Could the iPad Become The Ideal Universal Remote?

by Randy Murray on May 31, 2010

Visit any home theater and you’ll find a drawer full of remotes, many of them universal remotes we’ve tested and rejected. The perfectly configured universal remote is the crowning touch to any home theater setup.  And I think a new contender is on the horizon. I’ve been testing the new Apple iPad for the last few weeks and I think it might be the eventual winner.

If you just have a TV you probably don’t understand what all the hubbub is about. A home theater, even a simple one, multiplies the number of components you need to control: TV, projector, receiver, lights, cable box, DVD players, etc.

Over the last few years there were three distinct grades of remotes to choose from: inexpensive learning remotes, consumer grade programmable remotes, and professionally installed automation systems.  Prices range from under $30 to thousands of dollars, with the consumer programmable options ranging from around $300 to $800. Consumer versions, like the Harmony 1100, are useful, but they’re frustrating to program. Professionally installed models, like Crestron’s, require a visit from the installer every time you change a component or want to adjust how you interact with your system. “You paid HOW MUCH for a REMOTE?”

That’s why the large touch screen of the iPad is so compelling. This device could offer the consumer the ultimate in customizability at a reasonable cost.  And there are some developers out there rushing to get their solutions to market. But the “i” devices, the iPad, the iPhone, and the iPod Touch, weren’t designed to be used as remotes. They don’t have IR or RF emitters. They do have Bluetooth, but that requires translation and hardware interfacing, which is not a trivial task.

Companies like L5 are working hard on solutions. They’ve released an IR accessory and a free remote app designed for the iPhone and iPod Touch (and they claim it will work with the iPad as well). For $50 you can turn your device into a remote. You have to train and program it, but it’s promising.  Even if you were to purchase an iPod Touch just to use as a remote, it would be less expensive than the Harmony 1100 ($199 for the iPod and $50 for the L5 IR device compared to the street price of over $300 for the Harmony 1100).

The problem with using the iPad is that few of us will be willing to devote it exclusively to the theater. That means remembering to carry it with us when we want to use it as a remote. And it’s big and bright.  In a living room light isn’t a big issue, but in a darkened room, turning on the iPad is like switching on a searchlight.

I’ll test out the L5 device, but I think it’s too early to declare the iPad the ultimate device.  I think it has the potential to be just as revolutionary for the home theater and the automation markets as it is for electronic books and digital entertainment.

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