Even if you only use your PDA to sync up to your workplace calendar or to store your address book, most PDAs are capable, with a little help, of helping you manage remote clutter and consolidate your home theater functions.

Thinking About a Universal Remote? Consider Usage Model, Costs, Range

Anne Price | UltraMote

Thinking About a Universal Remote?
Consider Usage Model, Costs, Range

by Anne Price, UltraMote

Even if you only use your PDA to sync up to your workplace calendar or to store your address book, most PDAs are capable, with a little help, of helping you manage remote clutter and consolidate your home theater functions.


Now that we have all this great home theater equipment, how can we manage the resulting remote clutter? Now matter how attractive the basket or container, using as many as eight or 10 remotes just doesn't make sense to watch the news or a movie.

Of course, various universal remote devices have been around for some time. Some of these combine the basic features, like power-on, into a simple and inexpensive remote. At the other end of the spectrum, very fancy devices costing up to a thousand dollars or so let you program infinitum your audio and video commands. Some of these are quite complex and require a short programming course.

Somewhere in the middle -- and increasingly near the cheaper end -- falls the industry's newest solution, universal remote capabilities for those nearly ubiquitous PDAs that many of us carry around. Even if you only use your PDA to sync up to your workplace calendar or to store your address book, most PDAs are capable, with a little help, of helping you manage remote clutter and consolidate your home theater functions. And if you have an older PDA that you have abandoned for a newer model, consider turning it into a universal remote.

The Palm platform has had various universal remote solutions for several years and that topic has been well-discussed. Today, we will take a look at considerations for using your Pocket PC for universal remote.

Pocket PC refers to the Microsoft operating system, similar to that used on PCs. PDAs based on this operating system typically run Windows-like applications and often can play audio and video and handle other multimedia chores.

To be effective as universal remotes, these Pocket PCs must contain an infrared (IR) capability. Virtually all of the Pocket PCs include this function, which originally was intended to enable wireless sync-up to the user's PC or to wirelessly communicate to other PDAs or printers.

If you currently own a Pocket PC, you can check the owner's manual or examine the unit to determine if there is an IR port. If you are considering a Pocket PC, you might consult a guide such as that published at http://www.ultramote.com/um/comparisonchart.pdf -- the strength of the IR capability differs greatly among Pocket PCs even within the same product family.

The IR strength will determine the range of your Pocket PC for a universal remote solution. You don't want to have to be standing a foot in front of your TV to turn it on. To get around this uneven IR strength issue, we have created an inexpensive add-in card for the Pocket PCs that have a CF card slot. Again, you can determine whether your device has such a slot by looking at the manual or making a physical inspection.

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You also will need some special software to help turn your Pocket PC device into a remote control device. This low-cost software typically programs your device to act like a remote, provides a user interface with buttons and other commands related to managing your equipment, and controls the commands. Look for software that has standard commands and buttons provided but allows you to customize if you wish. UltraMote's software, for example, lets users add their own background photos or other graphics but provides a large number of pre-sets.

You might consider also whether you want to use your PC during set-up. If you, like many, don't have your PC in the living room, you might look for software that doesn't require this extra step. Programming the software the first time while you are right in front of your home theater equipment probably is the most convenient for most of us. Later, if you want to make changes, you can again do it from your couch.

Some software includes look-up tables that correspond to your brands of equipment. This sounds convenient; but in our tests, it actually took longer to program because the tables list devices by brand with little or no detail - so it was tough to figure out which of the many "Sony" models we had. Some programs allow you to "beam" your device's current factory-provided remote to the Pocket PC and "learn" commands. Once you do this set-up, then you are ready to set up a series of commands that you can customize.

If you have lighting or other devices with infrared capability, you also can program them with the Pocket PC or include them in a series of commands, such as "watch DVD." You could program the lights to dim, the TV to come on, the audio equipment to come on then the DVD player to come on. Now, the only thing missing is popcorn!


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