Back in the good ol' days, a family might gather around the wireless after dinner, to be entertained by skilfully crafted radio programs. These days, the entertainment has changed; YouTube videos of cats running on treadmills may take precedence over scripted drama, and the term "wireless" has taken on a whole new meaning in the living room. However, the act of gathering and being entertained remains largely the same.
To accommodate the variety of different entertainment mediums at our disposal, many homes have adopted the "media-centre PC" concept. This dedicated computer lives beside the TV and home-theatre equipment, plays back videos and music, streams videos from YouTube or downloaded through iTunes and checks Facebook and Twitter. A PC connected to a TV, through an HDMI port, can be a truly powerful tool in your home entertainment arsenal, though controlling it can be bothersome. The last thing you want on the coffee table, besides the remotes you already own for your TV, Blu-ray player, A/V receivers, etc, is a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.
Unified Remote is the solution. Available for Android smartphones and tablets, this app acts as both mouse and keyboard for your Windows PC, giving you full control of your computer, from the comfort of your sofa. Beyond moving the cursor and entering text, Unified Remote also has a selection of remote layouts, designed for specific apps, like VLC media player, Windows Media Center, File Manager and the standard Windows slide show for images, to name a few. Plus, if you splash out on the paid version of the app, you get the ability to make custom remotes for apps you frequently use, though be warned — these custom remotes take some skill in coding to implement.
The Android Market is packed full of remotes for single PC programs, like dedicated VLC and iTunes remotes, most of which have far more attractive user interfaces than Unified Remote. But there were two parts of this app that really sold us. Firstly, the mouse interface is great. It gives you the full screen of your phone or tablet to use as the touch pad, and includes simple gestures for control. A single tap on the screen acts as a left-button click on the mouse; tapping with two fingers acts as the right mouse button; and a two-finger vertical swipe is like using a trackball on a standard mouse, scrolling down the page.
We also love that the Windows Start button is one of the main menu items in Unified Remote, giving you easy access to every program on your PC, without having to navigate through the system menus in the traditional way. This control gives the app a wider range of application than just controlling a media-centre PC, though for us, that is its best fit. Sitting around the TV with your family is one of the times you really don't want to be "connected" to your computer, and Unified Remote gives you the control, without plugging you back in.