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Pronto review: The universal remote for a select few

Pronto is a small battery-powered box that lets your iPhone work as a universal remote. But what's the catch?

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iyaz akhtar
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iyaz akhtar

Principal Video Producer

Iyaz Akhtar works tenaciously to make technology work for him so he can live a life of leisure. He's been in the tech sector as a writer, an editor, a producer, and a presenter since 2006.

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7 min read

Universal remote controls have come a long way over the years. Once upon a time, they were pricey do-it-all wands that involved playing trial and error with pages and pages of 4-digit codes printed on an over-folded instruction sheet. Products like the Philips Pronto and Logitech Harmony line changed the game by adding PC-based programming to the mix. Work out the details on your computer's screen, and then upload them to the remote -- not unlike syncing your music to your iPod -- so a single button push will turn on your TV, cable box, and audio system, set each to the proper input and ensure that commands like "volume up," "pause" and "channel down" are directed to the proper device.

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6.6

Pronto

The Good

Inexpensive and unobtrusive, the Pronto can easily replace most of the remote controls on your coffee table without looking like an eyesore in your home. The app includes good suggestions for finding TV shows and movies.

The Bad

Input setup on sophisticated devices like AV receivers can be an arduous trial and error proces. The Pronto's activity management pales in comparison to Logitech's Harmony line. And it can't control devices using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

The Bottom Line

The Pronto turns your iPhone into a universal remote using the Peel app, but setup and control limitations make it a tough sell for more tech-intensive living rooms.

These days, smartphones have absorbed the functionality of universal remotes just as they have largely replaced the other single-use gadgets in your life -- GPS navigators, cameras, camcorders, Game Boys, iPods and e-readers, to name just a few. But while top Android phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S6, LG G4 and HTC One M9 include a built-in feature called an infrared (IR) blaster that allows them to double as remotes for the electronics in your living room -- the TV, DVR, streaming box and audio system -- the iPhone needs an outboard accessory to get the job done.

In the Logitech universe, that product is the Harmony Home Hub ($100), which converts commands from an iPhone app sent via your home Wi-Fi network to control signals for your home theater gear. But now there's an alternative available at half the price: the Pronto. The name invokes that Philips universal remote of yore, but it's a totally new for 2015. It's an IR blaster in a tiny battery-powered tower, and it works via wireless Bluetooth from the Peel SmartRemote app running on the iPhone. (In fact, it's the successor to the Peel Universal Controller we reviewed back in 2011.)

The Pronto is the one in the middle. Sarah Tew/CNET

The hardware

The Pronto is a little black plastic tower that resembles a fancy pepper shaker. The bottom of the Pronto twists off to reveal little door for its battery compartment. There's no option to permanently plug in the Pronto, but the company says four AA batteries will power the device for about a year. The top of the device is a black shiny plastic and houses the IR blasters within. On the rear, you'll find a recessed reset button and a receptacle for hooking up an included wired IR blaster extender for reaching controlling gear that's not out in the open (devices placed in a cabinet or closet, for instance).

The Pronto does not hook into your home network like a Harmony remote. Instead, it uses Bluetooth to pair with your iPhone (4S or later) or iPad (third-generation or newer). Note that there is no dedicated iPad app -- just an iPhone app that scales up for an iPad.

Other than that, there isn't a whole lot of things going on with the Pronto hardware itself -- it's just an IR blaster mini tower waiting to be bossed around by the Peel SmartRemote app.

There is no way to control the Pronto using an Android device yet, but we're not counting that as a downside because -- as mentioned above -- the better Android phones have IR blasters built-in. (The Android version of the Peel SmartRemote app discussed here is available for free in the Google Play store, and should work with those phones.)

The Pronto doesn't do much without an iOS device. Sarah Tew/CNET

Setup

When the Peel app is started up, it asks your zip code so the app can give you a list of TV service providers (your local cable companies, satellite services, and an over-the-air option). The app then shows what's available to watch right now, along with upcoming TV shows. (Disclosure: Note that the TV Guide app, which -- like CNET -- is a property of CBS, competes with Peel in this regard.)

Clicking the remote icon lets the app find the Pronto. Once found, the app shows a screen to select your TV brand. The app then asks you to press an onscreen power button to turn on your TV. The Peel SmartRemote app then asks to confirm that the TV did, in fact, power up. If so, you press "Yes" and you're on your way. If the TV doesn't turn on, you can select "No" and the app will give you another button to test out. Effectively, the app is cycling through remote codes.

There is no option to simply input your TV's model. It's nice that you don't need to know the models of your components, but this could be annoying if you've got an obscure device. We tested out a TCL Roku television and after 34 different buttons, no match was found.

For our main tests, we used a home theater setup with an Samsung TV, a Denon AV receiver, an Apple TV, a Roku 3, and a cable box. Hardware limitations of the Pronto precluded controlling the Sony PlayStation 3 and Amazon Fire TV, which use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct for control, respectively. (Yes, you could use dedicated apps on the iPhone to control these devices, but that kind of defeats the point.)

Using the Pronto

The Pronto and the app worked well to control individual devices. The app guessed the codes for the test Samsung television and Denon AV receiver with the first guesses. Setting up streamers is straightforward. Select "Add a device" and choose "Streaming Media Players" or "Set Top Box" for a cable or satellite box. Peel suggests the most popular vendors first. Other manufacturers are hidden, but can be revealed by hitting the "Show more brands" link. There you can search or scroll through a list of manufacturers. If a device cannot be found, you can click the "I can't find my brand" link to send in a ticket explaining what model device was unfindable and Peel will email back either troubleshooting advice or when a code is available.

Infuriating inputs while setting up an activity. Sarah Tew/CNET

Activity control was another story. In our test case, watching Apple TV requires the AV receiver to be set to the "Game 2" input while the television is set to HDMI 1. Setting the television input in the activity manager was simple. However, the Peel Smart Remote app listed 27 inputs marked as "Input 1," "Input 2," and so on for the AV receiver. Oddly, the individual remote part of the app did list inputs by name, although "Game 2" was not an option. These problems could have been obviated by the ability to input the make of the AV receiver. "Game 2" was found by a trial and error method through the 27 inputs.

On the plus side, the trial and error method made it easier to set up an activity for the Roku since it was input 26 for some reason.

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The Peel SmartRemote app focuses on finding something to watch on TV. Screenshot by Iyaz Akhtar/CNET

The Peel Smart Remote is very focused on showing the user what is available to watch on television throughout the day in a very graphical way. Selecting a live show reveals two options, "Watch TV" or a "More" menu. Hitting the "Watch TV" option will have the Pronto change the channel of your cable box. Hitting "More" gives information about the show such as season and episode information, the genre and a summary. Shows can also be favorited from this part of the app to create personalized recommendations for a user later.

The fact that you have to click a button on the top right of the screen to activate the universal remote shows what Peel believes to be the priority. Tapping that button reveals a simple set of controls including power buttons, volume control, and channel changing. For the "Watching TV" activity, there is a Channel Guide that can be displayed by pulling up an onscreen sheet. Clicking on a show will tell the Pronto to change the channel to that show.

The universal remote part of the app is polished. Sarah Tew/CNET

A swipe from the right side of the screen brings up individual device controls. Devices can be toggled using more onscreen buttons. If a device has more controls than can fit on a screen, you can scroll to see more controls.

The Pronto claims it can be controlled by multiple devices, but that is true as long as those devices take turns. Since the Pronto uses Bluetooth to communicate with a phone or tablet, a phone would have to disconnect from the Pronto before the second device could take over.

Conclusion: Cheaper but less robust than Harmony

The Pronto's biggest weapon against the Logitech Harmony line of remotes is its price: just $50. The Peel app is also really well done if you care about finding something to watch on cable. As a universal remote app, it has a more polished look compared to the Harmony app, and the Peel app is not limited to control a set number of devices.

The lowest cost Harmony remote is the Harmony Home Hub, which works similarly in that it is a piece of hardware that is controlled by an app. The Home Hub retails for double the price of the Pronto, works with both Android and iOS, can control Bluetooth and Wi-Fi-based devices, and can even control smarthome gadgets -- but maxes out at eight devices. (The Home Hub is also included in the Harmony Smart Control and Harmony Home Control bundles, which add a hard-button remote the mix, for $130 and $150, respectively.)

The fact the Pronto uses only infrared to communicate to components should be enough to recommend against purchasing for an evolving home theater. A universal remote that can't control products like the Amazon Fire TV isn't universal. Pay up for the Harmony line unless discovering TV on cable or satellite is your main priority.

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6.6

Pronto

Score Breakdown

Design 8Ecosystem 7Features 6Performance 7Value 6