Hands On: Gear4 UnityRemote for iPhone
The UnityRemote turns your iPhone, iTouch or iPad into a universal remote, but it doesn’t completely replace them.
The UnityRemote by Gear4 wants to replace the basket full of remotes you use for your TV, receiver, cable box and DVD player . It’s a noble cause. Home entertainment control is a challenge for a lot of people, and a challenge for a lot of remotes. The iPhone, with its seemingly limitless dexterity, would be a natural challenger to the universal remote market, and indeed, the UnityRemote isn’t the first product to make that connection, but it is the latest.
The UnityRemote is a two part system: an app and a separate signal transmitter. You need a signal transmitter because the iPhone only communicates via Bluetooth, not infrared (IR). As a remote, it sends out Bluetooth signals to the transmitter, which converts them to IR and then blasts them out toward your electronic components.
The transmitter is a small, hockey puck-like device that runs on three AAA batteries (included). There’s a button to turn it on, and a USB port for firmware updates. Once I turned on the transmitter and allowed it to connect via Bluetooth to my iPhone, the phone automatically launched the app store so I could download the UnityRemote app (no additional charge).
That done, the app lauched a startup menu to begin figuring out what electronics I had and what codes it needed to control them. The processes was very simple—I selected a brand (Samsung), then the app asked what kind of product (TV) then searched its database for codes and conducted a test by turning the TV on. Next we went on to the other devices: a Blu-ray player, then my DVR and finally my surround sound receiver. That’s where we ran into problems. For some reason it couldn’t find a working code for my Harmon Kardon receiver, so I needed to teach it the commands with the original remote.
Teaching the commands with the original receiver’s remote entailed pointing the remote at the Unity transmitter and, when prompted, pressing the button I wanted to teach. A message would appear on the iPhone if the command was accepted, and if not, I needed to try again. I quickly learned that the process works better if I held the original remote only about an inch away from the transmitter while pressing the button.
I decided I didn’t need to teach it all 45 buttons from my receiver’s remote, just eight of the most important ones. The Unity allows you to name the button (on, off, select, video 1, etc) and select the appropriate screen icon.
The setup process was reasonably event-free, though I needed to go back and reprogram a few buttons on my receiver to get them to work properly. A thorough knowledge of how your gear works will help you avoid frustration because the help functions and instructions built into the app aren’t always completely helpful.
Once I had all my equipment loaded into the iPhone, the Unity app asked if I wanted to program activities, such as Watch TV, Watch a movie, Listen to music … I found this very similar to programing a Logitech Harmony remote. These activities, referred to as macros by most other remotes, execute multiple commands at once, such as turning on your receiver, TV and DVD player at the same time and making sure they are all set to the correct inputs. I needed to fine tune the macro settings a little, fiddle with the timing of the IR signals and the order that they were sent. Managing the macros doesn’t require a programmer, but you do need a little patience and, again, a good understanding of how your equipment is connected and operates in order to make the Unity do its job.
The interface on the Unity is effective and mostly logical—the opening screen offers you the main activities, and icons on the bottom will take you to individual devices. You can even use gestures—swipes mostly—for some commands like controlling the volume or changing channels, making lazy channel surfing a little lazier.
But for as smartly as the remote app worked it’s not a total replacement for your original remotes or even a more dedicated universal remote. First off, there’s the issue of Bluetooth connections. If your iPhone goes out of range or loses the Bluetooth connection to the transmitter for any reason, you have to remake that connection by pressing a button on the transmitter. When I left my living room to for the kitchen, iPhone in hand, and returned to the living room, Unity stopped working. And of course, what happens to the people at home when you take your iPhone out of the house? They’ll still need to turn on the TV with something.
I was also hoping that the Unity would support multiple iPhones or iPods at once—that way everyone in the room could have a remote in their hand. I tried, but found the Unity will only pair with one device at a time.
Ultimately I find that the UnityRemote is an effective supplemental remote. Use it as a backup or as a second universal remote. At only $99, it’s cheaper than many universal remotes, though the Harmony 650 is also $99 and the URC R50 is only $30 more.
UnityRemote by Gear4
No dongle or iPhone attachment
Simple user interface
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Can lose Bluetooth connection easily
Only one pairing at a time