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Everyone keeps saying that the iPhone will replace many of the gadgets we use today, like GPS devices, MP3 players, digital cameras, and pocket-sized video cams. After testing out ThinkFlood’s new RedEye Universal Remote Control System for the iPhone, I’m almost ready to add another gadget to that endangered species list: the universal remote control.
RedEye’s system is a hardware base station that works in tandem with an iPhone app. The app is free from the iPhone App Store, but the base station, which doubles as a charging dock, costs $188. Together, the hardware and software combination turns your iPhone (or iPod touch) into a universal remote that can control your home entertainment system.
Setup is relatively easy, though a bit time-consuming, depending on how many devices you need the RedEye to control. You pair your phone with the RedEye base station, which is done through your home’s wireless network. You must keep the base station in the same room with the devices you’d like it to control, but once the system is up and running, you can enter commands from your iPhone from any location where you have access to your wireless network. (If you don’t have a wireless network, you can still use the RedEye system, though your range will be more limited.)
Once your RedEye is connected to your network, it automatically sets up a profile for the room in which you’d like to use it. You complete the profile by adding all of the devices you have in the room, such as TVs, cable boxes, CD and DVD players, AV receivers, and more. (Blu-ray players, curiously, weren’t included in the list of devices.) The process is simple — if the RedEye system has your device and its necessary infrared codes in its database. If your device isn’t listed, you can add it manually, but be prepared to spend some time doing so.
I added three components to my RedEye system: a ViewSonic TV, a Motorola cable box, and a Magnavox DVD player. The RedEye found the necessary codes for both the TV and cable box (it searches the database and presents you with a few options, which you can test to make sure you’ve found the right device), but not the older DVD player. That’s where things got annoying: In order to control my DVD player, I had to add each control manually. That involved taking the DVD player remote, aiming it at the RedEye base station, pressing a button, and logging that button into the software on my iPhone. I got through “power on” and “play” before giving up.
Matt Eager, ThinkFlood’s president and co-founder, says that the company recognizes this limitation, and notes that getting as many devices as possible into that database is an important goal. And rightly so; the RedEye system is so much more usable when all you have to do is sit back and watch the software add your device, rather than having to do it yourself, step by painstaking step.
Once your devices have been added, you can use the system to control them, almost as you would with any remote. What’s surprising about RedEye, though, is that it doesn’t present you with a virtual replica of a hardware remote, as other software-based systems do. Instead, you get a scrollable list of choices, such as Arrow Down, Arrow Up, Channel Down, Channel Up, and so on. The end result is the same, and any time I pressed a command, it was instantly accomplished on my TV; the channel or volume changed with little to no lag time. But it feels a bit awkward to scroll through a list to find the commands. I wish RedEye would put a virtual remote on the screen instead.
Once you’ve added devices, you can set up activities that require multiple commands on different gadgets. This is a feature that some universal remotes offer, and, in theory, the idea is great — it eliminates the fumbling with various remotes and buttons. But I found it a bit flaky in actual use.
I created an activity called “Watch DVD” that would turn on my TV, change its input, turn on the DVD player, and start playing a DVD. (Once you launch an activity, you’re presented with an interface that looks like an on-screen remote, which shows me that ThinkFlood has this capability; I just wish it were offered elsewhere in the app.)
This is where I ran into problems: The RedEye system would only change my TV’s input to the next one on the list (from HDMI to S-Video), when I needed it to move three ahead in the list to AV (which is the input I use for my DVD player). So I amended the activity to move to the next input three times, and then start playing the DVD. This failed, too, but it seemed to be more of a problem with my TV, which didn’t always change the input as fast as the RedEye system seemed to want it to.
This limitation isn’t a RedEye-specific problem; it’s something I’ve noticed with other remote control systems. And it’s one of the reasons I’ve never made the leap to a true universal remote. The other is price: Logitech’s well-regarded Harmony universal remotes, for example, can cost $400 or more. That makes the RedEye system look like a bargain in comparison. If I were to consider a universal remote, I’d take a long look at the RedEye. It has lots of potential, and while it’s not quite ready for a spot on my holiday wish list this year, with some fine tuning, it could be a contender next year.