The first thing you notice when unpacking the Octiv Stage MP450 is, well, nothing. It's only when you look a bit closer that you see the power and volume + and - buttons incorporated into the aluminium-coloured plastic strip at the base. Aside from that and the Altec Lansing logo, it's virtually a featureless monolith.
On the back are two holes: one for power, one for aux input if you want to plug in a non-Apple music source. On top is a t-shaped arm with the actual dock connector and a swivel hinge. And that really is it. If what you're seeking is a dock that won't call attention to itself, this is practically a ninja.
Note that, as much as we love minimalism, we do like to be able to find the power switch fairly quickly. So the stealthy achievement of Altec's designers did manage to irritate somewhat.
Also included in the box is a basic remote-control unit, with volume buttons, a mute button and arrow keys for navigating the iPad's menus once you're in either the iPod or Video apps. The ability to navigate the menus is pretty cool, but we found when we wanted to choose media it was easier to just tap the screen. We were also paranoid about losing the tiny remote, so it ended up staying pretty close to the speaker — thus negating its very purpose.
Speaking of things we were paranoid to lose, the Octiv Stage MP450 comes with a little plastic adapter that you attach to your iPad 2 in order to fit it in the bracket, which is designed for the original iPad. We guarantee you will lose that bit of plastic unless you're the type who still has all the Allen keys from your IKEA purchases. Thankfully, we found an iPad 2 fits pretty well even without the adapter. Not as snugly as an original iPad, but satisfactorily.
The swivel arm also tilts back and forth about 20 degrees or so — enough to lean the iPad into a reasonably comfortable position for typing, should you wish to do so. Unfortunately, it doesn't rotate like the old G4 iMac, but that might have been wishful thinking on our part.
Once we hit play, though, the real beauty of the Octiv Stage MP450 became apparent. It sounds magnificent. Even at fairly high volume, the bass was distinct and not muddy, and there was good detail in the highs. It's not exactly cinema-quality surround sound (and you wouldn't expect it to be), but we found it quite satisfactory for watching a movie loaded with explosions and special effects (not that that's what it's meant for, but you have to try these things).
It's all the more surprising given the unit's small footprint. At 22x15cm it's no wider than the iPad itself, and its 11cm height makes it about the same size as an average clock radio.
Speaking of clock radios, the Octiv Stage MP450 works with the free Alarm Rock app for iPhone (there's no iPad-native version), which enables certain Altec docks to use an iOS device as an alarm clock. Sure, you can do that with your iPad anyway, but Alarm Rock lets you use your iPad's music library to wake up to, not just pre-fab noises. Altec's other iPhone apps are not supported.
It's not the most feature-rich device of its kind, but its combination of small footprint, big sound and the flexible arm make it a solid buy.