Smartphone as Remote: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Over the years, I have tried a variety of “universal” remote controls for my menagerie of audio and video devices and I’ve always ended up going back to the messy pile of remotes. Universal remotes, while a great idea in theory, just don’t work very well in practice. They are too hard to program and it’s too hard to remember just how they work with each device.

Sonos iPhone Controller

Sonos iPhone App

Lately, however, I have used an iPhone and an iPod Touch to control music systems from Sonos and Olive Media, as well as a rarely used Apple TV. And these work very well.

The reason is simple. Instead of having to program a remote to control a specific device and then learn just home the remote works with that device, the iPhone simply lets you download an app. In the case of Sonos, the iPhone app simply turns you phone into the functional equivalent of a $349 Sonos Controller 200. If your iPhone or Touch is running on your home network over Wi-Fi, it is a very simple process to connect it to the Sonos ZonePlayers on that network. Because of the iPhone’s multitasking limitations, you can’t actively use the remote while on a call, but this turns out not to be a very significant restriction in practice.

Controlling a $1,499 Olive 4 music server with an iPhone or Touch is slightly less satisfying. The main issue is setup. Unlike the Sonos app, which locates your players on the network, the Olive controller app requires you to enter the numerical network address of the server manually. This isn’t terribly difficult, since it is easy to display the IP address on the Olive 4’s touch display panel, but it is a geeky and unnecessary step. On the other hand, once set up, the Olive app works much better than the rather clumsy infrared control supplied with the server and gives you all the functionality of the display panel from anywhere on the network.

Traditional remotes transmit pulses of infrared light to control devices. This has a number of drawbacks: Communication is one-way only, the remote must have a clear line of sight to the device it is controlling, and the pulse codes give you a limited repertoire of functions. Some device makers have gotten around some of these restrictions by using proprietary radio communications, but the proprietary nature makes it difficult or impossible for universal remotes to replicate their functions. Bluetooth would be an option, but with the exception of the Sony PlayStation 3, hardly any consumer electronics devices other than phones support it.

The opening for smartphones is being created by the fact that wired or Wi-Fi network connections are now becoming ubiquitous on audio-visual devices of all sorts. And once a device is on the network, it can be controlled over the network. There’s no particular reason why this role should be limited to iPhones other than the richness of the iTunes App Store environment. Any Wi-Fi handset capable of downloading apps should work fine as a remote. All that really needs to be done at this point is for the makers of networked TVs, set top boxes, Blu-ray players, game consoles, and every other sort of device to publish the apps. (In my crowded video rack, everything but the TV display, an old DVD player, and an ancient VHS tape player is networked.)

The day may not be far away when I can finally consign all those IR remotes to a drawer somewhere and forget about them.

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