Review: Griffin Beacon Universal Remote Control
It was obvious that Griffin Technology had the right idea for a universal remote control accessory when it announced Beacon ($80) at CES in January: it was a pain to carry around or need to attach and detach earlier Dock Connector-based Infrared add-ons, so Griffin created a Bluetooth-based standalone alternative using software from a developer named Dijit. With Beacon, you could place a battery-powered Infrared blaster on a table in front of your home entertainment center, then just load an iOS app whenever you wanted to control your TV. There would be no need to fuss with buttons on the unit -- all it would require is a change of batteries every two months or so. Beacon was promised for May and arrived in stores only a little late, debuting in mid-June.
As it turns out, the world of universal remote accessories has changed a little since Beacon was announced. Two months ago, we reviewed two similar standalone Infrared blaster alternatives, Peel Technologies’ Peel Universal Control (iLounge Rating: B), and Gear4’s UnityRemote (iLounge Rating: B+), both of which operate in the same general way as Beacon. Peel uses a pear-shaped blaster with a single C battery, a wall-powered Wi-Fi adapter, and an app that combines TV listings with remote functionality. UnityRemote has a tube-shaped blaster with three AA batteries, a Bluetooth wireless chip, and a streamlined remote app. Both sell for $100 to Griffin’s $80; of the three, only UnityRemote includes native iPad support.
Where Beacon winds up fitting into the picture is as a more affordable compromise between the other options. All you’ll find in the package is the Infrared blaster, a glossy and matte black plastic unit that resembles a large stone atop a platform, and a set of four AA batteries designed to power the unit for two months. You pop the batteries into a compartment on its bottom, press down on the Beacon’s stone to activate a tiny blue pairing light, and pair it with your iOS device—very simple, without the need for a pairing code. Immediately after pairing, you’ll be prompted to download the free Dijit app from the App Store, which takes only a minute to install. You point the Beacon such that the bottom of the Griffin logo is facing your home entertainment center, then run the app.
Dijit’s app is one of the nicer-looking iPhone and iPod touch remote apps we’ve tested, with features that are very similar to Peel’s. It uses your zip code and TV provider to create a searchable program guide, providing art and descriptions for shows that have been organized by dates, times, and channels. Guides are promised for “every cable, satellite and over-the-air system in the U.S. and Canada,” and our local tested guide was very complete, though limited to data for two past days, the current day, and five days in the future. Click on any show and you can go straight to the channel it’s playing on. A super-fast number scrolling bar on the right of the screen lets you zip through the listings with lightning speed, most likely enabling you to find everything from network programming to explicit videos available to cable and pay-per-view subscribers—turned on by default, the adult content is going to shock some parents, and can be filtered out with a Channel Filter. You can save shows you like, and access detailed listings for movies and shows on your Netflix Instant Queue, albeit without any tie-in or benefit for Apple TV users.
The alternate way of controlling your entertainment center is with traditional or customized virtual remotes. Dijit does a pretty good job of leading you through the setup process for your TV, cable box, and optionally a receiver, but leaves you to add additional devices—Apple TVs, DVD players, and so on—on your own. Each device’s setup can be handled through “wizard” (does this button work with your device?) or “list” (try remotes 1 through X, or create a custom remote) modes, either of which has a very high probability of finding an existing, working remote solution within minutes. You can set up multiple rooms, and there’s also limited Facebook integration for sharing what you’re watching, albeit with Dijit-required permission settings that we found too intrusive to grant.
If you have to customize a remote, or set up activities that are designed to manage more than one device at a time, there’s greater potential for problems. We went through what should have been a very straightforward task of setting up custom activities to handle simultaneous use of a television set and the Apple TV, and found ourselves having to assemble and teach the remote new buttons—solely because the app didn’t offer a template based on the “Apple Media Player” buttons it already knew. Somehow, the button learning process kept getting screwed up, too, as the app continuously circled through all of the buttons it was learning, and seemed to forget one button during every cycle. We wound up going back to the device-specific remotes, which more or less worked properly for basic features without any playing around. UnityRemote does a much better job of unifying multiple remotes.
From a hardware standpoint, Beacon does pretty much what it’s supposed to do, and looks really nice doing it. The unit’s stone-on-platform design is more aesthetically appealing and stable on a table than the Peel Fruit, and though it’s larger than the UnityRemote and demands an extra AA battery, it’s a little more neutral looking thanks to its lack of chrome. But Gear4 was a little more aggressive inside, creating a 360-degree circular blaster, including a micro USB port for firmware updates, and offering more granular controls over power consumption. By contrast, Beacon handles its own power consumption respectably, switching into a sleep mode after 60 minutes of inactivity, and needs to be correctly pointed in order to control nearby devices. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious way to update Beacon’s firmware—yet—but perhaps there won’t be a need to do so.
Dijit’s app is also a little off relative to Gear4’s. The lack of true iPad support is seriously surprising, given that the unit features “Made for iPad” badging and a picture of an iPad running the app on its package—one of the first upscaled “2X” images we’ve seen on a box. UnityRemote’s hand-holding is superior through remote setup and unified custom actions, and unlike Dijit, its software seems to be aware that there’s a device called the Apple TV that iOS users might want to control at the same time as the rest of their entertainment center. Given the nature of this software and the partnership with Griffin, it’s surprising that the Dijit app couldn’t have proper iPad (or Apple TV) support in time for Beacon’s release.
While the Beacon and Dijit software combination isn’t the perfect iOS universal remote control solution, Griffin’s $80 price tag and generally well-designed accessory are good enough to merit our strong general recommendation, regardless. Every one of the universal remote control accessories we’ve tested is a bundle of compromises, and none yet has the perfect combination of ideally streamlined software and ultra power-efficient hardware that would completely eliminate the need for standalone universal remotes. That said, Griffin’s solution comes nearly as close to the ideal as Gear4 did with UnityRemote, while significantly undercutting it on price; you can buy Beacon for the same price as a much less convenient Dock Connector-based accessory. Assuming that Dijit takes the appropriate and obvious next steps in evolving its software, and Griffin eventually expands Beacon’s distribution into stores that will discount the hardware, this could become the universal remote of record for iOS devices. Until and unless that happens, Gear4 and Griffin both offer options with distinctive advantages, and the choice of which is best for you will depend on your needs, iOS device, and budget.