Your Smartphone Can Be Your Universal Remote Control
Turn on lights, lock doors, open garages and much more in the palm of your hand
People have all kinds of reasons to dislike remote controls: They find all of those little buttons too complicated. They can’t figure out which remote cluttering their coffee table controls the television, stereo, cable box, Blu-ray player or some other electronics.
But the best universal remote controls don’t come cheap. Any remote also seems to run out of battery power at what seems like the most inopportune times, like just before you’re about to switch the channel to the big game or the cliffhanger reveal of a favorite series. Sometimes remotes go missing under a couch cushion or reappear in another room.
One device you probably keep in your pocket or purse can substitute for your physical remote control, though apps on your iPhone or Android handset may not address all of your frustrations. You might even repurpose a retired smartphone for the job.
But a smartphone turned remote control is potentially so much more than a channel clicker. Beyond news and entertainment, the phone remote is a bridge to the internet-connected smart home, either through its built-in capabilities or when you download third-party apps.
By tapping the phone or summoning such voice assistants as Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant or even Samsung’s Bixby, you can remotely turn on lights, lower the blinds, open garage doors, change the thermostat's temperature and control a gaggle of compatible products and appliances.
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One phone, but likely numerous apps
Most older adults' experience with a remote control started with a television. In the past several years, TVs have gone “smart,” which really means they’re connected to the internet and a variety of streaming channels and apps from HBO Max to Netflix. If your TV doesn’t already have such apps, you can easily add them through Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Roku and other set-top boxes and streaming accessories that plug into your television.
Such products typically come with remote controls. But they also have dedicated apps that can work with these devices. And for better or worse, your smartphone is usually nearby.
Phillip Swann, editor and publisher of the TV Answer Man! website, says he has received questions from older adults “who have lost their Roku remotes and are clueless what to do. I usually refer them to the Roku app. [It] enables you to search for channels, connect headphones, turn up the volume, pause and do everything else that the physical remote does. And best of all, it’s free.”
Numerous other TV apps are available in both the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, some free and ad-supported, plus others that carry a fee. Some cater to a particular brand or set of devices, while others promise to work across brands.
Google recently launched a new remote-control app for Android phones that lets you control compatible Google TVs and Android TV operating system devices. You can add the remote to the Quick Settings tiles on your Android phone.
“I can’t point to a single solution that truly works universally well with all of the gear I tend to use or have tested."
On the iPhone, you can take advantage of the remote-control app for Apple TV inside Control Center. On models dating back to iPhone X, swipe down from the upper right corner of the screen to surface Control Center; swipe up from the bottom edge of the screen on prior models. The Apple remote can also control AirPlay2-compatible devices, which lets you stream games, music, photos, podcasts and videos from the phone to those devices.
Now the bad news: None of these apps designed to replace a tangle of physical remote controls is perfect, at least not yet.
“I can’t point to a single solution that truly works universally well with all of the gear I tend to use or have tested,” says Greg Tarr, managing editor of HD Guru. The website is devoted to consumer news and reviews around home theater.
Tim Brennan, who runs UniversalRemoteReviews.com, has found several physical remotes designed specifically for older adults, but "there really is no single universal remote app that I would have recommended to my now-deceased parents in their later years.” He says he’s tested lots of “junky” remote apps, many that he found buggy or that served up “obnoxious” ads if you didn’t pay for the full version.
Free apps work well, expert says
Brennan does have a few favorites. At the top of the list is Logitech Harmony Hub, which can turn your smartphone into a remote that you can swipe and tap to control multiple TVs and 270,000-plus entertainment and smart home devices from more than 5,000 brands. It works with voice, too, and is compatible with both iPhones and Androids.
Here’s the catch: The wireless Harmony Hub it requires costs $99.99. And this option is not perfect, either. Brennan points to places in the app where a less-tech-savvy person could get lost. What’s more: While Logitech says it will continue to service its current remote control and hub customers, the company announced that it will no longer manufacturer new models once the current inventory sells out.
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Brennan ranks Apple’s own Apple TV app high, and the same for Google’s official Android TV remote and Amazon’s Fire TV offering, each of which is free. He likes the Roku Remote Control: RoByte app from TinyByte Apps, as well, which is free with some in-app purchase options.
Some apps do permit the use of voice, but that’s no nirvana either. The experience can be “irksome,” says Adam Wright, senior analyst for smart home and office devices at International Data Corp. (IDC). The provider of market intelligence, advisory services and events is based in Needham, Massachusetts.
“Voice interfaces should be seen as an additional tool to help with navigating and searching for content,” he says. But if you ask a remote to “Show me funny movies,” you’ll likely see a screen of options that will turn into a “crapshoot on whether or not that command will be executed satisfactorily."
Smart home control becoming less complex
For several years it has been worth asking a simple question: If a smart home is so smart, why is it so complicated?
Not only was setting things up a challenge, even for techies, but determining which smart light fixture, faucet, lock or fridge to buy was equally puzzling. People fretted about potential incompatibilities with the other internet-connected devices and products in the home, especially as each major tech company tried to get you to go all in on their own smart home platforms and systems.
With Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Google Home and Samsung SmartThings, among others, the biggest companies were the ones doing the asking. The reality is that many consumers who want to control smart home devices with their smartphones and voice-enabled smart speakers have a patchwork of products. But the good news is that the reasons for some of the concerns are disappearing, Wright says.
"I don’t think there’s much need for worrying too much about cross-brand compatibility [on smart-home devices]. ... Mixing and matching is definitely a way to go if someone likes certain products and services from different brands."
“For consumers, I don’t think there’s much need for worrying too much about cross-brand compatibility since at this stage almost all of the big brands in the space are working together on interoperability,” IDC’s Wright says. “Mixing and matching is definitely a way to go if someone likes certain products and services from different brands.”
The Alexa, Google Home and Samsung SmartThings apps are available on both iOS and Android, though Apple doesn't have a HomeKit app for Android.
Situations where you still may encounter problems often have work-arounds. For example, if you have a HomeKit-enabled ecobee3 smart thermostat, you can control it from a dedicated ecobee3 app for iOS and Android. But you can't use Siri to control the ecobee3 by voice on an Android phone.
Indeed, some benefits come from sticking with a single platform from the most recognizable companies. The promise is that everything will work more smoothly. Experiences can be tailored to your preferences.
“The bigger brands are likely in a better position to have already implemented well-thought-through solutions to securing those devices and ensuring adequate privacy protections,” Wright says.
And while you may not rely on it all the time, you can remotely control all the activities from your phone, from finding something to watch to peeking at a security camera — as long as your phone doesn’t slip under a cushion.
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.
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