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Peel: first look at one of four iOS remotes for your TV

With so many new iOS-centric AV remotes coming out, we're tackling them for review one by one. Each has a different approach to delivering on the "true universal remote" promise, and each has its own advantages and drawbacks.

The Peel is a two-part solution for your living room entertainment: there's a free app, and a hardware IR blaster. You can use the Peel app by itself, but the hardware (which costs $99 and can be found in Apple Stores) adds the ability to control your AV equipment from within the app.

My expectation for the Peel remote was for it to become my universal remote, complete with nifty app that easily allows me to find something good on TV. Unfortunately, the Peel isn't great hardware. You'll need other gear, and still keep your original remotes handy. But as a TV show discovery app, and as a way to mine the data of what is on at a certain moment by genre or personal preferences, it excels. Read on for a full report on how Peel works, and what you can or can't expect from this young company.

Hardware

At first, I was taken aback by the product setup. While the packaging is clever, the Peel isn't just something you plop down on your coffee table.

There are 3 components to a Peel setup: the Wire, the Fruit and your iOS device running the app.

The Wire (cable)

This is about the size of a small, round pencil case and has a LED which glows green (if ready) or blue (if simply powered up). You have to plug the wire into your house power and into a spare Ethernet port on your home router.

Peel doesn't use Bluetooth; it uses ZigBee, a Wi-Fi protocol designed for short range communications. Sure, Bluetooth is similar, but there's a problem with Bluetooth devices (which I'll discuss later this week in detail); they power down after a while to save battery. With the Wire plugged in and using ZigBee, the remote is very responsive provided you're less than 30 feet from it.

The effective range of the Wire, and thus your entire Peel setup, is important. If you keep your router far away from your TV, you will encounter issues. In my case, once my iPhone moved more than 33 feet away, it had trouble picking up the Wire. The Wire sends a signal to the Fruit, and the Fruit is the IR blaster which actually tells your components to do things.

The Fruit

This is the pear-shaped infrared blaster unit which sends remote signals to your components. It is powered by a C battery and was at 1.6 volts after a month of testing. It's built quite well, and the beige top comes off to reveal a clip on cover for the battery. Peel says they'll produce different tops for the unit to match your style.

The Fruit should ideally be close to the Wire as well, and mine was 26 feet away. The Fruit must be within line of sight of your components, as it will need to send IR signals to each device. In my case that meant perching the Fruit on an edge of an old side table to point at my TV, etc. while remaining as close as possible to my somewhat distant Wire in the den. The app will tell you that the Fruit and the Wire should be no more than 25 feet from each other, and that's a problem for me.

If you live in a small apartment or you happen to keep your wireless router close to your television, you may not ever have an issue with your Peel. In my case, I live in a long house with only one floor. My Airport base station is located centrally in my den, and my TV setup is in the adjacent living room. As stated, the Fruit was 26 feet from the wire but I found I sometimes had to pick up the Fruit and move it within just a few feet of the Wire to re-associate the two. This is bad. It was true of two Peel units as well, despite Peel's insistence that I could theoretically be further away (it just wasn't recommended, a rep told me).

In fact, today I tried once again to use the Peel remote and it failed completely. I was eventually able to get the Fruit and the Wire talking (as best I can tell as there are no indicator lights on the Fruit), but the Fruit was unable to even power on my TV -- either it wasn't receiving signals or it wasn't sending IR blasts. There's very little real troubleshooting you can do, sadly, and with 3 components to worry about, the simple act of turning on the TV can become a half-hour troubleshooting not-so-fun affair.

Peel app

Here is where the Peel approach really shines. I thought my Peel would be a universal remote, capable of controlling all my devices to the last button. Having seen Griffin's Beacon at CES, my expectations were high. However, Peel's purpose is not to provide a button-happy remote unit. Instead, Peel wants to help you find TV shows that you want to watch and do it with minimal effort.

Show "tiles" by genre and the detail screen

TV Discovery

Typically, if you want to watch "something" that's on live, you have to pore through a giant grid (depending on how many channels you subscribe to), be it a printed TV listing or an onscreen program guide. Peel does something very different, instead choosing to sort shows by genre and presenting you with what's on at that moment by category.

For example, I customized the Peel app to show me what comedies were on when I checked TV shows. You can customize what you see in each of the major categories, and I re-ordered the default to show Comedy, Animation and Sci-Fi first, followed by all the rest (and there's just about everything).

The major categories, represented by buttons on a bar at the bottom of the screen of the app, are Top Picks (basically what's on at that moment, but typically less than a dozen based on your preferences), TV Shows, Movies, Sports and a handy search function.

When tapping on a show's icon from the grid view, you go into a bit more detail before you tune to that show. A single screen highlights the show, a description, what channel it is on, and there's a button to turn to that channel immediately. In addition to these basic functions are buttons to "cut" a program (sort of like a thumbs-down on Pandora), favorite a show, set a reminder (which you can tie to a specific calendar) and a button to Tweet or post to Facebook.

I found the Peel method for finding "something to watch" very effective. Since you tend to want to shut off your brain when plopping down on the couch to watch TV, having to think less about what you'd like to watch is incredibly handy. I cannot stress enough how great it is to not have to poke around a giant grid of tiny text to find something on.

While I found a few bugs in previous versions of the app, a recent update has cleared up most of the issues, which were largely pages loading with no data.

The remote control and search screens

Integration with Hardware

If everything works, the Peel app works adequately well. Peel seems to think you will be staring, mouth agape, at your TV so they emphasize how all you have to do is swipe up or down to change the volume. You see, they are quite proud of the fact that they presume you will not want to look at your remote while engrossed in the latest "Sixteen and Pregnant" marathon. Of course, never mind you have to turn on your iOS device, unlock it, and you'll inevitably have a bright light in your hand as you swipe, thus somewhat taking you out of the experience... But no matter, it does an OK job of making large fingers worry less about hitting a target on a small screen.

As I said before, this is not going to be your universal remote. If you want to pull up the guide on your DVR, or change a recording or access menus or do anything more than the most basic functions on your components you will be sorely disappointed. Actually, you'll just have to keep your other remotes handy. Peel is all about you mindlessly gazing at the TV for hours on end, not much else.

As a remote, the Peel isn't that great anyway. It's cool if you want to tune to a show, but I found an odd lag when adjusting volume, perhaps the primary use of the app once you're in a show. Turning volume up or down yielded frequent pauses, making it less than smooth.

You can swipe left or right to rewind or fast-forward (on your DVR or DVD/Blu-ray), or tap to pause/play. I like this idea, but again, the notion that you won't look down at your iPhone while controlling components is a bit silly. Of course you will. Bright light, dark room. Anyway, you can jump back to a previous channel, remove a channel from your lineup and mute.

There's a record button, but my DVR (from longtime manufacturer Scientific Atlanta) requires a few more clicks to activate a recording, which means you will need to tap another button to access the 4-way controller screen. The playback screen gives you a Menu button, an OK button and the typical 4-way controller found on most DVR remotes. There's a handy Exit button and DVR button as well.

Settings and Customization

You can set up different Peels for different rooms (you won't have to use any additional cables for the router, luckily, but they will all be restricted by the 25-foot range), check the Peel Fruit battery level (the graphics never worked and the voltage reading never changed, so I don't think that really works), and customize your preferences. One cool thing about adding additional locations is that you can set up the Peel for a bar, providing quick help for bartenders to locate the game you'd like to watch (this tip from the Peel blog).

For your preferences, you can re-arrange the preset order for each category, and that is extremely handy. If you largely watch comedy, you'll put Comedy at the top of the list for TV Shows. There's a "basic info" you can input for your age and gender, but you can opt out. The only advantage here is supposedly yielding better show recommendations, especially if you behave as the average matching age-and-gender person would.

There are the requisite Facebook and Twitter logins as well, meaning you can spam all your buddies while you watch that Golden Girls marathon on Lifetime.

Here you'll also find the settings for your reminders -- which calendar they should go to and how long before you are alerted. Lastly, there's a button to completely reset the Peel app, erasing all customization and settings.

Setup

When you first setup the app it'll ask you if you want to use the Peel as a remote or just a TV discovery app. If you simply use it without the hardware, it'll walk you through re-ordering the genres for TV and sports, then ask your age and gender.

If you use the hardware, the app will first instruct you to plug in the Wire. Then, you'll need to type in a code found next to the battery compartment on the Fruit.

Finally, you'll get a screen telling you the Fruit and the Wire should be less than 25 feet away from each other, and the Fruit and your components should be less than 15 feet away.

With that out of the way you'll start the slow, arduous process of setting up the IR functions for the Fruit. That means going through a list of manufacturers for each component and testing which codes work. After this you'll go through the software setup as described earlier. Then, you'll be prompted about channel control. Peel asks if you use a cable box with or without a DVR or just the TV. In my case, I have DVR. Then it wants to know if you control volume via TV or a stereo. In my case, I use the TV.

Peel gets a little wacky for TV input, however. Instead of just giving you a darn Input button (and inching ever closer to being a universal remote), there's a clunky setup procedure that sends input codes to your TV, iterating through them until you are on TV. Unfortunately this has no real practical purpose, as the remote has no way of knowing what input you might happen to be on when you decide to watch TV. So without a proper Input button on the remote app itself, this step is largely extraneous and annoying.

Setup is relatively painless, provided you have everything close to each other and the iPhone can find the Fruit. Mine just quit working, possibly because the battery was 1.6 volts (although it was working fine the week before). Unfortunately, there's very little help in the hardware when troubleshooting, and the unit I purchased (not the demo, the one I got in an Apple Store) also exhibited the same behavior! Now I'm basically stuck with a $99 paperweight. Except it won't weigh down paper without the C battery.

Conclusion

I bought a Peel in an Apple Store thinking it was a universal remote. When I found out it would only change channels and adjust volume (in the earlier version of the app there wasn't even a record button), I was pretty upset paying $99 for something that couldn't do anything more than what a $10 remote from Big Lots could do. However, I found that the way Peel presents TV discovery is really quite excellent. If you just want to watch something funny, or if you're scrambling to see what kid shows are on, there are few apps like Peel.

So the software is great. The hardware? Not so much. I'm left to try and eBay my Peel and happily return the demo unit. Considering the distance between my router, the Fruit and where I'm sitting could add up to over 35 feet, there's little reason for me to use the thing. Plus, after encountering difficulty re-associating the remote after a week not using the device, I'm not sure I can recommend this to even the smallest apartment dweller.

I guess if you have a daily habit of plopping in front of the TV but never have a specific show in mind, and you live in a tiny space, the Peel would be great for you. Otherwise? Well, there are other universal remotes on the market -- and we'll be looking at them shortly. Keep the Peel app around for finding stuff, but ignore paying for the hardware.

The rest of this week we'll look at more hardware: the UnityRemote (seen at CES), the Beacon (also seen at CES) and the dark horse contender, the Ri universal remote. Stay tuned!

Update: We're going to save the Ri universal for another round which will include remotes that plug in to your iOS device in some way.

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