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 . . .
As with any universal remote, the level of control, customization and reliability will vary per product, but I can offer up some general observations based on my experience with a couple of these apps. On the plus side, these products provide a fairly inexpensive way to add a touchscreen universal controller to your system (provided you already own the tablet/phone, of course). The apps are usually activity-based (a la Harmony) and will walk you through a fairly straightforward setup wizard to add devices and activities. They often include a TV guide service so that you can browse content without pulling up your onscreen menu, and there's often a social media connection to give and receive content recommendations. A single converter box will usually work with multiple handheld devices, so everyone in your home who owns a tablet or phone can set up their own control interfaces and create their own channel favorites (which means you can have endless fun annoying your family members by changing the channel or muting the volume from your own phone while they try to watch TV).
As for limitations, these products generally allow for control of just a few activities and devices and won't delve too deeply into the home automation realm. The app may provide some ability to customize the interface by adding, renaming and moving buttons, but you're not going to get the same level of setup flexibility and customization that you would through the higher-end universal remotes. The need to convert the signal can result in slower response times. (I also reviewed a Samsung Galaxy Tablet that had built-in IR and came preloaded with the Peel app. The integrated IR provided much faster response time than I got with the standalone Peel system.) Finally, a touchscreen remote like the Harmony 1100 still includes a few hard buttons for basic functions like mute, volume, and power. You don't get the benefit of hard buttons when using these apps. Every time you want to perform even a simple task, you have wake up your phone/tablet and launch the app or, if already launched, wait a second to re-establish the connection. The process simply isn't as fast and intuitive as reaching for a dedicated universal remote.
During my research, I
came across a product called the iRule, which includes iRule Builder Web software ($50 to $100) to create a remote template that gets loaded into the control app; this allows for a higher degree of customization and flexibility. The company also offers multiple hardware options for system communication.
Advanced Control System Integration
As I alluded to in the opening, high-end control companies have embraced tablet/smartphone integration. Pretty much every major player in this space offers an iOS-/Android-friendly control app: Control4's MyHome, Crestron's Mobile and Mobile Pro, AMX's TPControl, Lutron's Home Control+, and Savant's TrueControl, to name a few. Even though many of these apps are available directly to the consumer through the iTunes and Google Play stores, they are meant to be programmed by your installer, just like a dedicated system controller, and they generally offer a higher degree of flexibility and customization than the DIY options described above. In addition to in-home control, many of the apps allow for remote monitoring and control, so you can keep an eye on things like security, lighting and temperature when you're away from home.
Using your own smartphone or tablet as a full-fledged system controller provides a value-oriented alternative for those who are trying to build a modest home-automation system on a budget, and it's also a great convenience perk for those who have a cost-no-object system. I personally wouldn't recommend that your primary phone or tablet be the only system-control option in your house. These devices can be easily lost or broken, or they may simply be away from or on the other side of the house when you need to use them for control. Having a few dedicated controllers in heavy-use areas is still a wise choice - and hey, if you're looking for a way to repurpose an older phone or tablet after you've upgraded to the latest and greatest, considering transforming it into a dedicated control option.
I love all the perks that a control app brings to the table, especially in the value department, but I'm not quite ready to say goodbye to the dedicated remote control. Perhaps it's just a comfort thing for an old-schooler like me; even when I have control apps at my fingertips, I tend to reach for the physical remote, primarily because it's faster and I find the lack of hard buttons on my phone to be a big hindrance. But the younger generations (I almost typed "but these kids today") do everything on a touchscreen, everything on their phones. Why should system control be any different? The universal remote may not be dead yet, but these are, in all likelihood, the twilight years.