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.