Peel Universal Remote Control and iPhone App Reviewed

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Peel Universal Remote Control and iPhone App Reviewed

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Peel_Universal_Remote_Review.jpgThe idea of controlling your entertainment system using an iPhone is not new. For years now, owners of wholehouse entertainment and automation systems have had the option to control their systems via their iPhone--as just about every major control and automation company now offers iPhone integration. Likewise, big-name A/V manufacturers like Samsung, Sony, and Panasonic offer free apps that allow users to control that company's gear with their handheld device. The next logical step falls in between: the iPhone or iPod touch as a standalone universal remote control. You don't need a wholehouse control platform, and you're not locked to one manufacturer's app and equipment. Several companies have recently introduced an iPhone-based universal controller, including Peel, Griffin, and Harmony. The Peel system is the first one we've had a chance to test.

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The App
Peel is a free app designed to improve your TV channel-surfing experience. No longer must you scroll through a generic onscreen program guide or physically change channels to see what's on. Instead, you can tell the Peel app where you live and which service provider you use, and then get a much more intuitive breakdown of what's on TV. The Peel interface divides content into five categories: Top Picks, TV Shows, Movies, Sports, and Search. Within the main categories, it further divides by genre: comedy, drama, kids, type of sport, etc. You're not just looking at a bunch of text lists, either: The interface includes colorful cover art, with full plot descriptions. Via touchscreen control, it's easy to browse the different options, read about various shows, and look ahead to future time slots--all without having to interrupt what's currently playing on your TV by pulling up an onscreen program guide.

In the Top Picks category, Peel will recommend content based on the personal information you provide during setup (if desired). As with music apps like Pandora, Peel grows smarter as you give it more feedback about the types of shows you like and dislike. Click the star for shows you like or the X for shows you don't (if you have a change of heart, you can go into Settings and alter these lists). One screen is dedicated to your favorite shows, and another allows you to list favorite channels, so you can customize a mini-guide and see what's currently playing on your most-watched channels.

The Fruit
The logical evolution of that channel-surfing idea was to add the ability to control your set-top box so that you could tune to a particular program once you've found it using the app. This is where "the fruit" comes in. The Peel Fruit ($99) features two parts: a small network adapter that connects to your router and a pear-shaped (hence the name) IR blaster. It's a very easy system to set up, with clear instructions in the box: 1) Connect the network adapter box (called the Peel Cable) to your router with an Ethernet cable and plug it into a power outlet; 2) put a C battery into the wireless Peel Fruit; 3) make sure your iPhone is connected to the same network via WiFi; and 4) pair the Fruit and the iPhone using a supplied code. The Peel Cable receives commands from your iPhone and then sends those commands over the wireless ZigBee standard to the Peel Fruit, which in turn sends out IR codes to your A/V gear. Because the Peel Fruit sends out IR, it needs to have line-of-sight with your equipment; the company recommends that the Peel Fruit be no farther than 15 feet from your A/V equipment and 25 feet from the Peel Cable.

Once everything is connected, the Peel app walks you through a simple programming procedure to control the devices you use to watch TV (in my case, a DirecTV HD DVR, a Sony TV, and a Pioneer receiver). The system had no trouble find the correct codes to control my equipment. Peel also allows you to add Blu-ray players, DVD players, and streaming media players. The remote interface includes an activity bar where you can switch between activities, like TV watching or (in my case) Blu-ray playback. Press "TV," and the remote is supposed to turn on all the needed devices and switch to the correct inputs--although this function seldom worked properly with my system (it usually failed to turn on the DirecTV DVR for TV-watching and my OPPO Blu-ray player for movies). There's no corresponding "all power off" function, either. The more reliable method of powering devices is to press the Power icon, which brings up a list of all your devices and allows you to turn each one on or off as needed.

Peel's remote interface includes two basic screens, each of which sports a slider-control cross in the center with a few buttons around it that vary based on the devices you're trying to control. For my TV/DVR setup, the first screen offered slider control for volume up/down and forward/reverse, with a play/pause button in the center. Around it were buttons for jump forward, jump back, mute, record, and X (to delete a channel from your lineup). The second screen offered directional sliders with an OK button in the center, surrounded by buttons for menu, active (a DirecTV function), list, back, exit, and a color button that pulls up separate red/green/yellow/blue color buttons. That's it. There are no other controls, and the interface is not customizable by the end user. Obviously, some desirable buttons are missing, which we'll address in a moment.

It took me a while to get used to the Peel's slider controls. For instance, for volume control, you must slide the icons up or down and hold them until you reach a desired volume, as opposed to pressing a button a certain number of times. To fast-forward through a commercial on a DVR recording, you have to slide the control to the right once for slow speed, twice for the next-faster speed, etc. It's different than the button-pressing philosophy that I've always known, so my first reaction was to not like it. I got used to it over time, but I fear many of us old geezers may never truly be able to let go of the need to press buttons.

Read about the high points and low points of the Peel universal remote on Page 2.
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