Philips was one of the pioneers of the premium touch-screen remote, but the company's trailblazing Pronto series has recently been retargeted as an installer-only line. For home-theater enthusiasts who still prefer to go the DIY route, however, Philips retains a consumer line of touch-screen models such as the RC9800i reviewed here. The RC9800i, which features a color screen and wireless streaming media capabilities, originally carried a list price of $500. But a few months after its release, Philips decided to lower its price by a hundred bucks, so it now sits at a slightly more palatable $400.
Sleek and understated, with carbon and silver coloring, the Philips PC9800i is one of the more attractive tablet-style remotes you'll see. You can either leave it sitting on a table or pick it up to tap out your commands using your thumbs or the tips of your index fingers. Measuring 4.01 by 5.90 by 1.02 inches (HWD) and weighing 7.49 ounces, the RC9800i feels lighter in hand than it looks at first glance, but its construction seems sturdy, and the finish appears as though it would hold up well over time. A nonremovable, rechargeable battery is built into the remote, which Philips says will give you about 3 hours of continuous use and two weeks of standby time, a figure that's in line with our testing results.
The majority of the action takes place on the 3.5-inch touch-screen display (320x240, 16-bit color), but the remote does have a handful of well-placed hard buttons, including channel-up and -down keys, a volume control, a five-way navigation pad, and convenient home and Back buttons that help when navigating menus. Press any of those buttons and a blue backlight comes on, illuminating the entire button array, an effect that further increases the remote's coolness factor when in the dark.
Aside from its high-tech design, the RC9800i's biggest selling point is its ability to stream music from your PC (or a compatible network hard drive) to a home stereo or powered speaker system. In fact, setting up the remote for streaming is actually easier than programming it to control your whole A/V system properly--more on that in a minute. The remote has a USB port for connecting to your PC, but it's just for firmware upgrades--and yes, you should make sure you have the latest firmware installed--not programming the remote.
To stream wirelessly, you'll need to connect the remote's cradle and A/V cables to your home stereo and tap into your 802.11b or 802.11g Wi-Fi network, which can be done right from the remote itself. On the PC side, you'll need to run Microsoft's Windows Media Connect application, a free download that's now the industry-standard media-server software, to stream music. To stream music and photos (BMP, GIF, and JPEG files), however, you'll have to run the included Philips Media Manager software. Mac users, meanwhile, are out of luck, unless they have Intel machines that run Apple's Boot Camp software.
Once we input our wireless network's security key--both WPA and WEP encryption is supported--we were easily able to locate our music folder on our PC (it has to be powered up, of course) and navigated through album and artist lists. The one catch is that, in order to stream the music to your home stereo, the remote has to be placed in its dock, which immobilizes it while keeping it charged--and pretty much obviates the RC9800i's potential to be a Sonos alternative. You can also stream to a TV, but an optional digital media adapter that streams images is required; the included cradle doesn't have this capability. Arguably, it's with the dock that Philips has stumbled. If the company had opted to make it even more versatile--expanding the network functionality and perhaps adding a series of IR blasters--it would have erased some of the RC9800i's shortcomings.
We also ran into an issue when we tried to stream music from a Maxtor network-attached storage drive that had media-server capabilities. The remote and the drive are both UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) compliant, which means they should be able to talk to each other, but there was a little hitch that kept us from playing the music files that we saw on the remote. Engineers at Philips created a special firmware upgrade for us to address the problem, and sure enough, when we installed it, we were able to play tunes directly from the Maxtor drive. The advantage to this setup is that you don't have to have your computer turned on to stream music, though it's worth noting that you can't stream photos from a network drive, only from a PC. Philips says that these types of issues should be completely resolved when Microsoft upgrades from UPnP to the new DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) standard. When that happens, Philips says it will offer a firmware upgrade for the RC9800i.
As for programming the remote itself, it's truly a mixed bag. On the surface, Philips has seemingly made things pretty simple. This is an activity-based remote, and you run through a set of wizards for the various components that make up your system. The wizard asks mostly straightforward questions about those components, and you'll be asked to point the RC9800i at each component while the remote fires off a series of IR codes. When the component reacts (turns on), you're asked to quickly tap on the screen to confirm what, in theory, should be the correct IR code. Everything seemed to go pretty smoothly until we finally got everything set up and tried to turn on the TV. Unfortunately, the TV failed to go to the correct input. We ran through the wizard three more times, making small tweaks, but the TV refused to go to the correct input at launch. The worst thing about it? The TV in question was a Philips.
Another potential downside for some users is the inability to customize the virtual buttons on the remote. As far as we could tell, there's little flexibility in this regard. Once you finish with the wizard, the virtual buttons that you see are all you get. From what we can tell, most of what you need is covered, but some functionality is missing. For instance, Philips Ambilight TV remotes have a dedicated button for toggling through your Ambilight or Ambilight 2 backlighting options. However, we saw no easy way to get to these options with the set of buttons we were given on the RC9800i.
That said, we expect that user experiences will vary widely with this remote. Some users will breeze through the setup, and others will run into snafus similar to the ones we did. The long and short of it is, Philips has designed a really nice remote that has some potential shortcomings, depending on the complexity of your system. On the plus side, you can set up the remote for components in multiple rooms--a feature not found in most remotes in this price range--and even wirelessly download Electronic Program Guide (EPG) data. On the downside, the RC9800i is probably best suited to buyers who don't have overly complicated setups with lots of components in each of their rooms.
Summing up, this is one of those products that you really want to like because it looks sweet and has some great features. Alas, the Philips RC9800i isn't completely baked yet and probably requires a series of firmware upgrades to work out the all of its kinks and maximize its potential. The good news is that the firmware upgrades will come. The bad news is that you may be playing a waiting game.