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UnityRemote: another iOS universal remote worth checking out

We first spied the UnityRemote from Gear4 at CES in January. Gear4 has decided to go with a very simple device and app, and that's a good thing. Frankly, I don't get having social features in my TV remote (and yet I take Instagram photos of meals) or needing twenty different ways to visualize the TV guide, so UnityRemote leaves that cruft out. Unfortunately, UnityRemote leaves a couple of other things out as well, but that doesn't mean the remote isn't capable of meeting the needs of most users. Read on for full details.

Hardware

The UnityRemote is a cylinder smaller than half a can of soda, largely made of black plastic with a small ring of chrome at the bottom. Unlike the Peel you do not have to point this in a specific direction, as Gear4 put the LEDs all around the unit.

Three AA batteries fill up the majority of the UnityRemote hardware, with the weighted cover removable with a twist. While I don't like the odd arrangement of the batteries (it can be hard to get the final battery out), I'll give props to Gear4 for designing a compact and unobtrusive IR blaster.

There's a power button just above a micro-USB port. The port is supposed to be for firmware updates, although there's part of me which wishes it was to recharge internal rechargeable batteries (but you use standard alkaline batteries).

unityremote hardware

The UnityRemote power button (circle) and USB port

The one gripe I have about the hardware is that the power button is a bit small, and sometimes it can be tricky to turn on the UnityRemote. I don't know if it was just my demo unit, but I had to press the power button for a second or two, then quickly launch the app to ensure the two were communicating. Not only that, but the button is small and can be hard to find if the room is dark.

Another issue is that the LED to indicate the unit is powered on is opposite the power button, which means you have to pick it up and look at it to turn it on. It may seem like a little thing, but it would have been better if the power on were more visible (perhaps a blue LED instead) and the button to power on was on top of the unit and larger. After all, this will probably be sitting on your coffee table. The hardware also blinks the LED when it receives commands from the app.

UnityRemote uses Bluetooth to connect to your iOS device, which means it'll power down after 2 hours by default. You can change this, but the app warns you not to tinker with some settings unless being advised by tech support. More on that in a bit. Let's look at the app itself.

Software in use

It's clear the people on the design team who designed the UnityRemote app are AV geeks. While the app eschews bells and whistles like social features and open-ended UI configuration, it does an incredibly good job of setting up the IR blaster and providing you with the controls you need for controlling your AV gear.

The default configuration of buttons on the remote are a 3x3 grid, with additional buttons available on subsequent pages by swiping. There's also smaller buttons on top and bottom of this grid, help on the bottom and an on/off switch up top. These buttons are available on every 3x3 grid of buttons, which is great. The buttons included are completely logical, although you're able to add, delete and rearrange the buttons as you wish. You can't break out of the grid as you can with Griffin Technology's Beacon, but I found the 3x3 grid to be a great balance between size (on the iPhone) and number of functions on the screen.

Gear4 made a great decision when they chose to make iPhone and iPad versions of the app. The iPad version isn't just a scaled-up app; it's actually got some improvements over the iPhone version thanks to the added real estate. For example, the Devices screen, which allows you to change which device you're controlling, appears as a small nav bar item on the iPhone but is a much larger button directly on the button grid screen. Plus, this larger button has easy access to preferences and other helpful tools which require a few more clicks on the smaller screen. The app even readjusts nicely when in portrait mode, a lovely touch.

ui differences

Speaking of touches, if you tap repeatedly on volume or channel buttons, a warning will pop up to tell you it's possible to hold the buttons down instead. You can turn this off immediately after seeing the dialog, or you can turn off all help dialogs in the settings.

The UI isn't perfect, as backing up a screen requires the traditional tiny target of a menu item up top.

There are "actions" you can set up, similar to macros, which can trigger a series of events. You may wish to turn the TV and Blu-ray on at once, and switch inputs. Of course, beyond the control of any remote hardware is the ability to communicate both ways with a component. So Unity makes its best guess based on your setup (some TVs have discrete codes for input, but my Sony did not, so I chose not to switch inputs). The UnityRemote does a good job during setup to compensate for the limitations of IR technology, but it isn't magical.

Another way to control the remote is via gestures, largely limited to swiping up, down, to the sides or tapping the center of the screen. As with everything else, you can assign these as you wish from all supported commands for your component. I didn't really like the gestures, but after my experience with the Peel, I can see how they might appeal to those who don't want to tap buttons on their remote while watching TV. The defaults made sense, with up/down being volume, and left/right being changing channels (for a TV, obviously). I encountered what could be a bug, however, when I tried to mute my TV by tapping in the center and my TV didn't mute. I found very few bugs in the app overall, however, with one glaring issue of a debug menu that came up during Setup Assistant (see it in the gallery). Weird, but not a showstopper. In any event, Mute works fine in button mode.

Overall I found the experience of using the UnityRemote quite excellent. It successfully mimicked a physical remote while providing gestures and customization one might only find in a software-driven remote like those from Harmony. Perhaps the biggest glitch is in pairing the remote with your iOS device. To switch between devices (be it iPod touch, iPhone or iPad) you'll have to basically turn off Bluetooth on one device, then connect from another. The app doesn't handle this gracefully at all -- you'll have to drop into your device's settings and do this manually. Still, it's unlikely you'll switch device control frequently.

If you aren't paired with the hardware, you can enter demo mode and either pretend to use the app, or learn where things are and customize to your heart's delight. The software supports multiple hardware units, but you'll again have to go through the clunky Bluetooth association process.

Setup and settings

There's an outstanding setup process for the UnityRemote, Bluetooth notwithstanding. You can activate the setup assistant at any time, but on first run you'll walk through setup anyway.

First you'll choose a brand, then the type of component, then answer a series of yes/no questions. When you set up a component you're given 6 buttons to test -- and these happen to be the most frequently used functions for your component. After adding the component to your list it adds a default layout for that component and proceeds to see if that component has distinct codes for things that could toggle. On and off buttons, you see, could either be one code or two -- this makes it much easier to run those actions (macros) I mentioned earlier.

To determine whether items like on/off are distinct codes, the setup walks you through toggling the switch (in first run it'll be on/off) several times and asking whether it is in one condition or another. This was where I encountered a debugging dialog about an unhanded exception, but I was able to click Continue and didn't worry about it. No doubt it's a minor bug, but one that would probably confuse the average user on first run.

You can then add more devices, going through the same process many times until you run out of things to control. Once you've added a few devices you will answer more yes/no questions to setup some basic actions, like powering up your DVR and TV when you want to "watch TV."

As for further settings, in the Configuration menu there's an Advanced section which allows you to trigger sounds during taps, set up auto-connect (which makes the UnityRemote automatically turn itself on during certain hours -- a handy touch for frequent couch potatoes), toggle help, show errors, prevent the iPhone from locking, and share your setup with other iOS devices. That last one is great because once you setup one device, you can easily transfer those settings to another iOS device using Wi-Fi.

Under an About menu you'll find version numbers for the app, application library, all the hardware details (firmware, etc.), the battery status of the IR blaster (which worked well, unlike the Peel) and a fantastic Admin panel with dozens of tweaks the app warns you are ill advised without a tech support person's help. In this screen, however, you're able to change battery consumption and tweak bursts for proper operation. This is also the panel where you can tell the hardware how long it waits to shut itself off, and as previously mentioned it is set to 2 hours by default.

admin panel

The extensive admin panel

From configuration you can also open a support ticket with Gear4 or view the full manual, a welcome touch in any app.

Conclusion

If you want a largely no muss, no fuss straightforward iOS-controlled IR remote for your components, the UnityRemote is exactly that. It costs just under 100 dollars, (you can buy it on Apple's store here), which makes it competitive with physical universal remotes from makers like Harmony. While it isn't perfect, it certainly does the job and does it well. There are lots of customization options, provided you're OK with a basic grid layout, but there are also gestures you can use. With the one caveat of turning the unit on being somewhat of a pain, I would say this is a great universal remote for the casual user as well as hardcore couch potatoes (also known as home entertainment enthusiasts).

Tomorrow I'll take a look at Griffin's Beacon, a device that attempts to go head-to-head with the UnityRemote as a dedicated universal remote.

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