iPhone Becomes a Universal Remote This February

I love my Logitech Harmony remote, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t jump on the opportunity to ditch the thing forever and simplify my digital world even further. A new third-party accessory and software combo announced at CES will allow me to do that by turning my iPhone or iPod touch into a Universal remote capable of controlling all of my home theater equipment.

It sounds promising, but it also brings back memories of apps for the Palm pilot that were supposed to do the very same thing. The Palm devices had built-in IR communication, so all you needed was the software, which sounded great, but ended up being clumsy and not really that usable on a regular basis. I still have a Palm in a bedside drawer that I occasionally drag out to use for that purpose, in fact. It never stays out long.

Hopefully the iPhone’s accessory, which is called the L5 Remote and will cost around $49.95 when it hits retail stores this February, won’t suffer from the same failings. Once you have the dock-connecting IR blaster, you can get the application for free from the App Store. It promises to control televisions, DVDs, DVRs, cable boxes, audio equipment and more. I’ve got my fingers crossed for some unofficial support for the Logitech Harmony PS3 adapter. The blaster is said to have a functional range of up to 30 feet.

One place where the iPhone’s universal remote app should easily trump the dated Palm version is in user interface. No messing about with a stylus or hit-and-miss finger touch response with Apple’s smartphone. And you’ll be able to create your own custom button configuration by dragging and dropping the appropriate commands from various devices in whatever arrangement you choose. That should make it easier than my physical remote, too, since I won’t have to rely on the pre-arranged layout of the buttons, which is sometimes far from intuitive depending on what device you’re controlling.

The press release for the L5 describes a “short, guided training sequence” before you can begin using it with your home theater setup, which could be coded PR speak for a long and arduous process of holding your remote up to the IR blaster add-on for each command you want your iPhone to learn. I’m really hoping that the app comes with a built-in code database for common brands and makes of equipment, or that they at least open it up to user-generated databases.

As of right now, L5’s web site is just a placeholder, which isn’t a promising sign, but keep your eyes peeled for the official release of the attachment and software next month. Hopefully by then there will at least be a place on the web to go looking for more info.

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