophisticated. There's Clocky, a gadget that resembles a piece of shag rug on wheels. When you hit the snooze button, Clocky will roll off your nightstand and is supposed to hide in a different spot each day. And a company called Axon Sleep Research Laboratories is developing a headband called SleepSmart that monitors brain activity and will wake you up during the "optimal" (or lightest) phase of your sleep cycle. Axon's co-founder, Jason Donahue, says that the technology is based on research acquired in the '50s and '60s from Air Force pilots who reportedly made more mistakes when they woke up groggy on the job.
Since these two more innovative products aren't yet ready for prime time, I took a look at 10 clocks currently on the market. I spent an evening getting to know each clock (reading their instruction manuals, fiddling with their buttons and knobs) before I took them to bed for a one- to two-night stand (depending on how well we got along). This is by no means an exhaustive list—in fact, the sheer number and variety of clocks is, dare I say … alarming.
Ease of Use (10 possible points): Our days are stressful enough already—setting one's alarm clock should not be as difficult as programming a computer. Was the instruction manual required reading? Did the clock wake me up in the middle of the night because I set it wrong? Could my Luddite father use this thing?
Wakeupability (10 possible points): The clock may not roll under the bed or have a mind of its own, but is the alarm volume adjustable for light and heavy sleepers? How well will it get me out of bed without making me want to smash it against a wall?
Features (10 possible points): More features don't necessarily make a better clock, but this was an important metric in determining its overall quality.
Looks (10 possible points): Not only do you have to hear this thing every day, but you have to look at it, too. It needs some redeeming aesthetic qualities.
RANKINGS (from worst to best):
Brookstone Floating Message Alarm Clock, $59.00 This clock, which has an oscillating LED arm that makes "floating messages" appear, comes with the following warning: "Though rare, some people experience headaches, dizziness, and/or other medical problems when viewing flickering lights, such as television screens and moving message display systems. They should use caution while viewing the clock display." In fact, the clock's LED arm swung back and forth so rapidly that it made my nightstand shake, and after about five minutes, it did make me nauseated. Aside from the immediate novelty of being able to program the clock to display messages like, "Wake up, fool!" I can't think of a reason to buy it.
Ease of Use: 3
Total: 15 (out of possible 40)
BioBrite EZ Wake SunRise Clock, $89.95 The BioBrite Company calls its EZ Wake a "dawn simulator." What sophisticated technology enables this amazing innovation? Why, a 60-watt light bulb, of course. The bulb sits inside a plastic globe that glows gradually more luminescent for half an hour before your wakeup time. The clock then makes an infernal beeping sound like a truck backing up. BioBrite touts EZ Wake's ease of use and low price. With only four buttons, it is straightforward, but $89.95 hardly seems inexpensive. I liked the gradually increasing glow, and in a dark room, it offers a decent sunrise simulation, but overall the clock looks a little cheap, and it has no snooze button.
Ease of Use: 9
Curtis AM/FM Clock Radio CR1274, $9.99 This clock scored high on ease of use—it's about as bare-bones as they come—but that's about all it has to offer. The built-in radio sounds as tinny as a drive-in speaker, and the alarm tone is harsh and grating. As for looks, well, it looks like a clock radio from a cheap hotel room. But then, what do you want for under $10?
Ease of Use: 10
Brookstone SmartSet Digital Alarm Clock, $35.00 Many new alarm clocks boast the "smart set" feature, meaning the clock comes magically preset to the correct time—all you have to do is adjust it for your time zone. Thanks to "innovative technology" (aka a lithium battery) it even remembers the correct date and time after a power outage. Another nice feature on this model is the dual alarms, and the ability to set each alarm to wake you every day, just weekdays, or just weekends. This may sound complicated, but it was very easy to set—I didn't have to resort to the manual. The drawbacks? No radio, and the alarm's tone is piercing—which is good if you have trouble waking up, bad if you have tinnitus (as I do).
Ease of Use: 10
Phillips CD Clock Radio With AM/FM Digital Tuner and Dual Alarm, $39.99 Waking up to the music of one's choosing is a pleasure. With this clock, I selected M. Ward's album Transistor Radio. The first song on the CD (the clock does not let you choose the wake-up track) begins with an acoustic guitar fading in—a splendid way to greet the morning. The unit is simple and intuitive, with dual alarms (either can be radio, CD, or beeping) and two levels of display dimness. It lost points for looks though, as its faux beveled glass plastic shell looked sort of '80's—and not in a hip, retro way.
Ease of Use: 6
Hammacher Schlemmer Peaceful Progression Wake Up Clock, $49.95 Similar to the BioBrite dawn simulator, Hammacher Schlemmer's Peaceful Progression Wake Up Clock grows brighter for a half-hour prior to the alarm going off. But this clock's real kicker is its aromatherapy feature. Place a few aromatherapy beads (four scents—including artificial coffee flavor—are included) in the reservoir on top of the clock, and the heat from the lamp gets them oozing with scent. OK, perhaps "oozing" is a bit strong—I could just barely smell the treacly synthetic brew; but the smell, combined with the light and the built-in nature sounds made me feel like I was waking to the sunrise, somewhere deep in a forest … with a Starbucks just around the next tree.
Ease of Use: 8
Timex AM/FM Clock Radio with Nature Sounds, $33.99 When I was in the market for a new alarm clock recently, I purchased this one. My decision was based primarily on the clock's small "nightstand footprint" and its handsome good looks. Out of the box, however, this thing was not easy to figure out. Though it does come preset (like the Brookstone "SmartSet"), figuring out the dual alarm system was akin to setting the timer of my first VCR. The dual alarms, which also each have a seven/five/two-day setting, will wake you with built-in "nature sounds" (which sound ironically computer-generated), the radio, or a beeping alarm.
Ease of Use: 6
RCA RP3720 AM/FM Dual Alarm Clock, $22.99 As far as affordable and simple clocks go, this was my favorite. Being both a musician and freelance writer, I keep pretty strange hours, so napping is a crucial part of my day. But who wants to change the alarm setting every time they hit the hay for a quick "disco nap?" Both RCA clocks I reviewed had an adjustable "nap" feature, which is basically an alarm timer you can set in 10-minute intervals from 10 minutes up to 2 hours. I would buy this clock for that alone, but the other selling point is its "Graduwake" alarm tone, which began beeping faintly and then grew increasingly louder—providing a nice re-entry into the world after my 40-minute slumber.
Ease of Use: 8
Brookstone iHome Clock Radio for iPod, $99 The ubiquitous iPod (and its clean white aesthetic) infests yet more of your world via the iHome Clock Radio. Though it doesn't have an abundance of features (aside from the usual snooze, sleep, and radio functions), the iHome sounds excellent and can easily double as a bedroom stereo. It's fairly simple to master, has three dimmer settings, and charges your iPod while you sleep. The only problem I had was deciding which of my 6,783 songs should awaken me.
Ease of Use: 7
RCA RP3765 CD Clock Radio, $56.99 OK, so it doesn't light up or require you to hunt it down to turn it off, but this alarm clock offers a bounty of cool features: Get a local weather report with the push of a button! Take a nap! Set your own personal snooze time (from one to 30 minutes)! Choose the CD track and music volume you want to wake up to! Listen to American Idol! (Yes, you can actually listen to local network television stations on this unit—why anyone would want to do such a thing is beyond me.) It doesn't take up a lot of nightstand space; it looks good; and, despite its capabilities, it wasn't difficult to figure out. For the money, this alarm clock is a dream.
Ease of Use: 8