Are You The Master Of Your (TV) Domain?
Turn it on, turn it off, change the volume, change the channel, switch the input - these are all straightforward actions that we do frequently when watching TV. So why is it so hard to automate it properly?
Controlling a TV used to be very simple - just a switch and two dials. The power switch turned the TV on or off, the channel dial selected the desired station by number (from 2 to 12 in the old days), and the volume knob raised or lowered the volume. Easy to do and everyone learned quickly without an instruction manual or complicated training.
Somewhere along the way it has gotten out of control (pun intended). The single box TV with a built-in screen and speaker has become a collection of sleek boxes with a stereo receiver, amplifier, surround sound speakers, DVD player, streaming movie player, and more.
We can operate this “home entertainment system” from the luxury of our armchair without getting up, but we have to juggle 3 or 4 remote control sticks with cryptic buttons, keypads, and confusing layouts. Where did it all go wrong?
Why is it hard to control your TV?
The common hand-held stick shaped remote control uses infrared (IR) light that is invisible to our eyes for remote control. Unfortunately, every company has chosen to use a different set of control codes to accomplish the same thing. To accommodate this “Tower of Babel” most of us have a collection of remote controls on our coffee table and we constantly juggle them to do even the most basic tasks.
There are now multiple systems and options for solving this problem with varying degrees of success. Before going into the possibilities, I want to explain one important limitation. Most of these AV automation systems work well most of the time, but none of them are perfect or flawless.
If you understand the limitations, you will be in a better position to decide if you want to use any of these systems and why they don’t always work as you might expect.
All of these systems retro-fit new technology (computer control) onto older technology (IR remotes). The big limitation of IR systems which are unfortunately still widely used, is that the basic IR remote is a ONE-WAY system.
The remote control sends a command to the TV (or stereo, or streaming box, or whatever) and never receives any response back. The remote control has to assume the command was received, understood, and processed correctly - and that’s a big assumption!
When we use a remote manually, our human eyes and brain correct for this automatically so we don’t even realize it. Let me give you an example. You are watching TV channel 6 and want to change the program to channel 7. You press the “channel up” button on the remote control but hold it down too long. The channel changes to channel 8 instead. You see this, so you simply press “channel down” quickly to go back down to channel 7 without even realizing that you have done this “course correction” subconsciously.
It is not that easy for a computerized remote. It has to send out the “channel up” command with just enough delay that it is received, and not too much delay that it is acted upon twice. The TV doesn’t tell the remote what channel is on the screen and the remote doesn’t have eyes to see the wrong channel is selected, so it cannot correct the mistake.
Most TV’s have a “go to channel 7” command so the remote can send that command instead of “channel up”. It’s more reliable and easier to send a command with a specific action instead of a relative action (go to a channel number instead of go up three channels).
But we still have a lot of devices (both old and new) that don’t have a specific “turn on” or “turn off” command - they only have a “change the power” command, so even the simple task of reliability turning something on or off can be a challenge.
If you are interested in the details, having a specific command that is not dependent on prior actions is called a “discrete IR code”. Some devices have them, but others still do not. Even with discrete IR codes, the commands are one-way. There is no way for a remote control to ask the TV “what is the current channel” or “what is the current volume setting” so remote control devices go through a lot of internal gyrations remembering the commands they sent and what the TV should have done to try and stay “in sync”.
Alternatives to IR
In the past few years we have gotten two alternatives to the proven, but limited, IR system of remote controls. Most cable/satellite boxes and many newer TV/stereo systems have radio frequency (RF) controls..
These control sticks look just like the other ones, but use radio waves instead of infrared light. This allows them to operate without being pointed directly at the equipment or relying on the signal bouncing off the walls to hit the box in the right way.
RF is an improvement, but it has all the other limitations of IR because it is built on top of the existing IR system - same one-way communication and same problematic “Tower of Babel” of manufacturer-specific codes and limited use of discrete codes. A small improvement, but not enough to make a big difference.
A better contender for solving this mess is the use of “IP Control”. If your TV (cable box, receiver, or other device) can be connected to your Wi-Fi or Ethernet home network, then it might have the ability to be controlled over the network instead of using IR or RF. Using this “IP Control” is more reliable, and more flexible and has the potential to solve a lot of these problems.
Not all entertainment devices have IP control and not all control systems can use IP control. Eventually we’ll look back at IR and RF remotes and laugh at how we ever managed to put up with them, but that time is still many years in the future.
With a mixture of IR, RF, and IP controlled devices we need to choose the automation system carefully. Some automation solutions are only use IR, some only use IP, and some use a mix of both. It’s not a simple choice - many of the IR systems as long established and very reliable while the IP control systems are newer and can be buggy or limited.
Depending upon your equipment and objectives, an all IR system might work better than a newer IP control system or vice-versa.
Have It Your Way
When considering an AV control system, the first thing to decide is how do you want it to operate. Of course we want an integrated system where a single control device can command all the various boxes and equipment, but how do you want to use it?
There are three choices to consider - physical remotes, smart device apps, or voice control. Physical remotes operate like the standard control stick provided with the product originally, but are enhanced with the intelligence to operate multiple devices.
These remotes can be packed with lots of useful (or extra) features. Backlit keys, special function keys, small display screens, and rechargeable batteries are some of the more common things to look for.
Let’s Get Physical
There is a wide range of products available so it helps to know what you want it to do and the price range you have in mind. You can purchase relatively simple universal remotes online or at any retail store. These can be programmed to control more than one device, but you might have to touch or switch a button between “TV”, “DVR”, and “DVD Player” as they can be fairly dumb.
True intelligent remotes cover a wide range of products, prices, and technologies. IR, RF, IP Control, and even voice are some of the capabilities that may be sorted - alone or in combination.
Some remote controls include hubs or repeaters for controlling other equipment such as lights, screens, or shades and can serve as the primary controller for whole house automation systems.
Don’t forget to consider the aesthetics, ergonomics, and physical attributes. Some remotes are boxy and too large to hold comfortably in your hand. Some are just plain ugly and won’t pass the “architectural committee” review in your household.
Be sure and look at the power options - those built-in screens and backlit keys eat through batteries quickly so a nice rechargeable version becomes a necessity.
Smart Device Apps
With all of us using smartphones and tablets, there should be no surprise that “there is an app for that” to control our TV / AV entertainment systems. Most apps use IP control, but there are a few that work with IR adapters that either plug directly into the device, a connected base station, or a Wi-Fi adapter.
The important distinction is that an app-based solution will be using the touch screen of the smartphone or tablet as the primary method of input. Some people like touch screens, some people don’t. Without actual physical buttons, you have to look at the screen to make sure that you are touching the function you want. It is very hard to use a touch screen by tactile feel alone.
If you like to have your smartphone with you at all times, it is very convenient to always be able to pull out your smartphone from your purse or pocket and instantly control everything.
Of course, if you put your smartphone down when entering your home, it is much less useful to have to find your phone to change the channel on your TV. That’s just as bad as looking for the regular remote that has fallen through the couch cushions!
Smart device apps can be self-contained or they can be included as part of another system. Many larger home automation control systems that include AV control will have options for both physical remotes and app-based interfaces.
Remember, it is not just for people that prefer one over the other - personally, I use both. There are times when I want to use a physical remote and there are other times when I prefer reaching for the app on my smartphone to do the same thing or different tasks. If you can choose a system with more flexibility, you don’t have to limit your choices up front.
Controlling anything and everything by your voice is all the rage - and rightly so. It is easy, fun, and convenient and can be empowering for anyone that is physically challenged or immobile. I view voice control as an add-on feature that should complement a control system and not be the only way to operate. You’ll have to do some careful digging around, but most of the control systems either already work with voice control or adding support.
You’ll want a solution that can work with one or more of Apple Siri/HomeKit, Google Home Assistant, Amazon Alexa, or Microsoft Cortona. There is also Josh.AI, but that’s a high-end (meaning high priced) voice control solution more suitable for a large custom system.
AV Control Recommendations
Keep in mind that there is no “one size fits all” so you really need to do a fair amount of research and ideally try out some of the systems before making a decision. Nonetheless, here are some suggestions and recommendations.
Logitech has an extensive line of remote control devices from basic programmable remotes to comprehensive control systems with built-in screens, touch interfaces, and companion IR repeaters and hub. Here’s a few models to consider:
The Logitech Harmony Elite Remote Control, Hub, and App is the most full-featured solution supporting IR, IP Control, and a hub for lights and other appliances.
The Logitech Harmony Ultimate Home is the older version of the Elite at a much lower price. Although discontinued by Logitech, it is still supported and with millions of them installed, no risk of them not working.
The Logitech Harmony Companion All in One Remote is less expensive version (no touch screen). Unfortunately the buttons are not backlit so it is hard to use it in the dark and not one of my favorites.
Don’t overlook the newer fancy remotes from your cable or satellite provider. I have used the newer Xfinity (Comcast) physical remote and with the addition of the built-in voice support, it is pretty nice. If the basic smart functions can also control your AV receiver, it might just be enough!
Smart device Apps
The best app-based solution for AV remote control is called Simple Control. It extensively uses IP Control to work with many devices that other systems cannot control and it supports add-on hardware called “Blasters” that can be used for older equipment that only responds to IR commands.
It is quite sophisticated and offers a lot of customization and configuration capability so there is a learning curve to get started. It only works with iPhones and iPads but this limitation allows very tight integration now with Apple HomeKit and Siri. Simple Control was also one of the first companies to support Amazon Echo so if you use Apple devices but prefer Amazon for voice, you’re in luck.
My second choice for an app-based solution is the Logitech Harmony Hub for under $80. This app is compatible with both Apple/iOS and Samsung/Android and provides an easy to use solution. Working with the Harmony Hub it has excellent control of every possible IR device that you may own and you can always add a physical remote that works with it later.
Most people don’t use the Logitech Harmony Hub only with the app - they purchase it as part of a physical remote control (see above) and then have the best of both with an actual control stick along with an app solution that can be used mix and match.
Are you considering a control system for your TV? Let me know what you think.