Peel's $99 universal remote isn't exactly a universal remote in the traditional sense of the word. It's more like an accessory--yes, it's pear-shaped--that taps into your home Wi-Fi network and interfaces with the free Peel iPhone app to turn your iPhone or iPod Touch into a universal TV remote with some program recommendation features.
When you open the cylindrical packing container you'll find that pear-shaped device (the Peel Fruit) along with an Ethernet dongle (the Peel Cable) that plugs into your router--or somewhere into your home network. Once plugged in (to Ethernet and AC power), the Peel Cable communicates wirelessly with the Fruit via a wireless Zigbee connection. (Zigbee is a wireless home automation standard.)
You're supposed to set the Fruit on a coffee table (or some other flat surface) within about 15 feet of your TV (line of sight) and no more than 25 feet from the dongle for optimal performance. That pear-shaped accessory is powered by a single C battery and has an IR (infrared) blaster. Input a command on your iPhone or iPod Touch, and it's transmitted over your home Wi-Fi network to the Peel Cable, which in turn transmits it to the Peel Fruit (via Zigbee), which in turn converts it to an IR command that get blasted at your components. Got that?
Aside from the fact that we had to replace the dead battery that came with the Fruit to get the unit to work, we had little trouble setting everything up. That said, not everybody has their router located fairly close to their TV, so some setups will be more problematic than others. Also, not everybody has a good spot to leave the Fruit and if you have small children, and you leave your Fruit out, the odds of them damaging the Fruit are high. To them, it looks like something to play with and chuck around.
Once you have the Peel Cable plugged into your network and the Fruit in a spot that's within striking distance of your components (e.g., TV, Blu-ray player, cable or satellite box), you then fire up the app and it will attempt to find the pear.
Once it does find it, you then go ahead and set up your iPhone or iPod Touch (via the app) to control the various components in your system much like you would with a Harmony remote. The onscreen wizard asks you the brands of your components and after answering, you test whether the component correctly accepts your commands. You then need to select your cable or satellite program guide for your area. It's also worth noting that if you purchase multiple Fruits, you can create different remotes for different rooms all within the same app (Note: Peel has had some issues with multiroom setups, but a recent update appears to have fixed the problem. However, with only one review unit supplied, we did not test the multiroom option, so we have no way to confirm this).
In all, things worked pretty well for us, though the wizard couldn't match the exact model number of the FiOS DVR we had, so we had to with one of the generic choices (it worked). We ended up setting up the Peel to control a Panasonic plasma, the aforementioned cable box, an Xbox 360, and an Onkyo AV receiver.
The nicest feature the Peel offers is the ability to make programming recommendations to you; it basically acts as a filter for all the programming that's on. Peel's marketing pitch states:
Discover and control TV programming right from your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. Lose your remotes, once and for all. Quit scrolling those tiresome grid guides. See what you want, right at your own fingertips: your shows, your controls, your friends.
To get an idea what all this is about, you can take a trial run with the free app without having to buy the "pear." You just have to change channels manually with your existing remote instead of being able to click on the recommended program, movie, or sporting event on your iPhone and have your TV automatically change to the channel you selected.
We generally appreciated the picks the app made and they're supposed to get more refined as the app learns your tastes in Tivo-like fashion. While there's some value in being able to fire up the Peel remote/app and get filtered suggestion for what's on TV now--or a few hours into the future--the one big missing feature is the ability to record future shows with a touch of a button. In other words, when you're poking around for upcoming movies to watch, when you find one, say, two days into the future, you can't just click a button to automatically have your DVR record that movie.
We understand the challenges to pulling that off, but ultimately that's the elusive killer feature that would make Peel a lot more compelling.
The folks who created the Peel were looking at a very alluring concept. Take your iPhone or iPod Touch and turn it into a smart remote for your TV and/or home theater system. To a degree, the Peel accomplishes this, but the problem is that in its current state it just feels limited. It can also feel slow at times, as it can take several seconds for it to load program recommendations.
The app takes your existing remote and simplifies it for the iPhone's small screen, which has both its pluses and its minuses, the biggest of which is you may find some key buttons missing. For instance, the remote we ended up with for our FiOS DVR didn't have a "guide" button that would take us to the program guide on the TV. That's a rather crucial omission.
We're not going to go into great detail on the potential drawbacks of using your iPhone or iPod Touch as a dedicated remote, but we assume you're either living alone (and can walk into your apartment or house and simply use your iPhone as a remote) or you've taken an old iPod Touch or iPhone and converted into a remote that all the members of your household can use.
While an iPad works while running the iPhone app, there's no native iPad app yet available; that's a shame, because the extra screen real estate could be put to great use. The rumor is that an iPad deck is on deck (along with an Android app), but neither are available at the time of this writing.
At the end of the day, we'd be more willing to overlook these shortcomings if we got better DVR functionality integrated into the app instead of social networking features that bring little to the table. Making program recommendations is nice, but it doesn't help you save time if you have to then go into the program guide, find the program manually and hit the record button so you can watch it later.
On the other hand, if you're just a watch-it-now kind of person, you can choose to ignore some of these criticisms and concentrate on the Peel's positive aspects. Whatever you decide, we just suggest you sample the free app before tasting the fruit.