Perhaps you just got your first Android device for Christmas; a nice HTC One Smartphone or maybe a gorgeous new Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. Sure, you’ve been scouring the internet for hot apps, fun games and some Android sites (like our very own Green Robot Gamer site) but what you may not have noticed about your hot new toy is that it comes with an IR (infrared) Blaster built in.
Hmmm … what COULD you do with THAT?
Most remote controls use IR technology to beam your control commands to your TV, Blu ray player, set top boxes and probably your amplifier. Some cable boxes and odd devices may use RF (radio frequency) technology to ensure your commands work – even if you aren’t pointing the remote at the device in question. For the most part, though – IR is alive and well in most home’s entertainment centers. You can even get IR adapters for game consoles like the PS3. Rule of thumb; if you have to point at the device – it is IR – if not, it’s probably RF (and the IR Blaster on your new Android device is useless to you).
Included in Samsung’s Touchwiz Android interface comes an app called WatchON (HTC One has something similar). While this app will control some of your living room devices but it is largely aimed at helping you control what you’re watching – with built in TV guide grid, etc. It might do the trick for some, but chances are likely you have more than one room with devices you would like to control and wouldn’t it be nice to have a deluxe universal remote like a Logitech or Sony right there on your phone or tablet?
Understanding the Universal Remote
Over the past couple of decades we’ve seen an evolution of universal remote controls. It started with looking up devices on big long lists for 4 digit codes you had to enter manually and HOPE that the universal remote supported your TV or VCR. Sometimes you could fool it by using a code for another device – but then some of the functionality you wanted may not work. If your odd device didn’t work, you were out of luck – and the dream of “one remote to rule them all” would be shattered.
After that came “learning” remotes; ones you could point your oddball remote control at and the universal would “learn” the IR signal and let you attach that signal to one of the buttons. This was a long, boring and often unsuccessful process – plus it was hard to get the family to understand commands mapped to nonsensically labeled buttons.
The next generation brought universal remotes that could be “updated” to support more devices. Early versions required you to hold the remote up to the phone while a technician on the other side sent codes via the telephone line (this didn’t work with digital phone lines so it was quickly killed). They finally matured into PC-programmable controllers like the Logitech Harmony which made getting updates and setting up a snap.
Finally, touch screen universal remotes showed up; offering a huge leap in features but also a huge leap in prices – costing $100, $200 or even $300 in some cases. The more you paid, the more it did. They could be programmed on the internet, learn oddball remotes and you could even move the buttons around the screen or label them yourself. That was huge.
No matter what, though – there is a golden rule of universal remotes; if even ONE remote cannot be replaced by it (despite the fact you got rid of 4+ others) then it is an epic fail. This isn’t a problem with most average Joe Consumers, but for home theater enthusiasts, this happens a lot more often than you might think.
The Genius of an App-Based Universal Remote
A smartphone/tablet app is pure genius for handling your universal remote control needs. It can be easily updated. It isn’t locked to pre-determined screen item locations (like LCD display universal remotes). Plus, you know you’re always going to have it with you.
Attempts have been made to create “phone apps” that control devices. Many TVs, Blu ray players and set top boxes have dedicated apps you can use to control them over your home’s wifi – but that isn’t much of a solution. One remote (or app) to rule them all doesn’t work in that scenario – and you’re kinda back where you started.
Don’t forget there are home automation devices that run on IR too.
But a single, IR Blaster backed app – with the right amount of support for new devices? That can be updated easily?
Let me introduce you to Smart IR Remote.
Smart IR Remote comes to you via Google Play for $6.99 (at the time of writing; this is a sale price) with a final install size of about 19MB (in contrast Samsung’s WatchON is about 37MB). It works with pretty much all IR equipped Samsung and HTC devices (a fairly complete list is available before purchasing the app). I tested the app on my Samsung Galaxy S4 phone and Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) tablet.
The no-nonsense wizard like interface will guide you through adding your devices by category (where is the search?) – listing very specific devices as well as a generic “most models” selection that allows you to quickly skim through the codes (via a power on test) to help locate a code that works. It isn’t perfect, but it works.
Once you have selected the device, you are given a basic universal remote layout for the device – allowing you to test other buttons before finally accepting the remote settings permanently.
You can continue to add remotes to your collection until you have them all. Then, you use simple arrow keys to toggle between devices. In my testing, I ran across a single remote that couldn’t be found (remember, one unsupported controller ruins the fun) and we’ll talk later about how I solved my issue.
That is the core functionality of the app.
Even if that’s all Smart IR Remote did, that would be something; all your remotes in one spot – a device you probably always have in arm’s reach. But there is more.
Of course you can customize each remote. Don’t need Button X? Get rid of it. Don’t like Button Y where it is? Move it. Want a button just for Function Z? No problem; Add it.
Heck, don’t like the text? The color? You can change that too.
Macros and Automation
Macros are commonplace in universal remotes. First turn on the TV, then turn on the Blu ray player, then turn on the amplifier, change the TV to HDMI4, wait 10 seconds then hit PLAY on the Blu ray player. Yep, you can do that in Smart IR Remote. You might have heard this called “Activities” in the Logitech world.
Automation adds a neat new twist to macros. You can execute commands when certain conditions occur. Incoming phone call, current time matches a pre-set time and executing commands based on air gestures above your device (wave the volume up or down, etc.) You can even trigger a macro to occur via automation. Pretty cool.
Even More Functionality
The more you dig into the app, the more presents you find under the tree.
There is a floating widget that let’s you create your own “smart” remote. That is, you can combine buttons from ALL your remotes into one, single smart remote – and you can call it up from your home screen without even launching the app.
You can hide remotes so they are invisible to the end user, but are still present in the app. Sounds goofy, but if you use the app 99% of the time in the living room, you may not want to see the bedroom remotes unless you ask for them.
You can also use ICONS on the buttons instead of text. A nice feature. More icon sets are apparently on the way, too.
You can even have it auto-mute a device when a call comes in.
Supposedly if you have the infrared codes in some special hex format, you can add your own codes. I have no idea where you would get these codes, but I guess if you had a weird IR based home built project you wanted to control, you could do so.
One of the greatest features ever is the ability to backup and restore your remotes to the Google cloud, based on your Google login. This makes it easy to set your controller up on your phone, then easily clone them to your tablet. Or, if you get a new device – no worries about losing your carefully crafted universal remote.
While not specifically functionality related, I’d like to say that the app looks great. It isn’t “Holo” per se, but the color scheme is excellent and the graphics are simple, clean and effective. I’ve used other apps that, um … didn’t feature a good looking interface.
The Dark Side
So what is wrong with this app? Nothing WRONG per se, but a lot of things that could improve it. I’ll use this space to reach out to the developer with my ideas for bettering a great app.
First off, add a filter system to the wizard. Don’t make me GUESS what category my remote is in. After all, while a TV is blatantly obvious, what about an all-in-one DVD/amp set top box? When I went looking for my HTPC remote, I had NO idea where to start looking – typing SNAPSTREAM would have been so much easier. Check out how Logitech’s web app does it. Much faster and easier.
We need some faction of grouping. I’d like to group all my living room remotes together, all my bedroom remotes together, etc. This feature has to be coming; it just makes too much sense not to be.
NFC support would be great. I could get NFC tags to perform major activities.
I could never get Air Gestures to work. I double checked my phone settings, etc. but to no avail. I wasn’t planning on using them anyway – but it is worth noting.
Finally, and this is not the fault of the app – but rather a limitation (at least with Samsung devices) of the hardware. You cannot use the IR port to “learn” another remote. On some universal remotes, you can point a remote at it and capture the IR signal. This isn’t possible here. I guess you could contact the manufacturer and get the hex codes from them, but that’s a real pain.
When it comes to choosing a universal remote provider, you want someone you can trust. Someone that will add new devices regularly, handle special requests and be professional. I’ve had the need to contact the developers of this app on several occasions and they have been quick to respond, added my requested device right away and went above and beyond the call of duty to help me understand how the product worked. You don’t see a ton of that going on these days.
Universal remote apps are not all equal; well, they are equal in the manner that they are all expensive for mobile apps. Even at $6.99, this isn’t an impulse purchase. Some go for upwards of $20 or more. You have to be sure you’re getting the right product for you; and a fifteen minute refund period isn’t adequate to do so. Do your research. Contact the developers and see how fast they respond. Will they respond before a purchase? Will they honor a refund after the fifteen minute window? Are ALL your devices represented – and if they aren’t, how fast can they get them added?
Smart IR Remote is missing a couple of key features that would make it a perfect 10, but I have no trouble giving it a good, solid 9. So far, it’s the best universal remote app I’ve found on Android and I look forward to using it for some time to come.