Technology Futures

Commentaries on Directions That Will Impact the Future of Technology

Archive for the category “Gadgets”

Phone and Tablet Remote Control Update: Was I Wrong?

Vizio 8" Tablet

A few months ago I posted a blog entry about using phones and/or tablets as remote controls for home entertainment systems.  I was bullish on the trend, but some recent experience suggests that maybe it isn’t going to happen as quickly as I thought.  Although the technology is there, it doesn’t seem to be ready for Joe Couch Potato.

A few days ago, I purchased a Vizio 8″ tablet, Model VTAB1008-B.  This tablet includes a built-in IR blaster and an application called “Remote Control.”  First of all, the screen is gorgeous, providing 1024 x 768 resolution, the same as an iPad, but in an 8″ instead of the iPad‘s 10″ form factor, providing denser pixels and sharper images than the iPad.  The screen is prettier than any of the high-end purpose-built touch-screen remote controls from companies like Crestron and URC which are typically 640 x 480 and cost a couple of thousand dollars.  The IR radiator works well, although I haven’t tested it in “stressful” conditions.  Certainly good enough for most in-home situations.

The Remote Control program, however, is all but useless.  You are supposed to set it up by selecting an equipment category from a list (DVD Player, TV, Amplifier, etc.), then selecting a manufacturer from another list, and, if you know it, typing in the model number.  If  the model number is found, a screen for the device is set up automatically.  If the model number is not found, there is a trial-and-error process for finding the device.  I was amazed at the completeness of the model database.  (I assume Vizio gets that list from UEI or another company that maintains a database of equipment IR codes.)  It even listed an X10 ir543 receiver!  Go to this link and click on “How to Set Up the Remote Control App” to see a video of how it works.

The first problem is that the database model entries do not reliably associate the correct IR codes with the buttons that appear on the screen!  The second problem is that the buttons on the screen do not represent the controls that are needed to operate the device with the device.  For example, I have a Sony CD jukebox that holds 300 CDs.  You operate it by inputting the number of the disc you wish to play using a numeric keypad and then pressing the Play button.  The screen that comes up for this device has no keypad on it, thereby rendering the control of that device useless.  The X10 ir543 screen does not contain any controls that related to the device at all.  The DVD screen contains mostly controls useful for operating a TV.  On top of everything else, the program crashed repeatedly and could only be recovered by powering down the tablet.

I called Vizio tech support, was told that a “significant upgrade” was coming soon, and that I might consider waiting for that.  In fairness, they also generously offered to send me a new tablet, but couldn’t guarantee that the same problems wouldn’t exist.  I am certain it is a software problem, so I declined the offer.

The way most of the phone/tablet-based remote control systems operate today is by sending the signals via a Wifi connection.  This requires that the user purchase a box that converts the Wifi signal to IR.  These boxes cost around $100 for 1-way transmission and $150 for 2-way (for RS-232 capable equipment).  Putting an IR blaster in a tablet is a great idea that eliminates the expense of the Wifi-IR converter box.  It obviously would add very little to the cost of a tablet or phone.

I paid $190 for the tablet, shipping included.  (MSRP is $329.)  If the remote control application worked as it should, the tablet could easily be justified on the basis of that app alone.  If I were Vizio’s CEO, I’d hire a couple of guys laid off from Philips now-defunct Pronto Division and have them write a Windows/iOS-based editor that would allow customers to create customized remote control screens.  As it is, all I can do is wait for the upgrade and hope it fixes the problems I confronted.

I contacted a couple of companies (e.g., iRule) that have systems for using phones and tablets as remote controls, but neither of them could take advantage of a built-in IR blaster.  I suspect this might change in the future, but probably not until some big-name tablet/phone manufacturers begin to put IR blasters in their devices.



Good Grief Charlie Brown: Android Apps Play in Windows:

Bluestacks Android App Logo

This is the first year in many that I have not bothered to attend the annual CES show in Las Vegas.  I didn’t go for a couple of reasons.  First, virtually everything you might want to see at the show is available online, usually in video; second, there hasn’t been much in the way of exciting new products.  The “Best in Show” award this year went to LG for a 55″ OLED TV that won’t be out until mid-year and will cost (an estimated) $8,000 – $10,000.  It has about the same picture quality as a plasma selling for a fifth of the price.  It is skinnier than a plasma and uses less energy.  Yawn.

Maybe this is exciting for you, but not for me.  Lemme tell you what I do find exciting.

Last year, a startup company calling itself Bluestacks came up with a piece of software that allowed a user to run  Android apps on a Windows 7-based PC.  The program is called App Player for PC (isn’t that exciting?).  The company also produces a program called Cloud Connect.  That program allows you to transfer Android-based apps from your phone or tablet to App Player for PC.  In other words, you get an Android app from Android Market (which does not run on your PC), move it to the cloud and send it to your PC.  Even though the program is still in Alpha version, it appears to work flawlessly on my PC.  Very cool indeed.

Back to CES.  Microsoft announced that BlueStacks would be built into Windows 8, scheduled for release later this year.  Windows 8, if ya didn’t know, is Microsoft’s next major iteration of Windows.  It sports an entirely new User Interface called Metro (you will still be able to use the old one if you want), and will run on every platform including phones and tablets as well as PCs.  Although European cellphone leader Nokia made a commitment to Windows 8, nobody else in the mobile world has paid much attention to it, in large part because there aren’t many apps or developers who plan to write apps for it.

BlueStacks changes all that.  Windows 8 users will immediately have access to all 400,000 Android apps and run them on phone, tablet, netbook or PC.  Underscoring its importance, Microsoft announced that Bluestacks will be bundled with Windows 8.   This will remove the lack-of-apps barrier to purchasing Windows 8 based mobile platforms.  Sure, Microsoft would prefer that all those 400,00 apps would be written native to run on Windows, but it might have to wait for the return of the dinosaurs for that to happen.

BlueStacks has announced that it is working on a version for the iOS (Apple’s operating system), so you will be able to run Android apps on Apple products.   This is the kind of strategy that should ultimately lead to hardware price wars.  I can hardly wait.

Top Ten Electronic Gadget Deals

This is my Top Ten list of the best deals in electronic gadgets.  I either own all of these gadgets or comparable units, and I assure you that they are great products to have.  In each case, I looked up either the MSRP or the average retail selling price and then shopped extensively online for the best price I could find.  Unfortunately, I can’t guarantee that you will find these same prices as some are limited offers, but since these things change daily, you might find even better deals than I did.   The list is in random order.

1.      Jabra Cruiser Bluetooth Speakerphone Car Kit

If you live in states like California and New York, you know that you have to use your cellphone hands-free while driving.  If you are like me, you can’t stand wearing an earbud.  The solution is a hands-free Bluetooth car kit.  The Jabra Cruiser is the best one out there.

Retail = $70   Great Deal = $20

2.      URC R50 Universal Remote Control

If you have a bunch of remote controls for your home entertainment system, you will be much happier to get rid of them and use a single universal remote control.  In the under $200 category, the URC R50 is the class act of the bunch.  The documentation that comes with the unit is terrible, and URC’s customer support is non-existent, so you need to be a confirmed DIYer to take advantage of all its features.

Retail = $150    Great Deal = $60

3.      Garmin NUVI 200 GPS $420 – $100

While GPS devices are becoming more and more popular in cellphones, there is still a place for standalone units.  The Garmin NUVI 200 is small enough to be carried in a pocket and has a very readable display.

Retail = $420   Great Deal = $100

4.      iRoomba 530 Robotic Vacuum Cleaner

The ultimate gift for a couch potato, the iRoomba vacuums your floors and rugs by itself.  The model 530 is not the top of the line, but it does everything you want it to.

Retail = $300   Great Deal = $175

5.      Microlife Blood Pressure Kit with Arm Cuff

Everyone over the age of 40 should have a blood pressure monitor.  The Microlife kit is rated tops in home monitors by many testing agencies.  You can hook it up to your computer and download your readings.  Included software will track those readings and plot them.  You can even email the results to your Doctor.

Retail = $80   Great Deal = $30

6.      Kodak EasyShare 8” Wireless Picture Frame 820 Series

There are lots of digital picture frames out there, but Kodak’s are rated tops by many reviewers.  The 820 series has all the bells and whistles including wireless.

Retail = $140   Great Deal = $50

7.       All-Well Home Thermostat with Remote Control

Here is another toy for the couch potato – a remote controlled home thermostat.  Raise or lower the temperature without moving from your spot!  There are many competing models, most of them well over $100.  The All-Well thermostat does the same thing for much less.

Retail = $150   Great Deal = $50

8.      Brother MFC-9120CN All-in-one Color Laser Printer

Color laser printers are a lot cheaper and faster than inkjets, especially if you buy the toner separately and refill the cartridges yourself.  This Brother unit includes fax, copy and scanning functions in addition to printing.  The Inkowl company sells the toner at a fraction of the factory replacement cartridge cost, and has great customer support if you need it.

Retail = $450   Great Deal = $300         Brother Cartridge Set = $289   Inkowl Toner = $70

9.      Sony MDR-DS7100 7.1 Channel Surround Sound Wireless Headphone System

So you just spent a lot of money on a home entertainment system with 7-channel surround sound and a big screen TV.  Now your significant other says she’s trying to sleep and it is keeping him/her awake.  The 7.1 channel Sony Wireless Headphone system is the solution.  The sound is so good you might want to get rid of your regular speakers!

Retail = $450  Great Deal = $250

10.  Pair of 200 mbps Ethernet Powerline Adaptors

You just bought a new whiz-bang tablet only to discover the WiFi connection is not strong enough when you are upstairs.  You could install a WiFi repeater, or, for a lot less, you can plug a Powerline Ethernet adaptor into a wall-socket and transmit at Ethernet speeds over your AC power lines.  There are many brands available and they are virtually all the same.  You need two of them, one to attach to your wireless router, and one to attach to your tablet.  You can have as many adaptors as you want, so it is a cheap and easy way to turn your whole house into an Ethernet LAN.

Retail = $70   Great Deal = $30

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