Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Media PC - remote control choices

When it comes to your Media PC, one of the most important choice you make will be how you plan to control it.  Let's face it, if your PC acts like a ... well a PC ... then you are going to hate the experience of using it and your friends will mock you.  Fortunately, there a quite a few very cool options that can make your Media PC awesome.

There are four main devices that I will go over:
  1. Keyboard
  2. Traditional IR remote
  3. Smart devices (optional)
  4. IR blaster (optional)
I use all four, but there is significant overlap between them so that I don't have to have them all handy at once.  Let me explain.

Wireless Keyboard

First up, you want a keyboard (it is a fully functional PC after all) and unless you want a tripping hazard in your living room, it is going to have to be wireless.

Do not make the mistake of trying to use a traditional wireless desktop keyboard (some are bluetooth, some not).  Wireless keyboards for desktops are designed to have a very short range.  I have one of these and the keys become very unreliable once you are more than about a few feet away.

Also, you probably don't want a full sized keyboard, and it would be nice to have integrated mouse functionality and/or function buttons to control media functions (play, pause, etc).

I would recommend going with a RF (Radio frequency) keyboard v.s. one that uses IR (Infrared) as RF isn't directional.  You don't want to have to "point" the keyboard like a remote.

Finally, you probably want a keyboard that has good battery life, is lightweight and feels good in your hands.

All of these requirements narrow your choices down significantly and many keyboards have bad reviews.  The two that I seriously considered were Logitech's Logitech diNovo Mini and IOGear multimedia keyboard.  I chose IOGear because I'm cheap and I don't like tiny keyboards.  Besides, I planned on rarely using the keyboard and only wanted it as a backup or for full featured web browsing.  So far, this choice has worked out well for me.

IR (InfraRed) remote control

If you think there are a lot of options for keyboards, wait until you start looking into a traditional remote control.  Should you get one that works with Windows Media Center?  Should you get one that is programmable and can control other devices?  Should you try one that uses arm gestures?  Yikes!, the possibilities are endless.

My main problem is that I'm lazy.  I don't want to spend time programming a remote control (been there done that).  The batteries always die, I forget how to use the darn thing, it breaks, etc.  Besides, programmable remotes can be overwhelming and tedious to setup.

Since I was going with Windows Media Center, I liked the idea of a remote that worked pretty well right out of the box.  I also ran across a remote that included some basic mouse functionality.  This is a GREAT feature because it eliminates most of the cases where I'd normally have to reach for the keyboard to control my Media PC.  Did I mention that it is also cheap?

Don't forget smart devices

There are a ton of smart devices in the home now that have features augmenting your normal remote controls.  The iPhone is an obvious one (showing iPeng above), but there are many other smart phones with equivalent capabilities.  The iPad is also a great (but expensive) choice.  You have netbooks and laptops as well.

The nice thing about these devices is that they can essentially control your Media PC via your wireless home network.  So, they are neither IR nor traditionally RF devices.  However, this means you can roam about your house and control your Media PC from anywhere!  This isn't as crazy as it sounds.  I have have a whole house audio system (Logitech squeezeboxes) and I can control them via an app on my iPhone.  It becomes a remote control that goes with me anywhere.

Here are some iPhone apps to think about
  • iPeng or Squeemote (for controlling squeezebox audio players)
  • Boxee (control Boxee via gestures on the screen)
  • MediaMote (controls Windows Media Center)
  • and many others....
These probably won't replace the need for a wireless keyboard or IR remote, but they are nice to have around and serve their purpose.

IR blaster

Sounds like something out of a science fiction movie right?  Watch out, that alien has an IR blaster!

Well, an IR blaster allows your Media PC to intelligently control other devices nearby.  It allows your PC to emulate (send) any command via IR to control your TV, receiver, or anything that has an IR remote.

This sounds like what a programmable remote does right?  It is, but much smarter since the programmable part is done on your Media PC.  No more worries about batteries dying.

First of all, before you run out and by an USB IR device, be sure you are aware that there are two main types of IR for your computer.  There is something called irDA and there is also Consumer IR.  irDA is for transmitting data between IR devices (like a phone and a laptop).  This is not what you want and it won't work as an IR blaster (don't even try).  Consumer IR is for emulation of traditional IR remotes (this is what you want).  Unfortunately, IR blasters are not something you will see on the shelves at Frys.  However, you can order one of them online here.

Finally, you will need some software to use your IR blaster.  I highly recommend EventGhost.  Not only can it control the IR blaster, but it can help with some other Media PC tasks as well (like doing things on resume from standby, etc).

There is one other advantage than an IR blaster has over a programmable remote.  Since the IR blaster is controlled by the PC, it is aware of the PC's status.  Programmable remotes (no matter how expensive) are still "stupid" in the sense that they don't know what is running (or not) on the PC when you press the buttons.  This can lead to all kinds of problems when duplicate commands are sent to your Media PC.

Setting up the IR blaster and using EventGhost is covered in detail here.


  1. Thank you very much for you in depth instructing on the media PC and your suggestions for equipment as it is a project that I have thought about but have never done any real research. Your project was a great help.

  2. When first experimenting, I tried the iphone/itouch app. It was pretty cool. But lots of problems: requires a little server on the PC; iphone goes to sleep; wife hates it. I bought a dedicated remote (ironically, same as in your picture). It works great. Pretty intuitive.

    I wish I had not wasted time with the iphone app.

    From: Another George


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