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TUAW Hands-on: POWER A turns your iPhone into a universal remote

There are a few options for turning your iPhone into a home entertainment remote control, but I recently got a chance to try out the POWER A, and it's become my current favorite. The hardware portion of the POWER A package has been available for a while now, but the iPhone App that accompanies it has a new version due out any time now. It was submitted to the App Store on Monday, but I got a chance to try it out with a review unit and put it through its paces.

The hardware portion, which works with the iPhone 3G and 3GS, is great: it's a low-profile, hard plastic case that fits around the iPhone. Unlike other solutions which leave a dongle sticking out of the iPhone, it gives you a smooth, solid body with nothing to break off. It uses next to no battery power, and the increase in the phone's form factor is minimal.

The case comes in two halves which slide onto either side of the phone, connecting in the middle. It even comes with an additional, non-IR half, just in case you like the case so much that you want to use it even when it's not functioning as your universal remote.

The IR blaster is positioned on the dock end of the iPhone, and the resulting upside-down-factor is compensated for in the software by auto-rotating your screen when it launches. Despite the appearance of frailty that might be perceived in its translucent plastic, it's been a very sturdy piece of hardware that has held up quite well to my clumsiness (and my dogs' curiosity).

While vital to the package, the hardware is nothing but pretty without the software ...

If you plug the hardware in without downloading the app, it's kind enough to pop up a modal dialog that offers to take you directly to the App Store and point you to the free download. The currently-available incarnation of the app is a satisfactory bit of software, but the soon-to-be-available (submitted for approval on Monday) version is a huge improvement. I was part of some extensive beta-testing for it, and the dev team has been great about fixing small bugs and taking my suggestions to heart.

Where the previous version provided you with a pre-defined key layout and allowed you to quickly assign functions to each button, the new version, by UMEE, allows you to create locations (different rooms), add devices from presets based on manufacturer, and edit every aspect of the layout. When you add a device, it gives you a ready-to-go remote that works right away. However, you can add and remove buttons, assign new functions and position anything anywhere. It's great out of the box, but entirely flexible. What's really handy about it, though, is that you can easily assign functions from different remotes into one layout, having the channel pair control your cable box, while the volume pair controls your receiver. It's not an entirely unique concept among universal remotes, but it's certainly a great feature.

The ease of setup -- and the speed at which it can learn an entirely set of new IR commands -- is astounding. I'm able to add a new device and have it pre-configured in seconds, and I can create a general layout and learn every button on it from the original remotes in less than a minute. Slick. Learning new buttons is accomplished by putting it into learn mode and pointing your existing remote at the IR end of the unit. You can tap a button on the POWER A and then tap its correlating button on your remote, but for real speed you can just let it auto-highlight buttons in sequence, advancing each time it learns the IR code you press.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: I've never found a touch-screen remote that really compares to having real, honest-to-goodness buttons; tactile controls are vital to me. However, the iPad is certainly starting to change my mind about that, especially as I gain some muscle memory for typing on it. The same goes for touch-screen remotes, and the POWER A team has done a good job of compensating for the lack of tactile response with audio feedback, which makes using it without looking at it a little more intuitive. It also has configurable gesture support, allowing two finger swipes in different directions to control various functions on each device.

Overall, the POWER A remote has been very impressive, and is well-suited to my needs. I imagine that it would fare quite well even in a more advanced setup than my cobbled-together home entertainment system. The POWER A hardware is available at the Apple Store, as well as online at the POWER A website. It retails for $59.99US, which I find to be very reasonable in the realm of universal remotes (at least among the ones that are actually useful). The accompanying software is a free download from the App Store, and the new version has been submitted and is just subject to the whims of the App Store approval process now. It's been fun to test this one out, and I'm thinking I'll be purchasing the test unit rather than returning it ... we've become rather fond of each other.

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