Review: Gear4 UnityRemote Universal Remote for iPhone, iPod touch or iPad
On the surface, there aren't many differences between Gear4's new UnityRemote ($100) and Peel Technologies' Peel Universal Control, which we reviewed earlier this month and liked. Both products turn iOS devices into app-assisted universal remote controls for TVs, DVRs, Apple TVs, DVD players, and virtually anything else with an Infrared sensor. They also carry the same price -- two or three times more than the cheapest universal remote control accessories we've tested for iOS devices -- and work in roughly the same way, giving you a wireless, battery-powered Infrared blaster to place in front of your home entertainment center. But Gear4's implementation is somewhat more elegant on the hardware side, and better executed on the app side as well, leaving only a handful of issues to stand in the way of UnityRemote's potential for market domination.
Unlike Peel, which relies upon both a lightbulb-shaped Infrared blaster and a wall-powered, home router-tethered Wi-Fi adapter, Gear4’s system uses only a simple but attractively designed Bluetooth-powered Infrared blaster to communicate with your home entertainment system. With a 2.5” diameter, the glossy black UnityRemote accessory looks like a stack of three makeup powder compacts with a chrome ring at the bottom, hiding 360-degree Infrared emitters and a Bluetooth wireless chipset inside. A multifunction power and pairing button is on the back, alongside a Micro USB port that permits firmware upgrades, assuming that you self-supply the necessary cable. Most of UnityRemote’s physical volume is attributable to a compartment that holds three included AA batteries, accessible by turning the rubber-padded bottom at the chrome ring junction to open the shell.
It’s worth noting that, like Peel, Gear4 doesn’t specify the longevity of these batteries on its web site. But UnityRemote makes up for this omission by offering an impressive collection of different hardware and software power management tricks that attempt to work around the accessory’s potential for battery drain. By default, the unit switches itself off after two hours without Bluetooth connectivity and has certain lengths of time specified for pairing attempts, connection, and reconnection attempts. Novel is a special settings menu with “aggressive (best performance),” “neutral (compromise),” “relaxed (longest battery life)” and granular custom settings to let you take full control over battery consumption, down to the separate numbers of seconds the blaster will use for various dimensions of its reconnection attempts with your iOS device. That Gear4 includes these controls at all—along with a wise warning not to modify the settings unless its technical support team suggests as much—is incredible. And thankfully, it’s not mandatory; you needn’t play with this screen unless you really want to squeeze the last ounces of juice from your batteries. As with Peel, a battery life indicator is built into the app rather than the device itself.
All of these nice power conservation settings are offset somewhat by a couple of limitations that may or may not matter to you, and in any case have obviously been thought around by Gear4. First, unlike Peel, which conceivably can work from virtually any distance away as long as your iOS device is on Wi-Fi, UnityRemote is limited to the standard 33-foot distance of Bluetooth—basically, you can control your devices wirelessly from within the same room, not much further. TV users probably won’t care about this; speaker users may. Second, because UnityRemote uses Bluetooth rather than Wi-Fi, it’s limited to making a single connection with one iOS device at a time. But you can pair up to eight iOS devices with UnityRemote and switch between them, if somewhat clumsily, by toggling their Bluetooth hardware on and off. To facilitate multi-iOS device installations of the app, Gear4 even lets you transfer all of your saved remote control settings from one device to another using a sharing feature. It’s little but non-trivial features like these that demonstrate Gear4’s understanding of the product’s relative advantages and disadvantages, providing strong evidence of how it worked to maximize the former and reduce the latter as much as possible.
UnityRemote’s execution on the big features is equally impressive. The application is universal for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, using separate but similar interfaces for 3.5” and 9.7” screens—something Peel still doesn’t offer. Gear4’s UI for the iPad differs primarily in offering simultaneous access to a device toggling menu and an oversized version of the same button keypad found on the smaller iPod and iPhone screens. In portrait orientation, the device toggles are at the bottom of the screen; in landscape, they’re off to the left.
Once you manually pair the UnityRemote hardware with your iOS device through the General > Bluetooth menu—the sole non-intuitive step of the entire process, though again anticipated by and guided through by the app—you’re led through the Setup Assistant in a process that requires relatively few additional decisions, yet produces surprisingly excellent results. We had literally zero problems setting UnityRemote up to control separate televisions and different attached devices using an iPhone or iPad. Gear4’s database of devices found everything we had, presenting options in a simple alphabetical list of manufacturers before drilling down to product types, and automatically managed setup using quick tests that less expensive rivals could stand to learn from. We actually found it easier to set up and start using UnityRemote than any Harmony remote control we’ve tested; there’s just less trial and error needed here.
After your devices are set up, the UnityRemote app offers a few other neat tricks. A “Unity” feature lets you create either templated or custom multi-step actions to make your devices work with one another. Templated actions are streamlined for rapid setup, while custom actions give you manual control over everything from the names to the representative icons and the devices, steps, and delays that will be used in sequence. On Harmony’s remotes, you create actions by connecting the remote to your computer, going through a bunch of screens, uploading the commands to the remote, then testing them to be sure they work. Here, it’s all handled intelligently on the device with straightforward, clear English questions. Additionally, Gear4 includes an alternative gesture control system if you prefer swipes to buttons for volume and channel changing, with custom gesture controls if you prefer, plus multiple pages of similarly reconfigurable buttons. You can also customize the remote with different background art—including self-supplied photos—and toggle on or off vibrations or sounds for button presses.
Not surprisingly, there are a few caveats in UnityRemote that are worth noting. Because of the device’s power management settings—and its need to keep the battery from dying prematurely—you may well find yourself occasionally re-initiating the Bluetooth connection manually between the accessory and your iOS device by tapping the multifunction button on its back, an annoyance. Unlike Dock Connector- or headphone port-based Infrared adapters, you need to take into account both the accessory’s battery drain and the hit from using Bluetooth, as well.
As with Peel, positioning the Infrared blaster does require that the accessory sit somewhere in front of your entertainment center at a modest distance away so that it can beam signals to all of the devices you wish to control. And unlike some rivals, which are designed to be as portable as your iOS device, UnityRemote is made to stay in one room, so the software doesn’t support multi-room device controls. Finally, the issue of price is worth considering. With options such as Apptwee’s Ri Universal Remote Control selling for as little as $30, UnityRemote is far from the cheapest option out there. It’s somewhat surprising that Gear4’s price is as high as Peel’s given that the latter’s package includes Wi-Fi hardware, cable, and wall adapter components not found here.
Taking the system’s overall performance into consideration, however, UnityRemote is a very good option for people who want an iOS device-powered universal remote control and are willing to pay a premium for hardware and software elegance. Though it isn’t perfect across the board, no previously released competitor has done better either on a relative or absolute basis, and Gear4 deserves special praise for the exceptionally thoughtful ways that it has worked around issues that rivals have stumbled on. The app is easier, more attractive, and more readily user-customizable than most of Harmony’s remotes—no small feat—and the accessory combines a sleek design with respectable wireless hardware and battery compromises. Like all of its predecessors, UnityRemote could and probably will improve over time and with successive iterations; the difference here is that Gear4 now has the shortest distance to go to perfection, and if the price falls or significant Bluetooth improvements are made, it could easily own the iOS universal remote control market.