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.