WHILE the universal remote has served humanity with distinction, its days are numbered, and your smartphone is to blame. In the beginning, a universal remote had to control two or three things (typically a television, a cable box and a VCR or DVD player). And for a handful of devices, a remote with all the buttons in one place worked just fine.
Over time, the universal remote expanded its jurisdiction, as there were new devices to control: audio receivers, streaming-video boxes, digital video recorders and other home entertainment components.
The universal remote did only what it could: It grew more buttons. But that was a stopgap at best. With so many devices to manage — and with so many buttons to use — universal remotes started to become ridiculously complex.
There was a solution, of course: touch screens. Devices using these interactive displays can change their layouts depending on the remote being mimicked. Several manufacturers put touch screens into their high-end remotes.
But touch screen remotes were — and are— expensive. A traditional universal remote costs $20 or so. Touch-screen models often cost in the hundreds.
Some engineers got to thinking: There is a growing number of touch screens in the world, in the form of smartphones. And since more and more entertainment devices are Internet-enabled, and since smartphones are as well, they don’t even need an infrared transmitter; they can control equipment using Wi-Fi.
And so now we have a bounty of applications and accessories that let us use the technology we already have to control the technology we already have. This is not only frugal, but upgradeable and flexible. Whether you want to control your music, your television or your PowerPoint presentation, there’s probably a solution using your phone.
Music and Video
Plenty of people use iTunes. And many of them use their computers to play music over their home stereo speakers. Knowing this, Apple makes a slim remote to work with most of its PCs. But this remote has no screen and can perform only a few basic functions. But a free iPhone application, called Remote, uses Wi-Fi to control the computer as if you were sitting in front of an iTunes window. Users can browse and sort through entire music and video libraries, select playlists and adjust volume.
IPhone users who are also fans of Sonos, the multiroom audio system that works with all kinds of music files — not just Apple-approved — can download a free application called Sonos Controller for iPhone. It works over Wi-Fi and mimics the hardware-based controllers Sonos makes. A similar free program, VersaZones Mobile (versagroup.net), lets users control Sonos devices on a Windows Mobile handset.
There are other options, too. Melloware’s Intelliphone remote (melloware.com) works with an iPhone to control Windows Media Center PCs. Users can move the cursor on the PC’s display by using the iPhone’s touch screen, and a Qwerty keyboard obviates the need for a separate wireless keyboard. Intelliphone is one part of a two-application suite. The other component, Intelliremote, is loaded onto the Media Center PC and costs $24. After that, Intelliphone is free.
Users of all but the earliest BlackBerry models can also stream music from their phone to any sound system connected to the company’s Remote Stereo Gateway, which sells for $90. The matchbook-size device plugs into a stereo and receives streaming audio, via Bluetooth, from a paired BlackBerry. This isn’t really a remote control, because the music is being streamed from the BlackBerry’s memory card. But the overall effect is the same, and BlackBerry remote programs for music are thin (for now).
Controlling your television is a bit harder than controlling your digital music library. Most TVs aren’t part of a home’s wireless network, and therefore they rely on infrared signals. The Unify4Life AVShadow (unify4life.com) is a $99 kit that works with BlackBerrys to mimic infrared remote controls on most TVs and set-top boxes. The Shadow is both phone software and a piece of hardware that converts a BlackBerry’s Bluetooth transmission into an infrared signal your TV can understand. The company also makes the GarageShadow, a device that operates garage doors via a BlackBerry.
IPhone-toting TiVo lovers can control their Series 3 or HD DVRs with Derek Stutsman’s DVR Remote (www.stutsmansoft.com), a $3 application that mimics the well-known TiVo remote, complete with thumbs up and thumbs down buttons. It works over Wi-Fi.
For the more adventurous, a group of engineering students at the University of Toronto have created an infrared transmitter for iPhones and iPod Touches. UiRemote (uiremote.wordpress.com) has created a working prototype and will release a commercial version this year.
PowerPoint presentations and the like are a bit easier to control remotely because, presumably, they are being viewed through a laptop. But the benefit is considerable. No longer tethered to your laptop, you can move around the room while still holding in your hand an image of what’s on the screen behind you. No more of that weird over-the-shoulder karaoke move when checking to see where you are in the presentation.
Senstic (www.senstic.com) makes a $9.99 PowerPoint remote application for the iPhone called i-Clickr. The application connects to PowerPoint on a PC and displays the current slide and the control buttons on the iPhone’s screen.
For users of Apple’s KeyNote software, there is the 99-cent Keynote Remote. The software shows a large, easy-to-read representation of your current slide along with any notes added in the presentation file running on a Mac.
A hardware solution for Windows Mobile and BlackBerrys is the Impatica Showmate (www.impatica.com/showmate). This small device connects to any VGA-compatible projector and receives PowerPoint slides over Bluetooth. Users can then control the playback of the slide deck from the handset. It costs $250 for the hardware and software bundle.
This is probably the beginning of the end for the stand-alone universal remote. Since Apple opened its App Store, all the other big players in mobile technology have either begun or announced application stores. And opening software development to the public only means that more of these types of applications are likely to be created.