Apple’s iPod Touch Can Act as Remote For Music System

One of the first things I did eight years ago after converting my CD collection to MP3 files on my personal computer was to snake a cable from the PC to my stereo system in another room. The setup gave me the pleasure of piping music throughout my home.

But every time I wanted to change songs, I had to go to another room and make a few mouse clicks on my computer. Ever since then, I’ve been waiting for someone to come up with a good, affordable remote control that lets me change tunes no matter where I am in the house.

Apple’s Remote program

It turns out, I already owned that device. It’s an iPod touch. A new program released by Apple (AAPL) in July was all it took to convert my MP3 player into a sophisticated remote control for my digital-music collection. That program, called simply Remote, runs on the iPhone as well as on the iPod touch, a version of the Apple MP3 player that has an iPhone-like touch-sensing screen and Internet-access capabilities using Wi-Fi wireless technology. Remote is available free of charge on the online App Store that Apple has used since July to distribute software for those devices.

In essence, Remote is a remote control for all music stored on a Mac or Windows PC that’s loaded into iTunes, Apple’s music jukebox software. It allows you to jump between playlists, browse artists and pump up the volume. For the program to work, you need to buy into using other Apple entertainment products.

In the simplest setup, Remote lets you control the music from stereo speakers connected directly to a PC. But it’s most useful when you use a PC to deliver audio to additional speakers around a home — say, a pair on the patio and in the living room.

Apple sells a couple of products that receive audio signals from a PC running iTunes. Both work wirelessly over a Wi-Fi home network so you don’t need to put holes into your walls to run computer and speaker wires. I tested Remote using both. One is an Apple TV, a $229 set-top box in my living room that plays digital audio and video through a standard home-theater system. The other is an AirPort Express, a $99 Apple wireless networking device on my patio connected to a pair of powered A5 speakers made by Audioengine, of San Jose, Calif. A third set of speakers was connected to an iMac in the kitchen, where I store all of my digital music. (The least expensive iPod touch costs $299.)

It was a breeze to configure the Apple TV and AirPort Express to show up as remote speakers in iTunes on my computer. Setting up Remote to give me mobile control over this array of speakers was trickier. After installing the program on my iPod touch, I couldn’t get it to work with iTunes on my PC. After 20 minutes of fiddling with the security settings for my Wi-Fi base station, iTunes finally recognized Remote. I was in business.

We all know how confusing the remote controls for TV sets and stereo systems can be. Remote, by contrast, cleanly displays all the music on my PC on the color screen of my iPod touch.

The program let me flip through artists, albums and playlists with simple finger swipes. But I was sorry that Remote doesn’t have a feature in the iPod touch called cover flow that lets users browse their music libraries by flipping through album-cover art. Apple says it may offer the feature in the future.

The software also let me easily turn on and off the music from my speakers in my kitchen, living room and patio. I could have all the speakers on at once — good for a party. The sound was terrific. The crisp-sounding $349 Audioengine speakers don’t require a stereo receiver.

Because Remote uses Wi-Fi to communicate with iTunes, I could control music anywhere around my house and backyard, which are small enough to be fully covered with a signal from my Wi-Fi base station. That’s a big plus over conventional remote controls that use infrared, a technology that doesn’t work through walls.

One drawback: The battery in my iPod touch drained overnight when I configured the device to stay connected to iTunes, a feature that increases software responsiveness. Changing the setting let me go days without recharging my iPod touch, but it meant I had to wait a couple of seconds for Remote to connect to iTunes when I started up the software — an acceptable trade-off.

Another multiroom audio product with a good remote control is the ZonePlayer from Sonos, an equipment maker based in Santa Barbara, Calif. That system has some advantages over Apple’s offerings, including the ability to access tunes from online music services, such as Pandora and Rhapsody, and separate volume controls for each set of speakers.

The Sonos system starts at $999 for a remote control and wireless receivers, without speakers, that can deliver music to two rooms.

For people who already own an iPod touch or iPhone, Remote is a good reason to buy an AirPort Express, and fill your home with music.

Walter S. Mossberg is on vacation.

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