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Griffin Tech's Beacon: A highly customizable universal remote

griffin technlogy beacon universal remote

Griffin debuted an early version of the Beacon at CES, but it has only recently become available for sale. The Beacon is another iOS-controllable IR blaster combo to control all your audio/video components. Like the UnityRemote, there's a Bluetooth IR blaster. Unlike the UnityRemote, however, Griffin's Beacon is controlled by an app from another company: Dijit. How do these two work together? Read on to find out.

Hardware

The Beacon is just under 4 inches square, with what sort of looks like a stone on a small platform. The stone is actually the IR blaster portion, and it is directional, with the Griffin logo molded on top to ensure proper placement. The IR blaster is directional with the Beacon, with the IR LEDs on the front of the stone, and a receiver on the back of the stone. There is also a small blue LED on the back of the stone to give certain feedback (more on that in a moment). The Beacon uses 4 AA batteries.

The Beacon unit is pretty clever and well-designed, with icons on the bottom to ensure you know where the front is and where remotes should be pointed when you're programming the hardware. Also, you turn the Beacon off after the one-hour shutdown timer by simply tapping the top of the unit, pressing down on the stone. The blue LED slowly blinks a couple of times to let you know the unit is indeed powered up. The stone is a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but that's being picky.

I was told the Beacon could do firmware updates via the Dijit app, which is nice. While the Beacon's footprint isn't tiny, it isn't so big as to be intrusive. The design will work with almost any aesthetic, really, so you won't notice it hanging out on your coffee table. The range of the Beacon is constrained by the same Bluetooth and IR limits of all of these units: around 30 feet or less for Bluetooth controls, and IR has to be line-of-sight to work.

Software

There's a lot going on in the Dijit app, a free download which controls the Beacon. I didn't like the fact that while there's a lot going on in the app, it is not optimized for the iPad. That's a major bummer, considering Dijit has a ton of tiny buttons. But it's a free app, and you can try it before you invest in the Beacon, which I highly recommend you do; if you have large fingers, you may not like it. There are gestures, but sometimes I found it hard to initiate them without hitting a button on the virtual remote.

The Dijit app could be used by itself, as it has TV listings (a grid, no landscape view) and what amounts to a mini Netflix app. The TV listings are quite basic, like an early version of i.TV, but if you are signed in to a Dijit account you can give shows a thumbs-up or down or comment on them. The Netflix tab allows you to manage your streaming queue, conduct searches and view suggested items and add those to your queue.

Netflix detail view (left) and Instant Queue

There's also built-in support for a Roku box, but as I don't have one I was unable to test this. In fact, the Beacon supports over 200,000 devices, including your Xbox 360 -- possibly worth the price of admission right there if you have a vast array of gear.

The only problem with this Guide portion of the app is a lack of landscape view for anything, and some of the buttons are really tiny. On-screen help works, but I was still left wondering what was the point of leaving comments on things -- I don't see Dijit building a social network like GetGlue or other competing products. One excellent feature is the thumbs up rating, which moves shows to your "My Shows" tab up top of the Guide.

The Guide listing (left) and episode listing

The Devices screen is next on the nav bar at the bottom of the app, and I wonder if there was a spirited debate about making that button second. Generally I need to power up my TV before watching it, although I suppose you could see if there's anything worth watching first. At any rate, Devices is where you will go to control all your components. It'll drop you into the last-used component's control screen, which in my case was the TV. As with all of these apps, you get back to your list of devices with a tiny button up top. I'll go into more depth on the Devices screen in a moment, as it is really quite powerful.

Remote being modified (left) Devices view (right)

Continuing to the right of the nav you'll find Activities, which is a way to set up a series of actions for your various remotes. If you want to watch a movie, you may want your TV to power up, switch inputs and power up the DVD player. Of course, you'll have to set all this up for each action, and I found the process to be somewhat confusing and sometimes limiting. For example, let's say I wanted to set up an action for "watch the news," and I had a particular station I always watch for news. I can power up my cable box and TV (unless they are already on and can't receive discrete power on codes -- then you're just toggling and they'll switch off instead) but switching to another channel beyond 9 is laborious. If you want your cable box to go to channel 701, you'll add 3 commands, one for each number! You can, however, set a delay, which allows you to wait until your device is in a ready state before sending more commands. That's a welcome touch.

The Rooms screen allows you to configure more Beacons in other rooms, and from what Griffin says they will re-associate by tapping the Beacon's stone. I only had one unit and was unable to test this. It also allows you to change service providers, in case you have cable in one room and satellite in another. Nifty, but something most people probably won't use.

Lastly there's Settings, which includes a battery indicator (which seemed to work adequately), options for the Guide, account settings, a way to jump to Griffin's support page in Safari, and the requisite About and Reset items.

You can do a bit of customization in the Settings, including editing those shows you gave a thumbs-up to, and viewing your activity within the Guide. General settings allows you change what device does the TV tuning, add/edit gestures (which can only be picked from a specific set of gestures), find devices automatically, and toggle sound effects and the help button.

Remote in use

In Devices you can choose one of your devices, then see the remote button layout for that particular component. Where Dijit really shines is on these remote screens. The button layouts, while logical and great, are completely configurable. You can not only re-arrange things, but in several cases you have a choice of interface element. Volume, for example, can be an up/down button, or it can be a circular jog wheel you spin left or right. Not only that, but helpful blue alignment grid lines appear as you drag these items around the screen. Unfortunately you cannot scale these buttons, which would have been nice. But when you click Edit the buttons will do the jiggly dance (like apps in iOS when you wish to move them around), and you can delete or add buttons.

Editing the layout is a breeze, but one thing you cannot do is mix and match component controls. This proves to be a real pain, because my DVR has a volume control that does nothing to affect the actual volume going through the TV (via HDMI). More helpful would be a TV volume on the DVR screen, but instead I have to tap that Devices button, choose my TV, then hit the volume. UPDATE: Turns out you can you mix-and-match device buttons on the screen. All the more reason I wish there was a proper iPad version of the app. See pic below for how this works.

In terms of responsiveness, the Beacon does a great job. I found almost no lag, and once I set up my screens (not necessary as the defaults are adequate, but I'm a control freak) the Beacon was pleasant to use. By default the app will make a noise when you tap on buttons, and I noticed a glow in the jog wheel as I used it. Some buttons may be a bit small for large fingers. Gestures were not always easy to trigger, and I found myself hitting another key by accident too often, but the button controls worked just fine.*

*OK, so while the buttons worked for my TV, the DVR was completely messed up. Beacon would actually send codes twice! If I pressed channel up it would actually go up two channels. I was told by a representative for Dijit that this was actually going to be fixed in the next version of the app, and it's a problem with the IR codes, not the hardware itself. Apparently IR blasting is tricky, and spacing out the blanks between blasts requires a lot of testing with each manufacturer. If Beacon had better troubleshooting or an ability to tweak those things (as the UnityRemote does), I don't know that an app update would have been necessary. Also, my DVR is a Scientific Atlanta box that is quite common, but I'm told only a very few units are reporting this issue. We'll revisit the issue when the app is updated.

Setup

Setup is really quite simple, with Dijit walking you through a series of questions before you use the app. You can actually skip all setup, but what's the point in that?

Bluetooth pairing will happen in Settings on your iPhone, as with all Bluetooth devices. You'll do that first, then drop back into the app.

First you'll choose TV listings by zip code, then a provider. Then, you'll be prompted to add a TV, cable box/DVR and AV receiver. You can add these later, and I only added the first two to begin with. Dijit has you test the power button only (in my testing), which I think can be problematic. In fact, it only tested the power button on my TV and said it found a remote for the DVR. You can use these, or you can go through another assistant to try finding one that works better.

If you need to teach the Beacon the codes for your remotes, you can do that with the Dijit app, the Beacon hardware and your remote. Since my unit was apparently experiencing a known issue, I found it a little tricky to program the Beacon with my remotes. In theory, you position your remote 2 inches behind the Beacon and teach the Beacon by pressing down to start the LED flashing quickly, then hold down keys on your remote to match the ones you're programming on the Dijit app. Maybe it was my flaky unit, but 2 inches behind the Beacon, resting on the table, meant that my remotes were actually firing infrared beams into the black base, and not the IR receiver section. I had to prop my remote up on a book to make sure it was in-line. Despite this, I was able to work around my DVR issue (noted earlier) by programming the keys. Still, I would not want to do this for the 2 dozen or so buttons on all my remotes. I found the task a bit tedious and tricky, going from app to Beacon to remote to ensure the training worked properly. Be prepared to spend an hour or more doing this if you are stubborn enough or unlucky enough to have an unsupported remote.

Other than training the remote, there's very little to worry about in setup. Have your Netflix login ready if you want to use that, of course, and be prepared to set up a Dijit account (you can use Facebook as well) if you want to participate in the rather limited social features.

Conclusion

Looking beyond the fact that my unit was defective (and will be fixed via app update soon), the Beacon is a pretty good deal at an MSRP of US$79.95. With the ability to control all your AV gear, including an Xbox, I think you'll find there's little it can't adequately control. The Netflix and Roku features are icing on the cake, to be sure. The Beacon is stylish and easy to use, and the interface customization will ensure you're able to enjoy using it for some time to come.

Still, I found some rough edges. Manually training the Beacon with a remote is somewhat frustrating (although all IR blaster training sessions lack any fun quotient), and the smallish buttons and lack of an iPad-optimized app hindered what could have been a fabulous interface. The Beacon hardware could be considered large by devout minimalists, and the inability to tweak the length of time the unit stays on (or other more advanced tunings) put it behind the competition somewhat, but most of these are minor details. I will say it seems very un-Apple to have separate vendors for the hardware and software, but I'm sure Dijit and Griffin have plenty of contracts to keep each other in check (Dijit will also appear on Android, so there's that).

If you're looking for a highly customizable interface and a pretty simple remote with a few extra bells and whistles thrown in for other services, you'll find the Beacon is a capable unit for your home theater or living room AV setup.

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