Streamlining the Universal Remote Device


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The Pronto receives Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signals from an iPhone or Android phone and transmits mostly infrared ones to home theater components.

IF you’re of a certain age, you may recall what you had to do to watch television: You turned the set on.

Today, things are much more complicated. With HDTV, separate audio receivers, Blu-ray players, game consoles, streaming media players, and cable or satellite set-top boxes, simply turning on the TV feels like operating a console at NASA’s mission control.

The idea of a “universal remote,” one device that can control everything in your home theater setup, is not new. But too often, products that have claimed to be universal have failed to deliver.

To get them to work, users often have had to manually enter codes for each device. And even when that’s successful, many important commands are buried in a remote screen’s submenus, making them cumbersome to operate.

“That’s not an inaccurate assessment,” said Ian Crowe, director of marketing for Logitech’s Harmony, makers of the most popular universal remotes. “We’ve heard problems endlessly about how it’s been impossible to program them. A universal remote only made your coffee table look nicer.”

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The free Peel app configures the Pronto system, or can be used directly by owners of certain Android phones capable of transmitting infrared signals.

Mr. Crowe says he believes the company’s current lineup has solved many of the category’s problems. And app developers and television manufacturers have also looked at the category, coming up with different solutions in a world of huge entertainment choices coming from a wide variety of programming sources.

Harmony Elite

The $350 Elite is the flagship product of Logitech’s Harmony line.

To set it up, users pair Harmony’s smartphone app or the included remote with the Elite’s hub, a black flying-saucerlike device that sends infrared, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals to a home theater’s various components.

Any devices connected to your home network, such as a Sonos system, a Roku streaming video box or a smart TV, are automatically configured in the Harmony remote. Non-networked devices, such as a cable box, Blu-ray player or standard HDTV, are added manually. Once the various devices are recognized, the system automatically assigns functions to different keys.

Unlike with earlier Harmony products, the company’s database now includes comprehensive information on home theater products. It knows, for example, how many HDMI inputs one particular receiver has, or how long it takes for a device to power on before it’s ready to accept commands.

The Elite can also control other connected home devices, like thermostats, Philips’s Hue lighting system or smart door locks. Activities can then be programmed that combine multiple functions. For example, selecting “cocktail hour” on the remote’s touch screen could automatically turn down the lights, close the curtains and turn on one’s Sonos system to play a cool jazz channel.

The Elite can be controlled by the included remote, which also displays icons for favorite channels, or its smartphone app.

Pronto

The smartphone, with its Swiss army knife versatility, seems the perfect tool to use to create a universal remote interface. The problem for iPhone users, however, is that iPhones send only Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signals, while standard home theater components communicate using infrared (or IR).

The Pronto ($50 retail) solves that problem by acting as a go-between, receiving the iPhone’s (or Android phone’s) signals, and then transmitting mostly infrared ones.

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The Harmony Elite remote system can control home theater components and other connected home devices, like thermostats, Philips’s Hue lighting system or smart door locks.

The black Pronto, which looks a lot like a salt shaker, is placed within line of sight of one’s home theater components. If it has to be hidden, an IR-receiver wire can be connected to the Pronto and kept exposed.

The system is configured using the free Peel app, versions of which are available for the iPhone, Android phones and the Apple watch. Components are added manually to the app and then grouped together to create an activity, such as watching TV or playing a Blu-ray disk.

To eliminate the need to figure out what channel a program is on, the Peel app also features an illustrated list of popular shows organized by genre. Touching the image automatically selects the proper channel, based on which cable or satellite system you use.

Because the Pronto receives signals from the Peel app using the iPhone’s Bluetooth signal, only one iPhone at a time can be designated the home’s universal remote. If you want to use a second iPhone, you have to unpair the first one.

The Pronto transmits only IR signals and it cannot be used with devices that communicate using only Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, like Amazon’s Fire TV.

The Peel app can be used without the Pronto interface by owners of certain Android phones, which can transmit IR signals. They include models from HTC, LG, Samsung and ZTE . In addition, the Peel app is introducing direct functionality for certain devices connected to the Internet, such as connected TVs and Sonos Systems.

TV Makers’ Remotes

Manufacturers like LG and Samsung are combining the power of their Internet-connected HDTV models and their remotes to provide a degree of unified functions.

LG HDTV owners can use the company’s Magic Remote to send voice or text commands to search for desired programs. The Internet-connected TV will display appropriate content regardless of whether it is streaming or broadcast.

Users can also set up the supplied remote to control basic functions of common devices, such as set-top boxes, Blu-ray players and audio receivers.

Later this year, Samsung will introduce a revamped Smart Control remote for some of its 2016 model TVs. Using the company’s connected Smart Hub technology, the control can be used to tap into multiple sources of programming displayed across its screen.

The remote will automatically identify and control different sources, such as a Blu-ray player, TV or video game console.



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