Take My Remote, Please

3d1Today’s blog post is an excerpt from my new ebook Home Theater for the Internet Age. I used an amazingly sophisticated logic to select this chapter: It’s the shortest in the book.

Remote controls have always confounded consumers. Personally, I can’t wait to have wi-fi-connected remotes floating around my house. Hopefully the next generation of Apple TV, the particular streaming media box I have in my home theaters, will take a hint from Roku and jump on the wi-fi remote bandwagon. Cause IR sucks; it’s so 20th century. Even better: Just let me control everything in my home with my smartphone and tablet.

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Curt Robbins

From Chapter 13: Remote Control

Remote Control

Consumers have always misunderstood and hated remote controls for their home electronics. As a culture, we seem to exhibit a collective disdain for these small communications devices, cursing them because their batteries are dead, the blast doesn’t reach the receiving device, they lack backlighting (of course I watch my movies in the dark, you corporate dolts), or they’re just too difficult to configure and operate. Ask any consumer: Remotes, as bundled with components, are a necessary evil that suck. So what can be done to alleviate our collective misery?

There have been some major improvements in this space during the past few years. First, programmable and universal remotes (those that can control multiple components in your home theater) have become more powerful and user friendly. Second, slick dedicated remotes for products like Apple TV and Roku streaming boxes have illustrated that the application of minimalistic, intuitive industrial design and powerful, leading-edge technology can make remotes something that you actually enjoy using. Third, special apps that you install on your mobile devices have become available that allow you to use your handy smartphone or tablet to control hardware components and media streaming services.

IR vs. Wi-fi

Most remote controls communicate with their devices using an infrared (IR) beam of light. But IR requires a direct line-of-sight, making the use of devices that incorporate it a pain. This is especially so in room environments where you’re trying to control home theater components that reside behind you or are obstructed by a cabinet or closet door. Newer remotes are beginning to drop IR in favor of a radio frequency like wi-fi, which is finally common enough in homes to serve this role. Likewise, remotes are also adopting Bluetooth, although this reduces their effective range to 15-30 feet (fine for most environments, but obviously not larger rooms). With wi-fi, the only limitation is that the controlling device is on the same wi-fi network, not that it’s within a particular radius or eye shot.

roku 3The Roku 3 streaming video box proves the advantages of wi-fi over old school IR. While most remotes are relatively cheap items bundled with home theater components, small improvements like the adoption of wi-fi connectivity have a real impact on increasing convenience for consumers. In a few years, the bones of IR blasting remote controls will reside in the dinosaur graveyard, with manufacturers leveraging ubiquitous wi-fi and Bluetooth technologies to avoid line-of-sight requirements and offer other enhancements.

Of course, the topic of component-supplied remote controls is made moot when consumers use existing wi-fi-based mobile devices to control their home theater components. Chromecast, an ever-growing collection of Miracast-enabled devices, and Apple’s AirPlay give you full functionality from the device that’s already in your hand or on your coffee table: Your smartphone or tablet.

Mobile Devices

As echoed throughout this book, one of the best features of modern home theater is that you can leverage your existing mobile devices to control your components and the entertainment that flows through them. Not taking advantage of this capability relegates you to the torture of bundled remotes with their confusing interfaces, crappy IR, and lack of ergonomics. Another option is a universal remote, but we’ll get to that later.

Streaming Media Devices

apple tv for blogStreaming media devices like Chromecast, Roku, and Apple TV are designed to work hand-in-hand with your mobile devices, allowing you to utilize apps that support them. For video, this includes apps for services like Crackle, Google Play Movies and TV, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube. For music services, this covers the apps from Pandora, Google Play Music, iTunes and iTunes Radio, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Songza. Services with new or updated apps that support one of these media devices are announced nearly every week.

Another role for your mobile device as a remote control is with Apple AirPlay, whether it’s bundled into your receiver or comes to your home theater via Apple TV. However, AirPlay works only with apps that support it. Plus, some older Apple gadgets aren’t fully supported.

AV Receiver Control Apps

Several companies that produce home theater components offer free remote control apps for both Android and iOS mobile platforms. Use of these apps gives your mobile devices a whole new life as an integral part of your home theater. Such companies include Anthem, Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer (and Pioneer Elite), Sony, and Yamaha. Using your existing smartphone or tablet to control your home theater components gives you a superior interface, an easy-to-read backlit touch screen, and more ready access. The only caveat is that most home theater components with support for such apps require some form of network connectivity—such as wi-fi, Ethernet (see my blog post The Case for Home Theater Ethernet), or bluetooth.

[See also Home Theater Basics.]

Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

How Nest Dropped the Ball

unnamedI love my slick Apple-esque Nest thermostat. Equipped with wi-fi and software brains that allow it to be controlled from anywhere in the world using nearly any device, it’s an element of my home that never fails to put a smile on my face. Consider this: The Nest, by automating your heating and cooling, can save you its initial cost every year or so. That’s right. The $250 Nest pays for itself in roughly one to two years, depending on the size and nature of your home and your A/C habits. It then keeps racking up the savings, all while giving you a beautifully sculpted aluminum and glass, cloud controlled, um, thermostat that looks great hanging on your wall.

Thus, it caught my attention when, in October 2013, Nest introduced a connected smoke alarm, the Protect. Having already had a second generation Nest thermostat for several months, I was excited about the prospect of filling my house with intelligent, networked smoke detectors. Especially when one of the notification alarms could be my smartphone or tablet. Of course, all technolust aside, these are critical devices within our homes that protect our loved ones, pets, and possessions from disaster. In fact, according to the National Fire Protection Association, nearly two-thirds of the deaths resulting from home fires are directly connected to non-functioning smoke alarms. Wow. That’s a sobering stat.

Unfortunately, the Protect has suffered from some basic functional shortcomings and marketing flaws. One of these has been partially fixed, the other hasn’t.

First, the Protect was too expensive at its introductory price of $130. This was mainly because most homes require multiple smoke alarms to properly protect them, especially two-story houses. To replace all four of my smoke detectors with the Protect would have cost me $520. Hey now! Half a grand is a damn bit more than $130. For most families, this becomes cost prohibitive—especially considering that the Protect doesn’t pay for itself in saved energy costs like the Nest thermostat. Add to this the fact that your current smoke detectors, if properly maintained, are getting the job done and achieving the same basic goal of protecting you and your family. It becomes easy to understand why many consumers—even those who purchased one or more Nest thermostats—declined the opportunity to put a collection of Nest Protect smoke alarms in their home. I was one of them.

nest protectIn the spring of 2014, after some software glitches that potentially affected safety were discovered in the Protect by Nest, it was briefly (and voluntarily) pulled from the market and tweaked. When reintroduced two month later, it was priced at a more reasonable $100. However, it would still cost the average family $400 to replace four smoke alarms with Protects. This is arguably too expensive. It’s as if Protect should have both an individual price intended for small apartments and living quarters requiring only a single unit (obviously the highest) and also two-pack, three-pack, and four-pack prices, where the cost per unit goes down considerably. I doubt many consumers would spend more than $150 or $200 to replace all of their existing smoke detectors with Protect models (and even that would be a hard sell for many homeowners).

Now let’s explore the Protect’s functional shortcoming. Chiefly, this is the fact that, although the Nest thermostat and the Protect do talk to one another (and both talk to the cloud), the Protect lacks a thermometer. One would reasonably expect such simple functionality in a device at this price point (even given the reintroduction discount). The collective frustration of consumers and OCD-prone efficiency geeks is only compounded by the fact that the Protect and Nest thermostat are designed and manufactured by the same company (a typically leading edge and intelligent company, at that).

Nest has found many of its most evangelic customers among tree hugging tech geeks who have acted as early adopters and helped spread the gospel among friends, coworkers, and Twitter followers. Frustrating this important group by neglecting something as simple as a temperature sensor—especially when your only other product is a freaking thermostat—might seem trivial, but it’s a misstep of grand proportions. By lacking a hygrometer (humidity detection) and thermometer, the Protect seems incomplete. What made the original Nest thermostat an almost overnight success was the fact that it was simple and damn near perfect. A follow up of Protect’s sub-par functionality is akin to Jaws 2 or The Matrix Reloaded (i.e. not nearly as good as the original).

Nest missed the opportunity to provide its thermostat, via data received from its smoke detector, with a more intelligent and accurate average temperature for your home (especially considering that a large percentage of Protect owners would also own the Nest thermostat). Because I have smoke detectors on three levels (basement, first floor, and upstairs), I would love my Nest thermostat to be getting temperature and humidity readings from around my house. Versus its current Neanderthal method: The happenstance location of the Nest itself. The larger and more nuanced the layout of the home, the less accurate this single point of detection becomes. The unit’s dashboard controls, available via the mobile app or website, could easily allow owners to disable the temperature readings from a particular Protect unit, such as one in an attic or basement. This would appease owners who, logically, might not want a particular Protect unit to influence the household average and possibly increase heating or cooling costs. Then again, the units could probably determine this on their own via their motion detectors.

Nest schedule screenYes, I know, Nest (like Honeywell and other competitors) must deal with probably thousands of government regulations and perform hundreds of hours of compliance testing and possible redesigns. This makes getting a product to market with the feature set desired by both Nest and its customers, at a price that makes everyone smile, about as challenging as you might imagine.

In its defense (and like many less intelligent, old school competing devices), the Protect is also a carbon monoxide detector. Slick, leading-edge features include voice and gesture controls. Personally, I love the classy touch of using the color-changing status ring LED on the device to illuminate the path below, acting as a ceiling-mounted nightlight. Because it has a motion sensor, it can dim or shut off the light when nobody is around, saving energy or preserving batteries. Then, when someone appears near it, it will magically pop to life, it’s motion sensor leading the way.

Nest, acquired in the winter of 2014 by Google for $3.2 billion, I’m sure will continue to design and sell cool internet-connected, cloud-manageable sensing and control devices that replace older, typically analog gadgets in our homes. Despite the name of this blog entry, I’m a big fan of Nest and Tony Fadell, it’s fearless leader and ex-Apple executive (responsible for the iPod when at Apple; you can see the circular design theme reiterated in the shape of the Nest thermostat).

The Nest and its future generations I’m sure will be attractive enough to sway the dollars out of my pocket. But until the Protect assumes massive discounts for three or four-packs (or some other way of making filling a middle class suburban home more affordable) and adds basic sensing capabilities like a thermometer, I personally won’t be interested. For $400, you can purchase some nice home theater equipment or a killer latest-generation game console.

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Curt Robbins

Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.