The Best Universal Remote of All: Your Phone
By Harry McCracken
In 1973, a Motorola engineer named Martin Cooper invented the mobile phone. Almost forty years later, we continue to quaintly refer to the descendants of his breakthrough as “phones,” even though that name doesn’t begin to convey their awesome versatility. Sure, you can still make calls on today’s smart phones. But they’re also Web browsers, cameras, camcorders, media players, musical instruments, navigation systems, game boxes, memory aids, and a whole lot more. And nifty new ways to use them arrive daily.
Of all the tricks that phones can do, nothing appeals to me more than using them as truly universal remote controls, capable of doing everything from unlocking doors to adjusting the thermostat to starting your car. All of this is possible right now — but only with high-tech door locks, thermostats, and cars that most of us don’t yet have. So I keep coming back to a more mundane application that’s easier to make happen: using a phone to control a TV and related accouterments such as a cable set-top box and DVR. (See a photographic history of cell phones.)
Most of the many products that let you do this are modernized twists on the traditional universal remotes that have been around since the 1980s — the ones that bulge with buttons for every possible purpose. The L5 Remote, for instance, is a $59.95 infrared adapter that plugs into an iPhone’s Dock Connector, so you can point your phone at your TV and other electronics to control them. Like a classic universal remote, you can configure the L5 Remote’s app to work with whatever devices you’ve got. But you can also customize it by picking and choosing buttons and shuffling them around onscreen into a layout that makes sense to you.
Ultimately, though, phone-based remote controls that simply mimic the buttons from a traditional remote on a phone’s touchscreen aren’t thinking big enough. Why replicate such an ungainly interface when a phone is capable of so much more?
Enter Peel, a $99.95 remote system that works with iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads, with support for Android phones on the way. Created by former Apple engineers, it’s an ambitious hardware-and-software combo that aims to free you not only from juggling multiple remotes but also from the tyranny of onscreen programming guides that organize thousands of shows and hundreds of channels into a monotonous grid that does nothing to help you find what you want to watch. (Especially if, like me, you can never remember if SyFy is channel 68, 293, or 759.) (See a video on Verizon vs. AT&T iPhone plans.)
Peel isn’t perfect, but it’s the most thorough rethinking of what a remote control should be since Logitech’s Harmony introduced the idea of programming a universal remote over the Internet a decade ago. If you’re intrigued but don’t want to plunk down a hundred bucks to try it, you can download the software from Apple’s App Store for free; you’ll just have to change the channels yourself with the remote control you already have.
At the moment, Peel works with the iPhone and iPod Touch; an Android version is in the works. The hardware includes a little infrared transceiver — Peel calls it a Fruit, though it looks like a shrunken bowling ball to me — that you place within line-of-sight range of your TV, set-top box, and other entertainment gear. It runs off a C-cell battery, so you don’t need to plug it into the wall. Wireless communications between your iPhone and the Fruit are established by the Peel Cable, a hot dog-shaped doohickey that plugs into your Wi-Fi router. This all may sound a tad complicated, but it took me about five minutes to set up, and I didn’t need to futz with Wi-Fi passwords or other networking arcana. (I did, however, later find that I had to fiddle with the precise positioning of the Fruit and the cable to ensure reliable communications.) (See the iPad’s best bet for competition.)
Within moments of trying Peel for the first time, I was discovering shows and movies I wanted to watch — ones I’d never have found if left to my own devices. Unlike the L5 Remote and its direct competitors, Peel doesn’t just put Channel Up and Channel Down buttons on your phone and expect you to use your set-top box’s programming grid to locate stations and shows. Instead, it uses the iPhone’s screen to create its own guide to what’s on, organized into sections such as first-run movies, comedy shows, and sports, plus a section of Top Picks tailored to your interests. The interface is exquisite, with photos and logos rather than endless rows of plain text.
Besides TVs and set-top boxes, Peel can control DVRs, DVD players, Internet TV gizmos like Apple TV and Roku, and other devices that may sit in your entertainment system. In these instances, the on-phone program guide doesn’t come into play — you can’t see what’s on Apple TV on your phone, for example — but the app is still handy. Gestures such as swiping up to increase the volume and down to lower it let you keep your eyes on the TV. (See if you can be in love with your gadgets.)
I did find Peel’s behavior odd at times — it only shows the name of the channel a show is on for today’s programs, for instance, and the search feature doesn’t always return results for programs on future days. (Peel says it’s working on an update with improved search.) The thumbnail photos it uses to show what’s playing on other stations are so minuscule that it can be tough to tell whether one depicts Glenn Beck or Lucille Ball. And I wish that it had a mode that’s at least slightly more akin to a traditional programming grid. There are times when you just want to know what’s on Bravo at 10pm, and while it’s possible to ascertain that by searching, it’s not the app’s forte.
Even in this initial incarnation, though, Peel points the way towards a brighter future. The plasticky, unintuitive remote controls that we’ve lived with for so long are clearly headed for the dustbin of consumer-electronics history — and I can’t wait until they’re gone.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he’s @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.