Remotes face apptitude test

Could the age of the universal remote be at an end? Are these devices – lifesavers for those of us with complex AV setups – on the way out, destined to be replaced by apps running on your mobile phone or tablet? That’s definitely the way things are looking.

As usual Apple is one of the leaders in this area. The remotes provided with Apple TV, and before it the Mac Mini, are pretty basic: scroll wheel, okay button, play/pause. And why not, when the device the remote is controlling is so dependent on software and a clever interface? Besides, if you want to get fiddly with your Apple TV, just download the remote control app to your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. You can even queue shows and browse iTunes on the handheld device while watching a full-screen movie or TV episode.

It makes a lot of sense: why spend money and resources on a dedicated device when everybody is already carrying something that can do the job – and probably better. What’s more, since devices such as the iPod Touch and iPad have Bluetooth, they can establish a permanent wireless link to the device they are controlling. Current IR remotes can have their signal blocked by pets, furniture, thrown pillows, popcorn fights etc. And a wireless link lets you hide all your equipment inside cabinets – as long as the doors are fairly lightweight and radio-transparent.

One of the main benefits of running a remote app is that the app can use the computing power of the device it’s running on. That means many, many more features than even the fanciest of universal remotes. Picture-in-picture, lots of sophisticated calendar and recording features, buying content from providers, scheduling all sorts of recordings and building playlists.

Folks who spend big bucks on high-end universal remotes – because they have five or six devices that all need to be switched to various inputs to get a signal – can find it frustrating that they have to sit there with the remote pointed at the AV rack for up to 30 seconds while the remote cycles through the various IR commands it has to send out.

Consider the activity ‘Watch a movie’. From scratch, that means turn on the TV, turn on the AV receiver, turn on the Blu-ray player. Switch the TV to HDMI, switch the AV receiver to Blu-ray, press play on the Blu-ray player.

With an IR link, this is slow. With an integrated system that combines wireless with HDMI’s Consumer Electronics Control (CEC) standard, it’s not only faster, you can’t accidentally interrupt the process by pointing the remote ‘off axis’ and failing to link up with one of the IR receivers.

But why limit your iPod or iPad to merely controlling other media players? Both devices – as well as many others – are capable media players in their own right. Hook a Bluetooth receiver to your AV receiver, and you can play content directly off your handheld, up onto the TV. Your little device has plenty of power (and bandwith) to send out a quality (if not full HD) signal and surround sound.

The ultimate end to this progression are personal devices that handle all our entertainment content and beam a digital signal to a dedicated decoder. In other words, if your phone had a 2TB flash chip on it, you could store all your music, movies and photos on your mobile and would need only one slim device under the TV – a box that decodes a digital datastream and converts it to analog audio and sends vision via HDMI to a TV. So maybe a decoder box and an AV receiver.

Your mobile could even receive free-to-air TV, especially if it’s delivered over the net via IP. After all, smartphones already have 802.11g wireless, the same wireless as your Telstra T-Box or similar IPTV device uses.

The main limitations today are processing power and wireless bandwidth. An iPod can handle a compressed video signal, even up to 720p, and surround audio, but we demand full Blu-ray quality 1080p and lossless HD audio in 7.1 format.

Don’t think that won’t come though, and soon. Advances in low-power processors, as seen in the iPad and in a new generation of Intel-based devices, will bring serious data-crunching capability to smaller and smaller players.

Within the next five years, you can expect to own a device that can handle any media format you throw at it, and play that media not only on its own display, but narrowcast it wirelessly onto any other output – be it projector, TV, someone else’s handheld player, car stereo, you name it.

Anthony Fordham is the editor of Australian Popular Science