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Peel universal iPhone remote puts discovery first

Start-up company Peel introduces a new spin on the universal remote, combining an iPhone app and network-connected IR repeater to deliver a personalized home theater experience.

Photo of Peel universal remote.
The Peel combines a pear-shaped, battery-powered IR repeater with an iPhone app to deliver a remote control with tailored viewing suggestions. Donald Bell/CNET

A handful of companies, including ThinkFlood, L5, and New Potato, offer hardware/app solutions to help you transform your iPhone or iPod Touch into an adaptable, touch-screen universal remote. It seems like a no-brainer, which is why I'm a little surprised I haven't seen them much in the wild.

With full-featured universal remotes hovering in the $200-$300 range, you'd think convergence would win out and the iPhone would gobble up this market the same way it took a bite out of MP3 players, portable gaming devices, e-readers, Internet radios, and so on.

Start-up company Peel believes it's hit on one part of the problem: People don't want to use adapters. Whether it's a plug that you stick in a headphone jack (that you'll inevitably lose), or a dock adapter (which doesn't fit with your case), the simple truth is that expensive adapters suck.

The Peel system uses no iPhone adapters. Instead, a free Peel iOS app communicates with a wireless transmitter plugged into your home's router. When you use the app to turn on your TV or home theater component, or select a show to watch, the selection is bounced to the wireless adapter and back to a little battery-powered pear-shaped IR blaster, which can be placed anywhere in your living room. It sounds a little complex to wrap your head around, but the system is fairly ingenious, and the end result is zero adapters for your iPhone. You walk in the door, launch the app, and that's your remote.

The hardware logistics are only half of the equation. The real heart of what makes Peel unique is their free app, which makes a serous attempt to understand your viewing preferences and offer its best guess of what currently playing shows you'd be interested in watching. It's part channel guide, part Tivo-esque personalized recommendations, and part remote. It's also just plain pretty, which is something many of the other competitors haven't been able to nail. The end result is a tool that, ideally, will help users cut through the clutter of cable offerings, and breaks the mold of the uninviting channel grid.

The Peel app is available now and works with devices running iOS3 and above. The hardware, which transforms the app into a universal remote, is due to hit shelves at the end of this month. Pricing is yet to be determined. A pilot program is underway allowing early adopters to name their own price for the first run of units. That said, the company believes the Peel offers a solution comparable to remote systems priced $200 and above, so don't be shocked if the final product sports a triple digit price tag.

For a hands-on look at the Peel universal remote control system, check out our CNET gallery.