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VooMote Zapper universal remote for iOS: A first look and a rant

Zero1.tv has released its new VooMote Zapper (US$69.95) universal remote for iOS devices into the wild, and it's also now in your nearby Apple Store. I had an opportunity to try the new device out over the last week, and while less expensive and smaller than the VooMote One remote we mentioned at its release last last year, the Zapper still seems to have some of the same issues that many other iOS remotes have.

First, the good news. The tiny Zapper plugs into the 30-pin Universal Dock port on the bottom of your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. As such, it's able to provide the infrared transceiver on the device with more power than some of the cheap devices we've seen that plug into the headphone jack. The company boasts that the Zapper has four IR mini-blasters for range, and it really does seem to make a difference. I found that the Zapper was able to control devices easily from across a room in broad daylight, so it's definitely got the power.

The dongle comes in eight colors that match the iPad 2 Smart Covers, and it appears that there will be colored cases for iPad 2, iPhone 4/4S, and iPod touch 4th Generation. Those cases you see in the image at the top of this post? They're not available yet.

Now, the not-so-good news. Even after getting an update to the free VooMote Zapper app the other day, most of the devices that make up my home entertainment system were not in the library of codes. The Zapper app has one irritating habit right off the bat: it runs upside down on the iPhone so that the Zapper is always at the "top" of the screen. Want to check email? Flip your device upside-down again. The app is not universal, so if you run it on your iPad, it's either a tiny window on your device or a fuzzy 2X version of the app. VooMote is coming out with an iPad-specific TV Guide app sometime in 2012.

The way the app works is you add a room to your home, then add individual devices to that room. The list of rooms is quite extensive, but it doesn't include that staple of American homes, the "family room." I decided to use "living room" instead, although that is a completely separate room in my home that doesn't have any tech in it. Next, I started adding devices to my "living room."

Immediately I was confused. Is my Comcast / Motorola DVR considered a DVR, or is it a cable box? There are listings for both types of devices. I decided to call it a cable box. Upon choosing cable box, I found one that was named "Comcast", but the box I have wasn't listed. The Zapper app took me through a process of trying to figure out what it was by asking me if it was changing channels, bringing the volume up, etc. When it was done, I had a virtual remote on my iPhone called "Cable-Box" that looks nothing like the remote I normally use, and it has controls that make absolutely no sense for the model I'm using.

Next I added the TV. I have a Panasonic Viera 50" Plasma TV that's about five years old. The only Panasonic TVs that are listed are about fifteen units that must be quite new. Once again, I had to go through the training process to see if the app could come up with a remote that would work with my TV. Sure, it turns it on and off, changes channels, and bumps the volume up and down, but I still have to grab my old TV remote in order to change the input (HDMI1, HDMI2, etc.).

I went through the same process with everything but the Apple TV, which miraculously was already in the database. However, it didn't actually turn the Apple TV on, so my guess is that the device settings were for the first-generation device.

Sure, this is a new device and I'm sure that the code library for devices will expand in the future. But I'd bet that a lot of TUAW readers have the same opinion that I do -- when I get a "universal remote," I want it to work out of the box without needing to go through this tedious type of hit-and-miss process.

Like the Logitech Harmony One remote that I previously used, the Zapper has a way to string together commands so that you can turn on multiple devices in sequence for doing something like watching a DVD -- turn on TV, turn on DVD player, turn on audio device (home theater), etc. I didn't even try this function.

I am not going to single out just the VooMote Zapper for having this problem; just about every iOS remote control device I've tried has been lacking, and the Logitech remote described earlier was also a pain to program. I will give the VooMote Zapper a chance, and I've set up an appointment on my calendar to see if an expanded code library in a few months makes this device easier to set up and use. I certainly like the design of the little dongle.

If Apple really wants to capture the home entertainment market, it doesn't need to come to market with a new HDTV -- it just needs to figure out how to get every type of device working together seamlessly and without a lot of annoying setup. For that, I'd be willing to pay a lot of money.

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