When you have a whole heap of AV equipment at home, controlling it all soon becomes a huge problem. If you want to watch a Blu-ray or something similar from a media streamer, you need to have at least three remote controls to hand. There's the TV controller, the AV receiver and the player controller that all need to be wrangled into position, fiddled with and switched on, preferably in the right order.
Universal remote controls have been around since the TV Dark Ages -- when tellies where 28 inches wide and weighed as much as the moon. The problem is, unless you're just using them to replace one remote control, they tend to be really complicated. We've seen all manner of these things over the years. And while we've loved quite a few of them, we've never found one simple enough to convince us to put our original manufacturer controllers into storage.
Now, Gear4 has sprung up with something called the UnityRemote, which is a universal controller that uses theor as the remote. It comes with a neat, responsive touchscreen as a user interface, and Gear4 handles the infrared commands with a small, hockey-puck-type device.
Looks ace and dead simple to set up
The small, round puck is ideal for the job. When you're initially setting it up, Gear4 suggests you place it as close as possible to the hardware you're controlling. We didn't have an issue with proximity -- even though our AV equipment is located at the end of a Lindy IR sender, the Gear4 hardware picked it all up without problem.
The initial set-up requires you to first pair your iPhone or iPod with the UnityRemote. As you might imagine, Gear4 is something of an expert at Bluetooth, so this works incredibly well and is very simple.
Once paired, you can begin to add your AV devices one by one into the system. This process couldn't be much easier. You simply select the name of the manufacturer and what sort of device it is, then the app sends out a test command via Bluetooth, which the puck receives and transmits to your AV equipment as infrared.
For most devices we tested, this worked first time. If it doesn't, there are several different commands the device can try, and it will rattle through these in no time at all. It's a far simpler system than that found on, say, the Logitech controllers, which require you to program the remote with PC software.
No cables at all
The Gear4 UnityRemote is powered by three AA batteries. These keep the device going for months at a time, and the power-saving feature prolongs battery life. In doing so, it often switches the device off when it's been unused for some time. This is fine once you remember to switch it back on again, but is still likely to catch some people out.
Two control methods
With most universal remotes, there are two approaches you can take. You can either have one controller that does its best to have a button for every popular function of home AV systems, or you can build an 'actions-based system' that remembers what equipment needs to be turns on in order to watch, for example, a Blu-ray.
The great news is that the UnityRemote does both. Because the touchscreen interface of the iPod/iPhone app is so flexible, you can scroll through pages of specific commands for each device. This isn't as confusing as it sounds, and you can customise everything. You can also set up actions that will fire up several pieces of equipment in order.
One of the things we were initially worried about was the lag between pressing a button on the iPod, and our TV changing volume or channel. After all, commands go via Bluetooth, get converted to IR then get sent out from the puck. In fact, the delays were minimal. While things don't happen quite as quickly as they do with a proper remote, they are more than quick enough to be usable.