Windows Phone Thoughts: Griffin Mobile's Total Remote v1.01 reviewed

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Monday, February 24, 2003

Griffin Mobile's Total Remote v1.01 reviewed

Posted by Andy Whiteford in "HARDWARE" @ 12:45 PM

Pocket PCs are versatile little devices with many possible uses. Something that has been explored by a few software developers is the ability to use your device as a universal remote control for controlling a plethora of electrical appliances in the home. With its easy-to-hold size, customizable screen and Infrared port, it does make sense to explore this option. However the one issue with this is the IR port itself. A standard Pocket PC uses a different type of IR port from your household remotes and the software has to manipulate this port to create a usable signal. The trade-off is the resulting signal is of poorer quality than the proper remote control and thus, doesnít have the same sort of range. Itís still a worthwhile thing to pursue because otherwise, the Pocket PC is well suited to being an all in one solution allowing you to operate several appliances with one device. Hardware vendors are taking note of this and Pocket PCs with consumer grade IR ports have started to appear, which allows a signal of comparative quality to the original remote control. So what if you donít have one of these newer devices but still want the extended coverage? Are you up a creek without the proverbial paddle? Not as far as Griffin Mobile is concerned!




Total Remote is Griffin Mobileís way of introducing enhanced consumer grade IR to the Pocket PC masses. I say enhanced because Total Remote uses a small plugin IR port that uses your deviceís headphone jack to generate a signal. Because the headphone socket can typically deliver more power than a normal IR port, the signal that is interpreted and beamed out by the plugin module is stronger than most remote controls and has much higher coverage. While a normal remote control can normally deliver a signal that is stronger than a standard Pocket PC for this use, Total Remote can surpass both of these - well in theory anyway.


Figure 1: Contents of the box include the IR module, a CD ROM with the software and a quick start guide

So what is the hardware element?
The plugin module is a small, grey, plastic housing with two Infrared Ďbulbsí on the top end but safely recessed out of harm's way. This sits on top of a standard 3.5mm audio plug. There certainly doesnít seem to be much to it but itís clever in what it does. Infrared remote controls operate at a higher frequency than the standard audio range. Total Remote takes half the frequency required which is within the audio range produced by the audio port on the device and doubles this into the required Infrared frequency required to operate the electrical appliances you wish to control. The benefit of this method is clear: the power output of the audio port allows this signal to be transferred over a greater distance than a normal remote control. The downside is that not all Pocket PCs supply the full audio range and or the frequency required by Total Remote to successfully generate the Infrared signals. This means that Dell Axim and Casio E200 owners will not be able to use the Total Remote hardware. These two devices have an audio port that sounds full to the ear but in truth does not generate the full audio frequency range of other Pocket PCs. Ultimately they sound the same to the ear but do not produce the full audio spectrum upon which Total Remote relies.


Figure 2: The module in place

A virtual remote
Of course having this hardware in place is useless without the correct software to use it. The application side of Total Remote is well thought out and simple to use. The screen is laid out like a control panel for the type of device you are controlling, for example, a jog dial panel for VCR, and Tapping on the relevant button actions that command. In the lower right of the screen is a small green shift icon that flicks between different screens for the current remote you are using so you can have two or three screens of controls for each device. This approach gives a more comprehensive coverage of commands while remaining clear and well laid out on the device screen. The main controls are on the first page with lesser used commands on a later page, meaning use of this shift function is not excessive. At the top of the screen is the name of the appliance you are currently controlling and two green arrows allowing you to select between your chosen devices.


Figure 3: The standard view with tool bars


Figure 4: Full screen gives you the entire layout

Configuration
Setting up the application to work with your appliances is straightforward with a list of over 300 devices preloaded. You just check the box next to the device you want and itís added to your list. If you canít find the exact model, trying another by the same manufacturer often gives the desired result. Should this fail, you can copy an existing device profile and modify it or create one from scratch. This allows you to select the type of device, assign a skin and then add remote actions using the learn function and the original remote control. This procedure is simple and only a couple of taps are required to learn each action. There is also a built in rotate screen option that allows you to use your Pocket PC upside down when receiving commands from the original remote control, making the learning process even easier. Macros are also supported so you can assign a string of remote commands to a single button and then activate these at the tap of the stylus. The macro function supports timed pauses as well so you can control how long between each virtual key press.

There are a choice of six skins when setting up a new device so no matter which device you are programming for, you will find a suitable solution be it Audio System, DVD, CD, Tuner, TV or VCR.


Figure 5: Devices can be selected from the menu or green arrows


Figure 6: Where to go to record those important new commands


Figure 7: Confirmation that you have successfully captured a remote command

As well as tapping on screen, you can assign common commands to hardware buttons and control the basics of a device without lifting the stylus. This is especially handy when you use the turn off screen toggle to conserve battery life. Sensibly, there is an option to use the IrDA port instead of the Total Remote IR device which may seem like it defeats the purpose of this product. What it does mean is you can still use this application as a remote control even when you donít have the plugin module handy or, heaven forbid, you lose it. It will be back to reduced Pocket PC coverage but is still adequate for a small living room.


Figure 8: You have a choice between built-in IR or the hardware module

Griffin has recorded working distances of over 100 feet using Total Remote and while I am not in a position to confirm this claim, the unit did work flawlessly for me across the full distance of my living room which is over 20 feet in length. I take this as a good sign as some of the original remotes on good batteries had intermittent success from this range. I did find that you had to ensure you pointed Total Remote directly at the device you wish to control as the width of signal was not as wide as most of my orignal remotes. Itís also good to note that while there is no export option, any newly created remote profiles are stored under their name in the device profile folder and can be backed up manually prior to a hard reset.

Gotchas
The skins included with Total Remote are not customizable in the application and while the selection they offer is good, there will be times when you are looking for that extra button to program. Griffin says that user skins are easy to create, however the link on their site to the documentation was unavailable during this evaluation period. I would hope this will be available soon. Some preconfigured devices load up with a blank skin and no controls. This can be worked around by assigning the correct skin from the edit menu and then this preconfigured device will be available for use.

Where to buy
Total Remote can be purchased from Griffin Mobileís Web site for $29.99.

Specifications
Total remote requires a Pocket PC running either a StrongArm or XScale processor with a 3.5mm audio jack and 1.05Mb of storage space. The hardware is not compatible with the Dell Axim or Casio E200.

Conclusion
If you like the idea of using your Pocket PC to replace your existing remote controls and distance becomes a factor in the success of operation, you will find Total Remote exactly what you have been looking for. The hardware offers a greater range than your standard remote control and is much improved over the inbuilt IR port on your device. The software that accompanies the product is of good design and works well. However power users will want to ensure they can create their own custom skins to satisfy their controlling needs.

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