Caavo review: Visionary universal remote falls short of HDR reality

David Katzmaier/CNET

The devices and apps tabs are simple yet functional: each calls up a grid of connected devices or apps, respectively, and lets you go to one quickly. You can choose to associate any app with just about any device, which I really liked. Hulu is better on Apple TV, Roku and Fire TV than Nvidia Shield for example, while YouTube works best on Shield.

Unfortunately, some devices were missing from some apps: I couldn't choose Apple TV as my preferred app for DirecTV Now, Sling TV or Amazon, for example. It's also worth noting that app launching on some devices, particularly Apple TV, is more of a kludge and takes longer than others, but they all eventually worked in my experience.

Note that only Caavo's selection of supported apps is accessible from this screen. The company is working to add more, and when I asked for specifics, a rep said, "The top sports and music apps will be first, but from there we're listening to users to determine what's most important."

Choosing a Device from that tab, or hitting the Sources button on the remote, not only switches to the source, but also causes the buttons on the remote to control that device, with the exception of volume and mute, which are always mapped to your main audio device. The "keypad" button, the one with nine dots, calls up an onscreen menu with additional commands.

So what if a particular command isn't there? You can customize the little on-screen pop-up menu somewhat, but not nearly as much as with Harmony. Long-pressing the keypad button summons a menu with additional commands, and you can add them as long presses to certain keys. I was able to map the important "options" and "Fios TV" keys as long presses to the default channel up and down buttons, for example. Unfortunately, the command for "menu" on my Fios box was absent, and in general I would have preferred more freedom to customize.

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David Katzmaier

There's also no way to control commands specific to your TV, like aspect ratio control or picture mode, or your AV receiver or sound bar, such as sound mode toggle. Since the Caavo lacks a "learning" function, you'll have to dig out your original remote if you want to access those features.

Perhaps the most unique and powerful aspect of the Caavo interface is Watchlists. It gathers all of the recently watched shows and movies across many of the the apps you've signed into, and also lists the contents of compatible DVRs (currently DirecTV, Dish Network and Comcast X1 DVRs). You can quickly resume and watch recent shows, and even access different profiles (e.g. "kids" on Netflix). Selecting one launches the app on your preferred device and immediately begins playing the show.

Watchlists worked very well in my testing, although as you might expect, its list of supported apps is relatively narrow. Currently it only works with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime and Vudu. Still, very impressive.

Unlike Harmony, there's no app that allows control of your system from a phone or tablet. Caavo is working on one, and when it arrives it could provide additional functionality. For example, the ability to directly control functions on the the TV or AV receiver, or access commands not supported by the physical remote.

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Caavo can also accept commands via Alexa speakers.

Taylor Martin/CNET

Alexa, tell Caavo to find my remote

The Alexa skill for the Caavo is still in beta, and that's the version I tested on a special Alexa account, but company reps assured me it would be working the same way for any user at launch. If that's the case, prepare to be impressed.

Using the standard prefix "Alexa, tell Caavo…" I was able to launch apps, switch devices, control volume and mute, pause and play, tune to specific channels, and power the system on and off. You can do those kinds of things with the Alexa skill for Harmony too, but Caavo's is much more capable.

The coolest is that I was able to search for specific shows and movies -- and get relevant results -- via voice. "Alexa, tell Caavo to search for 'Despicable Me,'" brought up the Caavo's Watch screen, for example, and "Alexa, tell Caavo to search for 'Game of Thrones'" worked great, too.

Also really cool: "Alexa, tell Caavo to find my remote" causes the clicker to emit its "find" tone. I was also able to navigate the screen in basic ways, for example by saying. "Alexa, tell Caavo up" to move up in the menu and "Alexa, tell Caavo OK" to select something. It was slow and annoying, but I could do it without the remote.

As expected, Alexa wasn't flawless. For example, "Switch to Verizon Fios" didn't work; "Switch to Roku" actually turned off the system; and "Search for 'Mad Max'" provided no response aside from Alexa's little "fail" tone. Even so, I'd call Alexa on the Caavo a success, as long as you can remember the "tell Caavo" catchphrase.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Tear it down to set it up

The Caavo's setup is as easy as it can be for a complex home-theater system, but that doesn't mean it's fast. It took me a couple hours total to get up and running with my full test system including eight sources and an AV receiver, and I do this kind of thing for a living. For the record, my system consisted of:

  • Verizon Fios HD DVR
  • Xbox One
  • PlayStation 4
  • Roku Ultra
  • Amazon Fire TV
  • Nvidia Shield
  • Apple TV 4K
  • Oppo UDB-203 4K Blu-Ray player
  • Onkyo TX-NR575 receiver
  • LG OLED65E7P TV

First you'll create a Caavo account, which entails the usual username and password setup, then telling it what devices and streaming apps you use. And yes, that also means you'll need to give Caavo your sign-ins for every app you want to link (and potentially there's a lot). The setup process also encourages you to download the Caavo companion app on certain supported devices, namely Apple TV, Fire TV and Nvidia Shield. This allows it to launch apps directly.

Once you unpack the Caavo box itself, the first step is figuring out where it will go -- you'll need room somewhere in your AV rack, or on the table in front of your TV if you want to show it off. Then you'll have to disconnect all of the HDMI cables from your gear, run them to the Caavo, and run the Caavo's HDMI output either directly to your TV, or to your audio component (AV receiver or soundbar) then to your TV.

At that point, you'll finally turn on the system. The Caavo goes through all of the inputs and tried to recognize them automatically, just like a late-model Samsung TV or Roku player. Three of the eight devices in my test system (my Fios DVR, a PS4 and an Oppo 4K Blu-ray player) failed to be identified initially, at which point another simple menu let me choose them manually.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

After your devices are recognized, the Caavo sets up and tests control of each using a slick on-screen overlay, individual instructions and a video feed from the device. Troubleshooting functions were great: at one point for example, to deal with that troublesome Fios box the system had me place an IR emitter near it.

The one issue I had was the inability of the system to control my Apple TV 4K via Bluetooth, so I had to use IR control at first. Restarting the box and re-adding it to the system fixed the issue. I was also never able to sign into my Vudu account properly, so it didn't retrieve my viewing history.

The box also seemed to need to be reconnected to my wireless network every time the power failed or it restarted. Annoyingly, it wasn't as easy as just reconnecting, I had to "forget" the network and re-enter my password. For what it's worth, Caavo recommends a wired connection for best results.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Wait for the HDR-capable version

The Caavo aims really high, tackling one of the most difficult problems in tech, and it's amazingly polished. I barely encountered any issues in normal use, and for day-to-day activities it worked great at its basic level: allowing me to use a single remote to control everything.

Of course, I can say pretty much the same thing about the Logitech Harmony. In many ways the Harmony Elite is better, for example by offering more complete customization and better ergonomics and backlit keys on the remote.

Caavo's Watchlist function, combining a bunch of content on one screen, is pretty sweet, although it's similar to Apple TV's "TV" app and not as nice-looking -- nor does it go as far to eliminate the app middleman between you and your shows (but hey, it does include Netflix). And I do love being able to choose devices and apps on-screen, although again something like Samsung's new smart TV features offer the same thing (and those TVs also auto-detect your sources for easy setup).

This first generation of Caavo amply demonstrates what the platform can do, and I'd love to see the next version: hopefully cheaper, with perhaps less visual flair, and actual support for HDR. If that happens, Harmony will have a problem on its hands.

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