Watching television in the digital home today too often becomes a process of juggling multiple remote controls, trying to remember which “input” on the TV matches which set-top box you use, and peering at a long listing of channels that resembles a spreadsheet.
There are universal remotes, some with built-in touch screens, like Logitech’s successful Harmony line, but these can get costly and complicated. And there are various apps that turn your iPhone into a universal remote, but they require plugging into the phone small hardware modules that are easy to lose.
This week, I’ve been testing a different approach to solving the complex TV-remote problem. Like some competitors, the Peel universal control uses a device you may already own—an iPhone or iPod Touch (even older models). But it doesn’t require plugging any hardware into the device, or cables into the TV.
Instead of lists of channels, it presents you with pictures and summaries of the shows that are on, grouped by genre. You don’t have to know what channel they’re on—you just click “Watch on TV” and it takes you to the show. While it can control various devices—like DVD players or Apple TVs—it doesn’t require you to recall which input each is on. It switches TV inputs automatically and presents an appropriate virtual remote for each device, controlled by touch and gesture on your iPhone’s or iPod Touch’s screen.
The Peel universal control is from a small Silicon Valley company of the same name. It consists of a free app, plus a small, $100 battery-powered wireless hardware transmitter that’s vaguely shaped like a pear and called a “fruit.” It is meant to sit on a coffee table or bookshelf within sight of your TV. When you send commands from the app on your iPhone or Touch, this transmitter relays those commands to the TV or set-top boxes.
The app itself has been available for months, mainly as a resource for finding out what’s on TV. It allows you to customize genres and channels you care about, and gradually learns your preferences so it can present the best choices. It even lets you share what you’re watching on Facebook and Twitter. The hardware that allows it to actually control your TV goes on sale at Apple stores March 8.
In my tests, I found the Peel worked as advertised with our Pioneer TV, our TiVo digital recorder (which we use instead of a standard cable box), our Samsung DVD player, and our Apple TV. I tested it on an iPod Touch the company lent me.
But the Peel isn’t perfect. For instance, positioning the transmitter gadget, and a special Wi-Fi accessory that must be plugged into your home router, took some trial and error and might not work well in all homes. The app currently lacks a mute button if you use a DVR, though the company is planning on adding one by the March 8 launch date. It can’t use the iPhone’s keyboard to spare you from hunt-and-peck entering of words in the search screens of a TiVo or Apple TV. And if you switch apps on the iPhone or iPod Touch, and then return to Peel, the app doesn’t resume where you left off.
A small, $100 battery-powered transmitter (upper left) vaguely shaped like a pear relays commands from the app on an iPhone or iPod Touch to the TV. It is meant to sit within sight of the TV. Instead of lists of channels, the Peel app presents you with pictures and summaries of the shows that are on, grouped by genre. It also allows you to customize genres and channels you care about, such as on the iPhone, at right.
Also, like all systems that try to turn smartphones into TV remotes, the Peel suffers from two problems. First, if somebody removes the iPhone or iPod Touch from the house to use it for other things, you’ve lost your remote. Second, unlike most regular remotes, smartphones go to sleep and need to be recharged fairly often, which means they aren’t constantly available as a remote.
In addition to working on iPhones, Peel works on iPads, although an enhanced iPad version won’t be ready until June. The company also plans an Android version this spring.
I found it easy to locate shows using the big, descriptive icons the app provides. Peel even suggested some shows that weren’t visible on my normal cable grid because I had eliminated from the grid many networks we rarely watch.
Actually controlling the TV, cable box, and other devices was pretty easy after a bit of practice using the Peel’s “Gesture screen.” This consists of a set of touch controls for each device, split into two panes: one for navigation and one for common playback functions like adjusting volume, or, on DVRs, rewinding and fast-forwarding. You can do the latter by swiping anywhere on the screen either vertically or horizontally. Tapping the screen pauses the show on a DVR.
For some functions, like controlling the built-in menus on a cable box or Apple TV, you just swipe on the Peel’s screen to move from item to item on the TV screen and press an OK button to select things. It takes a while to get the hang of how much of a swipe will move from item to item on a TV menu.
Setup, often the bane of such gadgets, was fairly easy on the Peel. The trickiest part is plugging that Wi-Fi accessory into your home Internet router. If the router is too far from the room with the TV, it won’t work. The company recommends a distance of 25 feet, though it says it can work at up to 50 feet.
I found I had to move the fruit transmitter around a bit to get it work, as it must be closer to the TV and within line of sight. The company says it will work at up to 15 feet from the TV, but I could only get it to do so up to about 12 feet and, even at 6 feet, I had to move it a couple of times at first to get it to work right.
Overall, Peel is a very nicely designed product that can work well for people with too many remotes who own an iPhone or iPod Touch. But it isn’t a silver bullet for solving TV complexity.