Do you ever look at your iPhone and think; "I wish it could do more"? Of course you don't. Right out of the box it already does more than you thought a phone could ever do and a few minutes spent in the App Store will result in your iPhone doing stuff you never imagined and pretty quickly realise you can't live without. When you've had an iPhone for a while you begin to take this for granted, to the point where should you pay a visit to the App Store and not come away with something awesome you feel personally let down. This is rare though and this review is the story of one of my more useful visits.
I'm not sure where to start this story without giving the game away and making it all sound too glib but suffice to say, as is so often the case, an app came along that neatly and efficiently solved a problem I didn't know I had and in a way that is now utterly indispensible.
So, what was the problem? Well, towards the end of last year I felt the need to update my TV setup. Although I already had a nice big-screen plasma it wasn't fully HD and I felt I was missing out. Obviously, being married, this willy-nilly upgrading isn't straight forward so I had to start by explaining the need to upgrade our cable to the lovely Virgin V+ HD service. Easy enough first step and quickly followed by explaining the need to upgrade the telly to a fancy LCD HD one. A fancy HD telly would be a waste without a decent Blu-Ray player feeding into it and with all that lovely HD coming out of the screen it would be a travesty not to add in a decent amp system. You see, it all makes perfect sense when you think it through logically. Anyway, by the time Christmas rolled around we had all this lovely new kit in place and we were ready to go. I won't go into detail about all these bits, they can wait for their own reviews (although, given my recent track record I probably won't bother) but they did present me with a problem. Each unit came with its own remote control but because they were all being piped though the amplifier they became more like minor components in a larger, integrated whole. This makes watching (and listening) a tremendous pleasure but the control aspect has become a bit of a mess. Even though everything is routed through the amp, each box still needs some aspects managed by their specific remote control. No matter what you are watching you need access to at least three remote controls which is clearly a bit of a pain.
Enter the UnityRemote iPhone App. I saw an advert for it in one of the Mac magazines and was immediately hooked. Like most adverts for apps the picture had the iPhone front and centre with a clear view of the screen showing a very practical set-up. The accompanying blurb stated "Turn your iPhone into an advanced Universal Remote using the discrete UnityRemote device and free app." Like all good Apple consumers I immediately latched onto the Carrot part of the message ("Universal Remote" and "Free app") and completely ignored the Stick parts ("UnityRemote device" and the rather sinister looking object, slightly off centre and soft focus in the picture). By the time I realised I would have to spend actual cash on something else to make it work I had already downloaded the app and it was with very little resistance that I had my credit card out and was ready to pay. I am so in the Apple demographic.
Ok, that's enough colour commentary; let's have some play by play. What is the UnityRemote, what does it cost and why is it so brilliant.
Firstly then; what it is. UnityRemote comes in two parts, the free app that sets up and controls everything and the little device that acts as the interface between the iPhone and AV equipment. Why is this device needed? Because even though the iPhone offers seamless connectivity via wi-fi, 3G and Bluetooth it doesn't have infrared which is, unfortunately, exactly how the AV kit receives instructions from the remote controls. The little unit is needed to receive instructions from the iPhone via Bluetooth and then send on via infrared. Because the unit uses infrared it requires line-of-site positioning relative to the AV kit but it does have a 360 degree range so if a suitable vantage point can be found it can be used to manage all IR controlled devices dotted around the room. There is probably a limit to the number of devices that can be connected but I doubt any living room would come close to hitting this. The unit is about the size of a cup cake and looks both smart and discrete at the same time.
I'll quickly mention price, just to get the unsavoury business out of the way. The unit cost me £99 from John Lewis back in January (it was the same price everywhere online). A quick look this morning had prices of £75 headlining a Google search but I don't know if these are genuine. Yes, this is a lot of money for something you don't actually need but you're living in an Apple world now. Get used to it.
How does it Work?
The UnityRemote can be configured to control your devices in two ways. The simplest way is to use it to control each device individually; the more practical way is to set it up to control multiple devices in order to achieve a single goal. For example, if you want to watch TV you will want access to the TV and tuner (freeview, cable or Sky box) at the same time so the app will present you with pertinent controls from both devices on one screen.
When it comes to devices there are two kinds of people in the world and as luck would have it my wife is one kind and I am the other. My wife is a 'plug-and-play' kind of gal (I'm not being rude and I won't entertain any rude comments either) and either a device works straight out of the box or it is quickly consigned to history. On the other hand if I don't get at least twenty minutes of fiddling out of a new device I feel cheated.
The UnityRemote satisfies everyone. In short order you will download the app, unpack the unit (giving it some batteries) and Bluetooth connect it to the phone. You are then ready to set it up with your equipment and while it is clever it isn't quite sentient and you will have to tell it what devices you have. To add a TV go to the relevant list within the app, find your make and model and all the controls are imported, then do the same with your DVD player, cable box/freeview tuner, iPod dock and so on. It really is that quick and the remarkable thing is that everything worked first time. If you have a device that is missing from the app's list or it has missed some of the controls it is a simple matter to add these manually. The device will learn as many controls as you need; point the original remote at the device, hold down the control you want to add until the app accepts it and then assign an icon or text to describe the action. That instruction has now been memorised and can be called up whenever required.
That covers the 'plug-and-play' part; the configuration part comes with setting up the Unity part of the app. This is where it really begins to make those old remote controls redundant as you will now be controlling multiple devices from a single screen. The app will start you with two unity screens, one for watching TV and one for watching a DVD, and this begins to show the strength of the system and one of its main drawbacks. The default settings will have a stab at what controls you'll want to see on screen but most likely you'll need to configure these to match your own set-up. This is where the fun is and you can spend as long as you like fiddling around to get the best configuration. You will learn through experience and this is something you're unlikely to get right first time but juggling the controls is a simple operation and so far it has never stopped working, whatever changes you make.
The need to spend so much time getting the screen configuration right flags the main drawback of the app. That is screen size and the number of controls that are visible at any one time. Around the outside of the screen are the navigation buttons for managing the app itself and in the centre of the screen is a 3x3 grid where the remote control buttons live. This grid set-up is constant for every Device screen so the most buttons you can see at any one time is nine. Now the average remote control has a lot more than nine buttons on it so to control any device fully means swiping across several screens, for the Unity screens where you are controlling multiple devices this problem is exacerbated which is why configuring the app to show the most relevant buttons on the first screen is something that develops through usage. Having controls buried across several screens means they can be awkward to find.
Now then; why it is brilliant. I want to watch a DVD so I pick up the iPhone and engage the app. Select the 'Watch a Movie' Unity screen and one button will power up the DVD player, the TV and the amplifier. In the 3x3 grid I have buttons controlling playback, volume and access to the DVD Joystick. Pretty much everything I need when I'm watching a DVD on one screen, brilliant.
When the DVD has finished and I want to watch something on Sky+ a couple of screen swipes later and all the controls I need to do that are there for me to use, brilliant once more.
You can connect more than one iPhone to the unit (although only one will work at a time) so everyone can share the joy.
I really like this app (and device); it works well and is definitely not a gimmick. There are constraints with screen size, and this is a definite drawback, but overall I'm glad I bought it. Whether it is worth a hundred pounds is another matter and one I'll leave up to you.
UnityRemote is produced by Gear4 and full details can be found on their website - http://www.gear4.com/showcase-unity/#/explore_the_unityremote/