One of the first technology products I tested for my job here at the Journal was a universal remote. It was a giant eyesore and its dense instruction book had about as many pages as the remote had buttons. It controlled most anything from lights to automatic shades to entertainment systems.
My, how times have changed. This week, almost exactly eight years later, I tested two different infrared sensors that plug into your iPhone or iPod touch and turn it into a universal remote that controls a myriad of devices. The setup for these took just a few minutes and was so intuitive I didn’t need to consult any directions.
I tried the $50 L5 Remote (www.L5remote.com) from L5 Technology and the $80 FLPR (www.newpotatotech.com) from New Potato Technologies; both work with hundreds of thousands of electronic devices. I plugged each of these infrared sensors into the dock connector of an iPhone 4 and downloaded free apps to remotely control two TVs, including an old Sony in my office as well as a TiVo Series 2. Other devices can also be controlled, like MP3 docks, speakers or DVD players.
The FLPR costs more but automatically creates a customized remote control screen with pre-coded buttons for each of your devices; you simply enter the device type and brand. The L5 Remote requires manually training each button to match the function of a button on the physical remote.
The L5 Remote
The new devices offer an obvious convenience: An iPhone or iPod touch that doubles as a universal remote means you’ll often have it with you. But that could be a problem if you want the remote and someone else has left home with the iPhone or iPod touch. And if someone wants to use one of your remotely-controlled electronics while you’re on the phone, you’ll have to interrupt your conversation to switch between apps (on the new iOS 4 operating system).
These infrared dongles are tiny and could easily be misplaced, yet aren’t small enough to keep on your iPhone or iPod touch all day.
Another problem is that the touch screens on the iPhone and iPod touch don’t give tactile feedback like remote controls with physical buttons, forcing you to look down while pressing buttons.
To get started with the L5 and FLPR, I plugged each into an iPhone 4 and a shortcut message appeared, sending me to a screen for installing each gadget’s free app. Since the infrared remote plugs into the bottom of the iPhone, each app’s screen automatically flipped upside down, forcing me to also flip the iPhone and point it at my devices.
The FLPR’s simple setup made it a breeze to use, and each electronic device’s coded buttons appeared on the screen seconds after I selected the type of device and brand name. I chose icons to represent each device, like a TiVo-looking icon for my TiVo remote. FLPR used fun backgrounds (called skins) for each remote, including tie-dyed designs.
Though the L5 Remote is a bit more tedious to set up because each button must be manually assigned, the app does a great job of showing you what’s happening on the screen, using green progress bars to display when each button is assigned a task.
Both companies’ products will work with—but aren’t optimized for—the iPad. I successfully tried the L5 Remote’s iPhone app with my iPad and it worked without a hitch. An L5 representative said an iPad app is due out by the end of the year. FLPR says it will release its iPad app in August.
If you don’t share a remote control with many other people and want a simple way to control your electronics on a gadget you already carry all the time, FLPR will be your best bet. But the infrared pieces needed to work both the FLPR and L5 Remote are a pain to take on and off.
Edited by Walter S. Mossberg
Write to Katherine Boehret at firstname.lastname@example.org