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If you suffer from some degree of technophobia, you probably already know that you don't necessarily have to be in front of a PC to be nonplussed by technology these days you often need only go as far as your living room coffee table, where you're likely to encounter a collection of A/V equipment remote controls. For many, figuring out which of these remotes does what and how to use each can be as challenging as working with Windows.
The historical solution to this problem has been the universal remote. It's been around for many years in one form or another, but more recently, products such as Logitech's Harmony and Philips' Pronto line have improved on the basic universal remote concept with advanced features like LCD displays and customizable macro functions.
Setting up one of these advanced remotes usually involves specialized configuration software running on your PC (not good for technophobes) and in some cases may even require the pricey services of a professional AV installer. The Smart Remote from tvCompass takes a different tack, aiming to eliminate the need for outside help or special software. Why? Because it's set up and updated directly from the remote itself, using Internet access courtesy of your Wi-Fi network.
The $299 (MSRP) Smart Remote uses the familiar wand style that most people are comfortable holding, as opposed the tabletop or two-handed designs becoming more common. The remote sports a spacious 2.2-inch color LCD atop a pair of soft keys (whose functions change depending what's on the screen), while a numeric keypad and a familiar array of several dozen function keys round out the front of the unit.
Many universal remotes use common alkaline batteries, but a Wi-Fi-enabled device like the Smart Remote would likely suck them dry over the course of a day's programming. Therefore, the Smart Remote uses its own internal and rechargeable Lithium Ion battery, which isn't user-accessible and is rated to last about a week (our test unit's battery was still going strong after about three days of use). The remote we tested was connected to an AC adapter for charging, but tvCompass informed us that future units would ship with a more convenient charging dock.
Like any IR (infrared) device, the Smart Remote requires line-of-sight in order to control your AV devices. To alleviate this limitation, tvCompass says it's looking into adding RF support or leveraging Wi-Fi to enable communication with devices obscured by A/V furniture.
Before configuring the Smart Remote for the first time, you must first create an account and register your device at www.mytvcompass.com (this initial step does require a PC). You can then power up the Smart Remote, and a wizard will walk you through the initial setup process.
The first task is to join the device to your wireless network the Smart Remote will find any broadcasting networks, or you can specify your own. Lamentably, the Smart Remote is yet another example of a Wi-Fi-enabled consumer electronics device that fails to support the now well-established WPA encryption method. The company says support for WPA is planned for the future, but for the moment your only options are to choose WEP or forgo an encrypted network.
After we dumbed-down the encryption on our wireless network, we were able to connect the Smart Remote. The device promptly got itself an IP address and then proceeded to check in with tvCompass servers for any software/firmware updates, which it found and successfully installed.
We were then prompted to provide our ZIP code so we could choose from a list of local broadcast, cable and satellite providers in order to download channel lineups and program guide data (more on that in a bit). Note that if you have cable as we did there may be several line ups to choose from (basic, extended, digital, rebuild and so on) so a call to your provider may be necessary to determine which one you have.
The Smart Remote makes the process of setting up control of your AV devices fairly intuitive. Unlike some other remotes, there's no need to define devices by poring through page after page of arcane numerical codes, and you don't need to choose a device profile before actually testing to see if it works. The Smart Remote makes setting up profiles an intuitive and menu-driven process you first pick the device category and manufacturer, and then easily cycle through the available profiles. Once you find one that works with your device, you can save it. We set up nearly a half-dozen devices (a TV, receiver, TiVo, DVD, and VCR, all from different vendors) and for all but one, the first profile offered was the correct one.
We were surprised, however, to find that CD players were notably absent from the device category list (people do still listen to CDs, right?). Another complaint is that the Smart Remote requires your channel-tuning device to be the first one you set up. Case in point most people change channels not through their television but via a cable or satellite box. Admittedly, we missed the quick start guide's admonition to set up the tuning device first, and instead of programming the cable box first we did the TV instead. As a result, the remote erroneously tried using the latter to change channels. The only way we could find to rectify the situation was delete all the device profiles and create them over again.
Any universal remote worth its salt has the capability to store macros, which are series of commands run in a certain order (and often precisely timed) that turn on your AV devices and set them to the correct inputs in order to watch TV, a DVD and so on. tvCompass calls macros "activities," but whatever term you use, setting them up on a universal remote is almost always a process of trial and error.
As it turns out, configuring these activities was more time-consuming on the Smart Remote than on many other remotes we've used. First and foremost this is due to the fact that the minimal quick start guide all but glosses over the process. (The only other product documentation included is in the support area of the tvCompass Web site, but it deals almost exclusively with wireless networking issues rather than device features.)
While attempting to set up our activities, we noticed that many of the device profiles we chose earlier omitted critical commands (like those used to switch input sources). On the plus side, adding the missing functions by having the Smart Remote learn buttons from our original remotes was pretty simple (though this process too was undocumented). One thing's for sure the Smart Remote desperately needs more detailed documentation, which tvCompass says is under development and will likely be available online by the time you read this.
A New Meaning to the Term 'Remote Access'
The Smart Remote's built-in Wi-Fi gives it features and flexibility you won't find in most other remotes. For example, there's a built-in program guide that can be viewed right on the LCD display, and we appreciated having a way to consult the guide without having to obscure (or greatly reduce in size) whatever we were currently watching. It's also particularly useful when you're not currently watching TV but want to see what's on later without powering everything up first, as well as when the TV is in use for another purpose (say, watching a DVD or playing a video game).
The Smart Remote's program guide also lets you set reminders for upcoming shows, as well as designate them as favorites, allowing you to consult a "My Shows" list to see which of your shows are on that day.
The remote-based guide also suffers from a couple of practical limitations. First, the remote can only store a finite amount of guide data, which ranges between one and seven days worth depending on how many channels are in your lineup. In at least one instance we couldn't see what was on much more than 24 hours in advance. (To allow the Wi-Fi radio to be turned off and conserve battery power, the Smart Remote caches data and only contacts the network several times daily.)
Even more disappointing is the fact that the guide doesn't offer a way to directly record a program via a TiVo or cable/satellite DVR. TvCompass says recording directly from the guide is a feature planned for the second half of 2007.
Another feature that takes advantage of the Smart Remote's connectivity is click365, which uses RSS feeds to let you access info from news, sports, weather and shopping sites (such as Amazon.com) directly through the remote. You can't actually make product purchases through the remote (at least, not yet) and some feeds simply present an abstract and send more detailed information to you via e-mail. At the moment there are only a handful of feeds available and you can't add your own custom feeds, though tvCompass says that ability will be forthcoming.
While click365 is a novel concept, we're not convinced everyone will see value in using a remote control to access information easily obtained through other devices like a wireless laptop or smartphone. Moreover, we can envision conflicts over possession of the remote "You can't change the channel right now, honey, I need to check stock quotes... ."
While we loved the simplicity of the Smart Remote's initial setup, the lack of WPA support is vexing. Similarly, the program guide feature is intriguing, but doesn't go far enough (i.e., the inability to record a program directly from the guide). The Smart Remote's MSRP is more expensive than all but two products in Logitech's Harmony line, and given some of the product's current limitations that price seems a little steep. The tvCompass Smart Remote has much potential though, and while it's currently a mixed bag, better documentation as well as addressing the aforementioned weaknesses will go a long way toward making it a viable choice for both technophiles and technophobes alike.
Price: $299 (MSRP)
Pros: integrated Wi-Fi means no PC required for setup or updates; built-in program guide; easy to program for AV devices
Cons: no WPA support; many remote features poorly documented
Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.