Turn Your Smartphone Into a Home Theater Remote Control
Two Examples: Re and Dish Network
Now let's turn to two real examples so that you can get an idea of how you might use a smartphone or tablet for remote control. First up is Re, from NewKinetix. Re is available in both iPhone and iPad versions; I'll look at the iPhone version. Then I'll discuss how Dish Network's app allows you to control that company's DVRs from an iPad.
The Re from NewKinetix comes in two parts: a free iPhone app and a customized IR dongle that costs about $52 from Amazon or $70 direct from NewKinetix. You attach the dongle to your iPhone power/data connector. Because the IR emitter connects to the bottom of the phone, you need to turn your phone upside down to use it.
Setting up the Re is a bit confusing at first--not because it's upside down, but because it presents the IR database in a generic way. Most manufacturers reuse the IR codes for their devices (a newer Onkyo receiver, for instance, may use the same codes as older ones), and they add codes for new functions.
The Re software presents these codes in numbered lists; each number likely refers to a different family of similar products from different manufacturers. For any of your devices, you'll get a set of meaningless numbers.
Just pick one, and see if it works. If not, try the next. You'll encounter some odd oversights, such as Microsoft's Xbox 360 game console. The Xbox 360 may very well be listed; under the Microsoft category, though, NewKinetix lists Blu-ray/HD-DVD, DVD, Media Center, PVR, VCR, and 'Video Accessory'. Nowhere does it have a listing for game consoles.
The Re acts as a learning remote, so if you can't find the codes for your device and you have access to that device's remote, you can position them to face each other and go through the tedious chore of clicking buttons to transmit the remote codes to your iPhone. The good news is that NewKinetix supports hundreds of devices, so the odds are good that yours is there.
Re is an activity-based remote. You first set up your rooms and then add the devices that exist in each room: A/V receiver, Blu-ray player, set-top box, and so on. After you add the devices, you add activities, such as 'Watch a Movie' or 'Watch TV'. For each specific activity, you select from the list of devices you've added to that room.
After that, you choose which device is the primary one; Re lists this page as the 'on-screen menu' picker.
Once you're done, you can go to that activity and launch it, which turns on all the devices and presents you with a fairly generic set of controls for that activity. You can swipe down to reveal more-detailed controls.
If you need other controls for a particular activity, you can go to the device-specific menu. If you use that function often, the PDF manual details how you can customize these screens by adding buttons for extra functionality, including macros.
Overall, this arrangement works surprisingly well. Re isn't quite as polished as the Harmony One remote I've been using, but if I were to spend some additional customization time, it could get pretty close. The neat thing is that if you have multiple devices in multiple rooms, you don't need more than one remote--just one iPhone or iPad.
Dish Network App
Most of the major content-delivery companies--cable, satellite, and online--now have apps for smartphones to help you manage your devices. Since I have a Dish Network ViP-722k, I gave the Dish application a whirl.
You'll need a DVR that has broadband-connection capability, like the ViP-722k. That's because the Dish app doesn't use remote or even RF signals. It communicates with the DVR--really a Linux-based computer--over the Internet to deliver commands. You might think that this setup would result in some network lag; but when I tried it, pressing the Record button seemed to result in the show recording starting almost immediately.
Getting started, though, is a little cumbersome. First you need to activate your account for Web access; you do so by going into the Dish DVR installation menu and selecting the Web access menu entry. A window pops up with an activation code (not unlike Xbox 360/Windows Media center activation), and you enter that code on the Dish Network Website.
Once you have Web access, you download the iPad app (the company also offers one for the iPhone, and an Android version is coming). You then have full access to the Dish guide, and the app even knows what DVR you have--right down to the serial number.
You have a variety of views into the Dish TV listings. I found the thumbnail view too limiting, even on the iPad, so I prefer the grid view. The thumbnail view, which is the Home screen, looks pretty crowded, but you can sort by category.
Picking one show easily lets you schedule a recording. (You can also do this in the grid view.) You can also navigate to a page that lists all existing DVR timers. You can modify, cancel, or add new timers, as well as manage conflicts.
I've gotten fond enough of the Dish app that I'm no longer using the DVR and remote control to manage recordings--it's that simple. For what it's worth, you can also handle these tasks via a standard Web browser, at the Dish Network Website. But the iPad makes the process more organic and natural feeling.
One other cool aspect of Dish that I plan on adding in the future is Sling capability. Dish Network bought Sling a couple of years ago. The high-end ViP-922 DVR has Sling capability built in; alternatively, you can order a Slingbox to add the functions to an existing Dish DVR, provided that it has USB support. I've ordered one, but I haven't had time to set it up yet.
Adding Sling capability means being able to watch your recorded shows on the same device you're using to control the DVR--namely your iPad, iPhone, or PC.
One day, the IR-based remote control may fade away, leaving true wireless control of devices from any location, at any time, without the necessity of add-on hardware. Right now, however, you can use your smartphone or tablet computer, if you're willing to download some apps and invest a little learning time.
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