I love TV and as a result, a key part of my home technology surrounds the remote control. Having a number of components has always required the use of a universal remote and for years, Harmony remotes have always graced my couch cushions. Years back, I dabbled with smartphone solutions like the Novii Remote, but it usually ended in disappointment. My IR-only needs have been suitably met by the Harmony 659, Harmony 880 and Harmony One. Within the past year, my needs shifted to include RF, so I made the jump to the Harmony 900. RF remotes allow you to control devices that are hidden in a console, closet or in my case, one floor down in a basement. The software is cludgy and that’s putting it mildly. Once properly configured, the Harmony remotes do a fairly good job managing what has become a somewhat unruly grouping of home theater and home automation products. Naturally, the software solutions available for iOS are light years ahead of Palm OS. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been testing the Roomie Remote, a universal remote solution for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. Will it unseat the Harmony, a line of remotes I’ve used for well over 10 years?
Understanding Your Needs
When it comes to universal remotes, most users have a unique set of requirements based upon their set-up. With gaming systems, the increasing growth of streaming media players, AVRs (audio visual receivers), DVRs, DVD players and more, it’s not uncommon to have a coffee table with an array of remotes. If your boxes are all within line of sight, they can typically be controlled by IR (infrared). Sony’s Playstation 3, a common gaming/Blu-Ray player, is one of the rare devices that does not support IR. Companies like Logitech have gotten around this with a pricey accessory to make it compatible with their remotes. Roomie recommends the Schmartz PS3IR-100, which will set you back an additional $11o, if you want proper control of your PS3. Universal remotes will beam an IR command that you point in the area of your TV/equipment and your device will work as if you were using the standard remote. The more expensive RF based remotes send a signal to a base station that has a ‘blaster’ or multiple ‘IR emitters’. These are often used in situations where your equipment is in a closet, behind closed doors or even a different room. While most devices support IR, there are also a fair amount of modern home theater products that support direct IP control. Commands are sent over your WiFi network directly to the device. No RF or IR needed.
Roomie Remote is a scalable solution. The base software application is priced at just $9.95. That enables you to control up to two devices in one room. If you have a new TV, DVR that support IP control, theoretically you could get by with the base app. I’m thinking that for most folks who are considering a universal remote have more stringent requirements. To add functionality that meets the varied needs of customers, there are numerous in-app purchases and hardware required.
- Home Theater Pack $19.95: Enables you to set-up unlimited rooms and devices.
- Roomie Service Subscription $16.95 per year or $9.95 per 6 months: This is required for using IR devices, with access to 140,000 commands.
Invariably, you’ll have devices that are not IP controlled. Most televisions for instance require IR for control. Roomie sells a number of iTach products from GlobalTech. This is the glue needed for IR support. You can select the iTach Flex IP, iTach Flex Wi-Fi, iTach Ethernet to Infrared Adapter or the iTach Wi-Fi to Infrared adapter. The Flex models have one output, but you can have multiple emitters split from the single port. If you have receiver (AVR) with a serial port connection, you can also connect directly using an RS232 cable. The iTach Ethernet to Infrared adapters have three outputs, but don’t support RS232. You can choose either Wi-Fi or Ethernet connections. Where possible, I try to maintain wired connections. For my test, I went with the iTach Ethernet to Infrared Adapter. Most customers will likely opt for the iTach Flex IP (Ethernet or WiFi). The IP2IR comes with one blaster and a number of emitters. Blasters have a better range and in many cases can handle multiple devices within your equipment rack.
What starts as a cheap solution can get rather pricey. My setup required an initial investment of $141.80, plus my yearly subscription of $16.95.
Setup and How This All Works
The setup process will have some similarities, but will vary depending upon your gear. My goal was to control an assortment of home theater components, home automation and home security products, all from within Roomie Remote. This process is far from what I would deem to be easy. This is not the type of solution that you setup in the span of 10 minutes. You need to be prepared for some trail and error. Here’s a breakdown of equipment that I currently control with Roomie:
- Onkyo TX-SR605
- Sony Bravia NX810
- Roku 2 XS
- Apple TV 2
- Monoprice 402E HDMI Switch
- Mac mini HTPC running Plex
- TiVo Roamio
Create A Room
The first step to configuring Roomie Remote is to create a room. From the ‘Rooms’ tab, select ‘Add Room’. For example, setup ‘Living Room’. You can select icons that help customize your experience. On my Roomie, we have a chair for our living room and a bed for our bedroom. Our goal here is to setup ‘Activities’ that you use your ‘Devices’. For example, you’ll want to ‘Watch TV’ (Activity) in your ‘Living Room’ (Room) using ‘TiVo, Onkyo Receiver, Sony TV’ (Devices).
Setup Devices and Activities
Once you have a room completed, press save and done. Tap on the room and you’ll see options to add activity or add device. Before adding an activity, you’ll want to add your devices. Devices that support direct IP control will automatically be listed. These include the TiVo Roamio (Series 5), Premiere (Series 4), ROKU and others. Apple TV may be listed, but you cannot control this without IR. Once you select a device, Roomie will provide a set of standardized options, including a visual of the associated remote. As you can see below, here is a TiVo mini setup. Once you save a device, you’ll be asked if you would like to create an activity. Here’s where things can get a bit confusing. Most activities require multiple devices. If for example, you setup a Watch TiVo activity, it will be missing your audio receiver and TV. I do think it still works best to create your activity and add those devices later in the process. So for now, I have an activity to Watch TiVo, but no audio visual receiver or TV in that activity.
I mentioned earlier how IR plays a big part in most universal remotes and that’s certainly the case with the Roomie. The iTach to IR gets connected to your home network. In my case, I wired it directly to a router. Within Roomie Remote, you add IR compatible devices by selecting the iTach. A visual will show you the ports on the iTach, which you will have either a blaster or IR emitters setup. If you are using the IP2IR, the blaster must use port 3.
You can then choose from specific categories ranging from Blu-Ray Player, Game, Media Player, Projector, Receiver, Set Top Box, Soundbar, Switch and TV. During my setup, some devices like TVs do not require you to specify a specific model. I didn’t change the automatic setup options initially. There is an option to set a Retransmit Count. If a device is not responding, setting this will send multiple commands. You can also choose Test Remote, a useful option to make sure it’s operating as intended.
In the sample setup I illustrated above, we setup an activity to Watch TiVo. Within a room, you can edit an activity in the same way you add a device. Tap the ‘Edit’ button at the top right and select the Activity, in this case ‘Watch TiVo’. You can add devices to be powered on when selecting this activity. We want the Onkyo to be powered on, so will select that device. To change the input on the Onkyo, select ‘Add Command’ and select the ‘Input’ command specific to your AVR. The Onkyo must be in range of the IR blaster or emitter coming from the iTach.
Customizing Your Remote
The true power of the Roomie Remote lies in the ability to customize to your heart’s content. I found support for my Vera Lite home automation, by adding it manually using a direct IP address. You can add a Vera scene to an activity. For example, Watch TiVo can trigger a Vera scene to set your lights to ‘Movie Night’. It also found my Logitech security cameras. Without affecting your current activity (watching TV), you can view your camera activity. The Vera Lite costs $179 and Logitech cams run about $200. These aren’t cheap devices, but you can build a system that some would charge thousands, all for a fraction of the cost. As I outlined in my Vera Lite review, start with one or two devices and build from there. I would caution you that home automation can be incredibly addictive and yes, it can get expensive.
Using Cat6 to IR
My Living Room television is wall mounted and connected to a receiver in my basement. The iTach IP2IR in my Roomie Remote setup lives in the basement, so it can communicate with the Mac mini, Apple TV, Onkyo receiver and eventually my PS3, XBox 360. The IR emitters can be extended using Cat6e. If you have a spare run, Cat5/6 can extend IR. I cut the IR cable in half and stripped the wires. There are two wires, one of which is very thin. Strip the Cat5 cable and wire two of the pairs together. I wired blue/blue&white, orange/orange&white. On each end, I connected the wires from each ends of the IR emitter. One end connects directly to the IP2IR input. The other attached just below the IR port on your TV. I was amazed at how well this worked. A more expensive option would have been to purchase a second iTach. Your Roomie Remote can access an unlimited number of iTachs.
Roomie As A Remote
When all your devices and activities are dialed in, the Roomie works similarly to the Harmony remotes, only better. Using it on an iPad mini, there is a distinct advantage to having added real estate and information. Using Roku as an example, the screen will show you the channels. On the Harmony, you’re confined to the tiny handheld screen. Having a Mac mini HTPC running Plex, the computer would go to sleep and become non-responsive to commands from the Harmony. I’d have to resort to using a mini Bluetooth keyboard, that was not very responsive. The workaround here with Roomie was to purchase yet another add-on. The Roomie Agent for iOS ($9.95) and Roomie Agent for Mac OS X allows you to send a command to ‘Move Mouse’ and ‘Wake on LAN’. These worked brilliantly once configured and the Plex remote was a pure joy to use compared to the Harmony. You can configure your remote to vibrate and/or make a sound when making a selection. Unfortunately, this does little to replace the tactile feel you normally associate with a remote. It can be a bit unwieldy to use either a tablet or phone to control your DVR.
- Insane levels of customization
- Reliable results when setup is properly configured
- Relatively inexpensive given feature set
- Offers flawless integration between home theater, security and home automation products tested (Vera, Logitech)
- Roomie Agent synchronizes changes to all of your iOS devices
- Can operate devices that are behind doors of entertaining console or in a gear closet
- Pricing, packs and required hardware can be confusing
- Nothing beats tactile peanut for DVR/TiVo watching
- Multiple component setup requires some trial and error to perfect
It’s taken me more than a few hours to configure Roomie Remote. All totaled, I’ve spent $141.80 for the intitial setup and $29.90 for the Roomie Agent options. For roughly $172, I can control every facet of my living room from home theater components to home security to home automation. It all works with incredible accuracy and the level of customization would allow for most system configurations. Early on, I posed the question as to whether Roomie Remote could unseat my current universal remote. I’m not certain that I’m ready to give up the tactile peanut remote when watching TiVo (DVR). The nature of watching TV requires FF/RW and I don’t need to look down when using that type of remote. Watching TV is only one of many activities and while a traditional remote might be better suited for that activity, the Roomie Remote excels in every other category. The Harmony still has a place on my couch, but will have to move over and make room for the Roomie Remote.
Roomie Remote starts at $9.95 and is available in the App Store.