I still recall the CEDIA Expo, many years ago, when every major wholehouse audio company debuted an iPod-compatible system, and we all knew that music distribution would change forever. I had the same reaction just a couple years back, once again at a CEDIA Expo, when I saw the first use of an iPad as a touchscreen controller for a high-end home automation system. You just had a feeling that the days of the dedicated remote control were numbered.
It's certainly a logical progression. The touchscreen universal remote used to be the marquee controller sitting atop a control company's line, something the serious enthusiast happily paid hundreds or thousands of dollars to own. These days, many of us have already invested hundreds of dollars on a touchscreen device that we carry around in our pocket or briefcase. All we needed was a way to put the control interface we desired on the touchscreen device we already owned.
Manufacturers have obliged in a big way. Let's take a look at the various options that are currently available in this arena.
Single-Device Control Apps
If you own a networkable A/V product - be it a receiver, TV, Blu-ray player, streaming media player, or other source component - the chances are very high that the manufacturer of your device offers a free control app for your tablet and/or smartphone. As long as the A/V and handheld devices are on the same network, you can use the app to control the A/V device, in lieu of the supplied remote. Naturally, the app interface provides the same basic control options found on the remote, but you also may get some perks that aren't available on the physical remote, such as a virtual keyboard for faster text input, a touchpad slider for navigation, a gamer-friendly button layout, and direct Web browsing via the app itself. Many of the new TV control apps include the ability to flick media content from the tablet/phone to the TV, making it even faster and easier to enjoy big-screen playback of photos and videos stored on your mobile device.
Because these apps work over your home network, you don't need line-of-sight with the gear. You can control your A/V receiver from anywhere in the house (i.e., in a second or third audio zone) without having to add a more advanced control module. You don't need to power up your display device to control audio-only sources, and a well-designed app interface will generally provide more info than you can get from the receiver's front-panel display. For those receivers that offer streaming audio services like Pandora, Spotify, and Internet radio, you can input text quickly via the virtual keyboard and view artist/song info directly on your handheld device. Of course, if your receiver has integrated AirPlay or Bluetooth audio support, or if you own one of the myriad tabletop radio/speaker systems that offer these wireless audio features, you can control song selection and volume directly via your handheld device, from anywhere in your network's range.
The main drawback to these single-device control apps is just what the name implies - each can only control a single device. Whereas the physical remote that comes with your TV, DVR, or receiver may support control of a few additional products in your system, these free apps usually only control the specific device for which they were designed. To control a full home theater system via your tablet/phone, each individual device would need network connectivity and its own app, and you would have to constantly navigate between the different apps - hardly an intuitive process.
Click on over to page 2 for Universal Remote Apps and Advanced System Integration . . .