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Turn Your Smartphone Into a Home Theater Remote Control

A universal remote control saved my marriage.

Okay, I'm exaggerating, but only slightly. My family room sports a 7.1 audio system, an Onkyo TX-NR1007 receiver, a Sony 1080p HDTV, a Blu-ray player, a Dish Network satellite receiver, and two game consoles. The chore of juggling the various remote controls was too much for my long-suffering family. They're used to my predilection toward tech geekiness, but figuring out which remote to use was the last straw. So I invested in an activity-based Logitech Harmony remote control and set it up once--and everyone has been happy ever since.

But dedicated universal remotes are so 20th century. Today people have smartphones and tablets, both of which are poised to replace universal remotes. Though this is still early-adopter territory, new apps and hardware are arriving rapidly.

What's cool is that smartphones and tablets are redefining the remote control. A universal remote used to be a device that controlled your AV rack. If you had a ton of money, you might throw a few thousand dollars at dedicated home automation gear, such as equipment from Crestron, and get whole house control. Today's universal remote controls particularly emphasize the remote concept--in some cases, allowing you to control your TV viewing from any location.

In this article, I'll first look at using a smartphone or iPad as a standard universal remote control. Then I'll briefly explore the world of home automation. After that, I'll discuss remote remote control. Finally, I'll provide a couple of real-world examples, one for using the iPhone as a universal remote, and the other for using an iPad to control a DVR remotely.

Smartphones as Universal Remotes

Using your smartphone as a universal remote isn't a new idea; it has been around almost as long as smartphones have. Back in the early days, when smartphones used Windows Mobile, various remote control apps surfaced. They were all a little clunky, though, and most of the versions I've seen took what I'd describe as a traditional, device-centric approach: Users had to turn on each device individually, and then control the devices independently.

Most apps would let you set up macros so that you could daisy-chain commands to, say, turn on all your devices. But if you wanted to watch DVD movies, you'd then have to switch to the DVD player to control that. As for volume control, macros would again help, but creating them was often tedious work. I experimented with some of these early apps, but they were more frustrating than useful.

The iPhone changed everything. If you fire up iTunes and search for "universal remote," you'll find a number of applications that permit you to control your home theater gear with the iPhone. However, there is a catch: Almost all of these apps are proprietary, because they need some form of external hardware. I'll touch on that topic shortly.

Similar apps exist for Android and even BlackBerry. And now that Windows Phone 7 is a reality, we'll likely see more of these types of apps on that mobile platform, as well.

Before I talk about apps, however, I need to discuss one key aspect of home AV gear: infrared technology.

The Invisible World

RedEye on iPhone
Most modern AV devices still use remote controls that employ infrared light beams. Although a few devices use radio, and there's a movement toward control over HDMI (allowing for a single master device), the actual remotes are simple IR emitters. This fact has caused great heartburn among PlayStation 3 owners who use their game consoles as Blu-ray players, because the PS3 is controlled via Bluetooth. Controlling a PS3 with a universal IR remote requires an adapter, such as the PS3IR.

Smartphones, however, don't have built-in IR emitters. You need some kind of external device to transmit IR signals; for most smartphone universal remotes, that device comes in the form of a dongle that connects to the phone. The main drawback of this approach is the lack of a universal IR blaster for mobile devices; most dongle-based IR emitters are proprietary to a particular app. So if you use the Re app for iPhone or iPad from NewKinetix, for instance, you must use the NewKinetix-supplied IR dongle. The RedEye app can use the RedEye Mini IR emitter. RedEye is currently available for iOS only; Thinkflood, though, has suggested that it will be porting the app to Android, since the RedEye Mini plugs into the phone's headphone jack rather than the proprietary power and data connector.

Some apps forgo dongles, using external boxes for control instead. The upside of this arrangement is that you don't need to attach a gizmo to your phone. The downside depends on the specific box.

AV/Shadow for the BlackBerry platform uses a small external IR emitter. The phone communicates with the box via Bluetooth. Ordinarily, placement of the IR emitter is relatively critical, since IR requires line of sight; here the use of Bluetooth helps a bit, since it doesn't require line of sight from the BlackBerry to the external AV/Shadow box.

The original RedEye product from Thinkflood (the company that sells the RedEye Mini dongle) combines an iPhone dock, an embedded Linux computer, and an IR emitter. The embedded computer has its own Wi-Fi connection, which you can access remotely from your iPhone. As a result, you can remotely control your AV rack anywhere you happen to be--even when you're not at home.

Another intriguing device is the Peel Universal Remote. Peel first arrived on the scene with a social-media-focused guide app for TV viewing. The new Peel Universal Control System is an external IR emitter that attaches to your network via Zigbee. Peel aims to integrate its social media capabilities into the remote control functionality. The Peel Universal Remote will ship sometime after the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

The idea of controlling your AV rack from wherever you are may seem a little obsessive: After all, why would you want to turn your receiver on and off if you're on vacation? But that isn't the point--what these devices are promising to do is give you control over VCR or DVR scheduling or, in some cases, the ability to view what you've recorded remotely.

Dedicated Applications

Comcast Xfinity TV
Not everyone is a TV junkie in need of switching among multiple devices and constantly monitoring what's happening with their home theater systems. Quite a number of users, including some of my own family members, would be content to be able to schedule shows for their DVR anytime, anywhere.

In fact, you can do so already, depending on which DVR or service you have. For example, if you search the iTunes store, you'll find individual apps that give you control over specific services. The Xfinity app allows you to control Comcast-based DVRs. Verizon offers a FIOS DVR manager. DVR Remote lets you control your TiVo series 3 or TiVo Premier DVR. Dish Networks has an app that allows you to control your Dish DVR. Many of these apps are also coming to Google's Android platform.

Android users have similar options. TiVoRemoteApp, which controls your TiVo DVR, doesn't require an IR dongle, since it connects to your TiVo over the Internet. And Comcast and Verizon have announced that they'll be making Android versions of their respective apps available in the near future.

At least one announced Android phone, the Lumigon T1, ships with a built-in IR emitter. It's currently distributed in Europe; availability in the United States market is uncertain. The T1 includes built-in learning remote software, too, so you don't need to hunt for a third-party app.

You can, in a limited way, even control your home theater PC, particularly if you're using the popular VLC Media Player. VLC Remote Control software, which exists for both the Android and iOS platforms, allows you to control your home theater PC if it's using VLC Media Player. Alternatively, you can take complete control of your home theater PC with an app such as HippoRemote, which turns your handset into a wireless keyboard and touchpad for your home theater PC (or any PC, for that matter).

I'll take a look at one example, the Dish Remote Access application, on the next page.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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