The “universal remote” takes on an entirely new meaning as Wi-Fi-enabled touch screen devices proliferate. Thanks to all the free apps, we may no longer need to regularly use the dedicated remotes that came with our TV, Blu-ray player, receiver, home theater system, media player or DVR.
For Apple iOS device users, the advantages of relying on an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad to control all their home entertainment components quickly add up. Since most of the apps are also available in versions for Android devices, including Droid phones and most tablets not made by Apple, the app-control party is becoming pretty inclusive.
There are many reasons why you might want to use your touch screen instead of the factory-supplied remote. You don’t have to hunt for it since it’s already in your pocket or on your lap. The screen is backlit so you can use it in the dark, the way a home theater was meant to be enjoyed. You don’t have to buy batteries since recharging is already part of your routine. Generally, you can control equipment even from another room or when someone is blocking your view. That’s because Wi-Fi—unlike infrared—doesn’t require line of sight. (However, a handful of apps here do use an infrared accessory.) If you’re playing music or listening to Internet radio, you won’t have to turn on the TV just to see the menu. That’s because a second screen is in your pocket or in your hand. And space freed up by a dozen remotes normally cluttering the coffee table can be repurposed for more comfortable use—like supporting a pair of outstretched legs.
If you’re shopping for home theater components, the added value of a free control app may help you make a buying decision. For instance, if it comes down to choosing between two similar bookshelf stereo systems, and one works with your phone and the other doesn’t, which model will you be more likely to choose?
Another consideration is what to do with a device you plan to retire when you replace it with the new iPad or the latest smartphone? Just because you’ve turned off cellular service doesn’t mean the device can’t continue to be useful in the Wi-Fi environment of your home. Anoint it your sofa-side universal remote!
The first clue you’ll have that a manufacturer has or is developing an app for that piece of equipment you’re eyeing is that the gear has an Ethernet jack or is touted as Wi-Fi-capable or Wi-Fi-ready. (The latter implies the added purchase of a USB dongle.) In the connected home, a source component without network connectivity can be a dead end. (Two other wireless protocols, Airplay and Bluetooth are not covered here.) All the apps described here can be downloaded from the iTunes App Store or Google Play (formerly Android Market).
Home Theater Receivers
The component category that benefits the most from connectivity is the home theater receiver. That’s because it’s already your central switching station to your speakers and display, so why not use it to switch audio streams from the Internet or music stored on your network without necessarily turning on the TV? (Some receivers offer nearly indecipherable one-line monochrome text displays, further encouraging you to turn on your TV.)
A manufacturer that provides an elegant and functional interface for iOS and Android devices is Onkyo. With some nine Onkyo Network Receivers to choose from, the company offers 5.1- to 9.2-channel models appealing to everyone from entry-level consumers to sophisticated enthusiasts.
From your so-called iDevice, the Onkyo app enables you to tune in such Internet radio services as Pandora, vTuner, Rhapsody, Sirius XM, Slacker, Mediafly, Napster and Last.fm. You’ll also be able to choose a DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) device in your home so you can play music stored on a computer in another room. You slide your finger across your mobile screen to adjust your system’s treble and bass or the levels of the center channel and subwoofer. You’ll also be able to switch the receiver’s input and choose a listening mode depending on whether you’re watching a movie, listening to music or playing a game. Setup functions and, of course, volume controls are also accessible. (For more about one of Onkyo’s network models, the TX-NR414 A/V Home Theater Receiver, see New Home Theater Receivers from Onkyo.)
Yamaha offers a full line of networkable home theater receivers that work with the company’s Yamaha AV Controller app for iOS or Android devices. Hook up the Yamaha RX-A810, RX-A1010, RX-A2010 or RX-A3010 and you’ll be able to sit back with your iDevice and browse content complete with album art, adjust the volume and tune to a different FM station. The app also controls Yamaha’s BD-A1010 Blu-ray Disc Player.
Blu-ray Disc Players
With the majority of new Blu-ray Disc players as capable of streaming media as they are playing a disc, it follows that manufacturers have launched plenty of control apps for these components. Panasonic, Samsung, Sony and other vendors offer iOS and Android apps for their networkable Blu-ray players. Insert a Blu-ray disc in one of Sony’s players, including the BDP-S580 and BDP-S480, and information about the title can be displayed on your handheld device including the genre, duration, rating, release date, cast and cover art. Soft versions of the hard buttons that came with the player’s remote afford control of the movie.
Home Theater Systems
Several manufacturers are offering home theater systems that can stream entertainment from the Internet. The Panasonic Theater Remote 2012 (initially available just for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad) recreates the dials and switches from the front panel of the receiver on your touch-screen device. For instance, you turn soft dials to switch inputs, raise the subwoofer level, choose surround effects or lower the volume. If you’re like me and keep your receiver on a shelf near the floor below your TV, operating the controls via touch screen from the sofa is a much easier task than getting up, bending down and adjusting the hard controls. The app is compatible with Panasonic’s SC-BTT490, SC-BTT195 and SC-BTT190 Full HD 3D Blu-ray Disc Home Theater Systems.
As TV sets have become smarter with built-in streaming capabilities, manufacturers have stepped up with more intuitive ways to control the experience. Among them are LG, Samsung, Sony and Panasonic. In terms of the latter’s VIERA-Connect plasma and LCD model available since 2011, Panasonic promotes its VIERA remote app as a simple solution for operating your gear more intuitively than the company’s ordinary remote controller. Using slide and flick gesture operations on your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, for example, you can flip through the channels, switch external inputs, and control the volume without looking at the controller. You can keep your eyes on the results being displayed on the TV screen. The VIERA remote app also supports a keyboard mode for text entry. When you need to enter text on the VIERA screen, the keyboard screen is automatically displayed on your iOS device. The app is also available for Android devices.
The Samsung Remote app enables Wi-Fi remote control of Samsung Smart TVs sold since 2011 using such devices as your iPhone. The app’s smart mode lets you browse content choices available for streaming on your Smart TV right on your handheld screen. You can use its onscreen keyboard to input text or numbers where appropriate. And the touch screen makes a comfortable user interface for games playable on your Smart TV. The app is also available for Android devices. Equipment served by the app include Samsung’s 6500 Series LED-LCD TVs, PN51D6500 51" 3D Plasma HDTV and some of the company’s Blu-ray Disc players. The LG TV Remote app is compatible with LG’s 47LV3700 47" 1080p Smart LED TV, among others.
Complete with speakers, sound docks are music systems that operate with or without a TV. Manufacturers of sound docks with matching apps include Acoustic Research, iLuv, Sony and Panasonic. Insert your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch into the ARS28i App-Enhanced Portable Audio System & Docking Station for iPad from Acoustic Research, and you’ll want to take a cue from the model name and make it app enhanced. Download the Acoustic Research Dock Plus app and the system becomes a multi-time alarm clock with big digital readout and music player controls. The app also provides visual controls over EQ settings and the FM radio.
Similarly, if you set up iLuv’s iMM727 ArtStation Stereo Speaker Dock (Black) or ArtStation Pro Stereo Speaker Dock for iPad, iPhone and iPod (Black or White), you’ll want to install the iLuv App in your iOS device. The app lets you choose different clock displays, adjust the brightness and wake to such unconventional sounds as an army sergeant, a nagging mom or a yelling boss. Of course, you can still choose to wake to your own music or an Internet radio station.
The Sony Network Audio Remote for iOS and Android devices works with a variety of Sony products including the NAC-SV10i Wi-Fi iPod/iPhone Dock and NAS-SV20i Wi-Fi iPod/iPhone Speaker Dock. (It’s also compatible with Sony’s Home Share Wireless Speakers, BDVE780W 3D Blu-ray Home Theater System, BDVE580 3D Blu-ray Home Theater System and SMP-N200 smart Streaming Player.) The app turns your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch into a music controller for Sony’s HomeShare products. You’ll be able to access your personal music collection and play it on Sony’s network audio products located anywhere in your home. Each Sony network audio product can play a separate song and be controlled independently. Alternatively, you can synchronize music around your home for what Sony terms “Party Streaming.”
The Panasonic Theater Remote 2012 app (iOS only) for use with Panasonic’s SC-HC57 Compact Stereo System provides remote control play functions from your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. You can tap the screen to open the stereo’s door and adjust the equalizer and other settings. For more about this system and its not-so-smart siblings, see the article, New Panasonic Compact Stereo Systems.
Though media receiver functions are increasingly being built into Blu-ray players and TVs, among other components, the capabilities to play photos, music, video and services from the Internet or content from a plugged-in USB storage device were first seen in dedicated media receiver/player components. Devices like Western Digital’s WD TV Live Hub and WD TV Live, as well as Netgear’s NTV200 NeoTV and D-Link’s Boxee Box Digital Media Player continue to be available and offer a robust selection of online services. Because they generally come with uninteresting infrared remotes, the companies are now offering makeovers that put more attractive controls into your Wi-Fi-enabled iOS and Android devices. For example, with Western Digital’s WD TV Remote or Netgear’s NeoTV Remote apps, you can launch such online services as Facebook or Netflix by simply touching the screen icon in the palm of your hand. In some cases videos like YouTube clips and Netflix movies can be navigated by scrubbing a time-elapsed bar, with the results playing on the TV screen.
Not all media players are connected to a TV. Two examples are the music-oriented Squeezebox Radio and Squeezebox Touch Wi-Fi Music Player, both from Logitech. Each can be commanded by the Logitech Squeezebox Controller app for iOS or Android devices, letting your fingertips do the work of controlling the soundtrack in your home from your phone or other device.
If you dwell in a Wi-Fi wrapped home, own a TiVo Premiere digital video recorder and use an iOS or Android device, you’re missing half the fun if you haven’t downloaded the free TiVo app. Offering both virtual remote and gesture control over your DVR, the app’s main benefit is that it doesn’t take away any screen real estate from the TV show. That means you view the program guide, search for shows, set recordings and more all from the second screen while the movie or game fully occupies the big picture. It keeps the guide in your hands and the screen free from distractions.
The Universal Remote Control Remade
Finally, the universal remote category is in the throes of being remade due to the explosive growth of home Wi-Fi and mobile devices. Whereas a conventional controller can be programmed to operate a variety of components by storing their infrared codes, Logitech’s Harmony Link lets you use your smartphone or tablet as the remote. You download the free app into your mobile device to control up to eight devices including set-top boxes and DVRs from cable companies. So, if you’re using an iPad, the Logitech Harmony Link app allows you to see and browse your television schedule on that second screen. If you see something you like, one press of a Watch Now button will turn on and configure all of your devices, and then tune directly to the right TV channel. You also can set activity-based controls, so selecting an activity like Watch a Movie or Listen to Music automatically switches the right devices to the right settings. The Harmony Link’s main hardware component is an IR mini blaster wirelessly controlled by touching your Wi-Fi-enabled mobile device. If you’ve used a previous Harmony product and you have a My Harmony account, you may be able to download all the codes you need in one batch based on equipment you’ve previously told the company you own.
A less sophisticated accessory for your iPod touch, iPhone or iPad is the VooMote Zapper Remote (Smart Black or Smart White) from Zero1.tv.
For a growing number of “smart” entertainment components, there are new ways for people to take control. Rather than reaching for the factory-supplied remote, viewers can pick up their smartphone, tablet or other touch-screen device. For most of these apps, the main requirement is that your home has a working wireless network (for use by your iPad, iPhone, iPod touch or Android phone or tablet) and your target entertainment component is connected to the same network by Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable. Incidentally, store each of the components’ dedicated remotes in a drawer just in case one is needed. If your router goes down, a conflict arises or there’s an esoteric control not available through the app, it’s prudent to have a backup.
See the accompanying table for links to app-controlled entertainment equipment offered by B&H and additional information about the apps that support them.