SideShow remote prototype hands-on

Preview of the new SideShow-powered remote controls for Windows Vista Media Center

We admit we're pretty excited about the idea of SideShow, Windows Vista's secondary display capability. Not really so much with laptops (although we're sure someone will find a way to put that to good use) but more for what it could mean for driving Vista Media Center from your couch. Microsoft tabbed Ricavision to make the hardware that will eventually become the official Microsoft-branded SideShow remote. Ricavision says that a major computer vendor as well as one top-tier retailer have contracted to rebadge as well. Interlink, Phillips, and other vendors have also promised their own SideShow designs.

Ricavision's hardware is still not quite final, but it was kind enough to give us an early look. Neither the hardware nor the supporting Gadgets from Microsoft are fully cooked yet, but save for a few cosmetic changes, what we saw is pretty much what will appear on stores and bundled with Vista Media Center PCs. And it had better be close, since it's supposed to ship by the end of April. Here are our thoughts so far.

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Here you can see the basic button layout. Everything is nice and intuitive, except for maybe the row underneath the Vista Media Center button. The back arrow button works as expected, the little grid brings up your TV channel software, and the "i" button opens up menus within an application.

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This number tray slides down from the back of the remote. Keeping that semi-used feature stored away definitely cleans up the overall design. Even with the full reveal, you'll notice the absence of any device-switching buttons. We were saddened when Ricavision confirmed that this remote will not have Universal IR capabilities in its first incarnation, which means you can't use the remote to turn on your television or other home theater devices. Ricavision has Universal IR and VoIP planned for a revamped model scheduled for Q3 of this year. We're unsure if the Interlink remote will have Universal IR when it launches, although this preview page on Phillips' Web site (scroll down) indicates that its SideShow remote will. We don't have any information on when those products are due out, though.

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The 2.5-inch QVGA (240x320) display on Ricavision's prototype is bright and easy to read. A stubby control button and Back and Menu buttons just underneath the screen let you navigate whatever Gadgets you load onto it. Ricavision's promotional material promised four Gadgets, one each for controlling TV, Music, Pictures, and Videos, and one called "Now Playing", which displays track info. Those will actually come to all SideShow remotes by way of Gadgets currently in development at Microsoft, although we weren't able to check them out because they're still in beta. You can load any Gadget you can find onto the remote though, and the RSS feeds and others worked as intended.

Highlights of the forthcoming Gadgets include a TV Gadget that's supposed to let you play as well as schedule recordings, and the Pictures and Videos Gadget will let you preview photo and video files on the remote itself to be played on your screen. The idea is that they will work even if your PC is in a sleep state.

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Finally, Ricavision says it plans to consolidate the separate USB Bluetooth/IR+ receiver and charging station hardware into one unit when the remote finally comes out--good news. Since the remote is a Bluetooth Class 1 device, it should have about 100 meters of range. Ricavision says that, among its final tweaks, it plans to improve the signal strength, which we're glad to hear. We found it wasn't always as receptive as we thought it should be.

Assuming Microsoft gets the software part right and that Ricavision finetunes the hardware, we're sure plenty of people will be charmed by this and the other forthcoming SideShow remote controls. The going price at release should be around $200, which feels a little steep considering the lack of Universal IR. Hopefully the second-generation products will increase the value proposition. If Ricavision really does add universal control and VoIP, that could be enough to justify the cost. We'll only add that if Gyration ever adopts SideShow (as has been reported), the marriage of interactive software and motion control in a single remote device could set the standard in this burgeoning category.

 

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