Remote possibilities: Why an iPhone + dongle < universal remote

A couple of years ago, I happened to be at a friend’s holiday party, and in attendance was a Sand Hill Money Guy. For those unfamiliar with the breed, Sand Hill Road runs along the northern border of California's Stanford University and, up above the Alameda de las Pulgas (translation: Avenue of the Fleas), serves as the home to a vault-load of venture capitalists. This was one such specimen.

We got to chatting, and when he learned what I do and my interest in all things Apple, he mentioned that he’d just invested in a company developing a “game-changing” iOS app.

“Really? Can you give me a general idea of what it does?”

“It’s a universal remote control.”

“You mean like Logitech’s Harmony Remotes?”

“Yes, but much, much more powerful. And you can run it from your iPhone!”

At that time I responded “Cool. I’d love to see it when it’s done.”

Today, that same conversation would end with me instead replying, “If you value your reputation and career, stop payment on that check immediately.”

And I would for the simple reason that I’ve yet to see an iOS universal remote that does a better job than (or even comes close to) a dedicated hardware universal remote control.

There are a few factors that cause iOS-based universal remotes to fail in my eyes.

Depth of device database

I’ve attended multiple demos for these kinds of devices, and while they can be impressive, the styrene-butadiene traverses the asphalt when you take one home and attempt to set it up with your own gear. Set up may be a joy with three out of four of your devices—TV, Blu-ray player, and cable/satellite box—but invariably that fourth box is a problem because it’s not built into the app’s database.

“No, problem,” the developers say. “You can teach our remote as easily as any smart hardware remote. Just point your old remote at the IR dongle hanging from your iPhone’s dock connector, press our Learn button, press the associated button on the old remote, and bingo!”

Well, no. The designers for many of these things consider learning remote codes an unlikely fallback because they’re confident that their device databases are so complete. But when that database turns up its nose at a key device in your AV cabinet—obscure though it may be—trying to get the app to learn the quirks of your device can be trying if not altogether impossible. The app doesn’t see your old remote unless you hold it while standing on your head. The On/Off button works perfectly well, but it hasn’t a clue what to do with the Aspect button. It entirely lacks a corresponding button for an important function on your AV receiver and doesn’t provide a way to build one. And on and on.

Some developers attempt to skirt this issue by foregoing the device database altogether and creating systems that are entirely learning-based. Training such systems can be dreadful work. It not only requires that you locate all your old remotes (or dig up function codes from the Internet), but, of course, the app and accompanying hardware also have to do their jobs sufficiently—which happens far too infrequently.

One screen functionality

One of the beautiful things about the Harmony remotes is that their interface changes very little. The Volume, Channel, and Mute buttons are always in the same place. And they function as expected with the setup you’ve chosen. Few universal remote apps offer the same experience. It’s not uncommon to swipe from one screen to another to control different devices and find that the button layout changes with each screen. So rather than offering one remote, it’s like they’ve taped together multiple remotes and told you that it’s now a single unit.

Phone-based remote controls (such as the Re remote app shown here) are a neat idea, but just can't hold a candle to dedicated universal remotes.

And, of course, these remotes are constrained by screen size. You have a limited amount of space on an iPhone and iPod touch. While you can cram a lot of buttons on a long Harmony remote, you have a much more difficult time with a smaller iOS device. Pack too many buttons on the screen and they’re difficult to trigger accurately. Pack too few, and you’re back to swiping between screens.

And then there’s the macro issue. I can configure my Harmony remote so that when I press an activity button (Watch a DVD, for example) all the components associated with that activity—DVD player, TV, and AV receiver—switch on and the inputs and audio settings on the TV and receiver are configured correctly. Some apps attempt to do the same thing. Too often, they fail because of timing issues, which means a load of tweaking that may not lead to success anyway.

Latency

Speaking of timing issues, latency is one reason why the vast majority of AV components are remotely controlled via infrared. iOS devices don’t have infrared transmitters built in, and so you must find a way to communicate between the iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad and your AV gear. Some iOS universal remotes ship with a dongle that you attach to the headphone jack of dock connector port. Others communicate with a separate base unit—either over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Regardless of how this is done, device triggering doesn’t happen as quickly as it does with a true-blue hardware remote.

This lag can lead to the timing issues regarding device setup I mentioned as well as a remote that you press, wait, press again because you’re unsure whether the first press did anything, and then swear when both presses finally take hold—one undoing the other.

Tactile feedback

But let’s say that you work out all these issues—your remote app unfailingly understands the workings of every hunk of entertainment gear manufactured in the last 20 years, interface design is flawless and predictable, and it responds as speedily as a hardware remote. One key issue remains: No useful feedback.

I’ve had my Harmony remote long enough that I know, by touch, where all its primary buttons are. Push the top of the long button on the right side to move up through channels, push the top of its corresponding partner on the left to increase volume, press Select in the middle, press Mute on the left side above volume… my fingers are trained to feel their way along.

You simply can’t do that with a touch screen. Some of these apps vibrate and make a noise when you tap a button, but that feedback tells you nothing more than you've tapped something. And sure, if the interface offers precious few buttons you can usually do what you want by broadly tapping along one of the screen’s edges, but then your interface is so limited that you’re back to the swiping-to-other-screens issue, which, again, takes your eyes off the large screen you want to watch and places them on the much smaller screen you don’t. Place too many buttons on the screen and it’s impossible to navigate by “feel.”

Where to?

Anticipating a few comments likely to appear below these words, I readily admit that the Harmony software can be horrendous. It’s a drag to jack your remote into your computer and run through Logitech’s ugly setup interface. It’s draggier when a component doesn’t respond as it should and you have to return to the setup application to fix it. But once you’ve completed setup—even with its burps and hiccups—the remote works reliably. Reliably enough, in my experience, that I don’t need to touch that setup application again until I buy a new component. Even with the application’s challenges, I’d much rather live through this half-hour of inharmonious hell than spend every night in purgatory wrestling with an iOS remote.

So, for me, the Harmony makes sense. And I expect that it’s going to make sense for a long time to come. It’s not that the iOS developers who’ve tackled this issue are stupid. It’s that the issue they’re tackling is very, very hard because the tool on which they’re attempting to work their magic is hostile to this kind of task. Seasoned couch potatoes don’t want to take their eyes off the prize to fiddle with an app’s interface, but that’s what an iOS device demands. I frankly haven’t a clue how an app can overcome this problem. Given the far-too-many unsuccessful iOS remotes I’ve seen, developers seem to be just as clueless.

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