By Mike Riley on Sun, 07/31/2011
Being the home automation enthusiast and restless technologist that I am, I built my own universal remote control months ago using an Arduino, an IR LED and a Ruby on Rails application running on my computer. My app works great over WiFi and I can even turn on and off these devices when I'm off-site. I even pre-programmed cascading functions so that when I press the "All Off" button on my app, my TV, stereo and video game console also turn off.
Of course, not everyone has the time or programming desire to roll their own IR remote control, but they still want the benefits of controlling their media center components from their iPad or iPhone. The Griffon Beacon may be their best solution. While it is not as flexible or even powerful as my custom-made design, the Beacon uses less equipment and is simpler to set up and run.
The Beacon is essentially an IR transmitter housed along with a small Bluetooth radio. Unlike my computer-assisted WiFi-enabled remote, you must have their iOS Bluetooth radios turned on and paired with the Beacon to operate. Once paired, you will need to install the Dijit Universal Remote on your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad so that you can send instructions to the Beacon which in turn transmit the appropriate IR commands to your media appliances. And the Beacon can be used to learn your remote codes in case your particular model of media appliance isn't available as a pre-set in Dijit's vast database of supported devices.
Physically, the Beacon is small and somewhat reminds me of a black, slightly squashed miniture of the Cloudgate sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park. Four AA batteries that sit in the Beacon's pedestal will power it for an estimated two months. The Dijit app displays the Beacon's battery strength, as there is no visual LED of sorts on the Beacon itself that indicates the level of battery charge remaining. You also need to tap the top if you want it to wake up after an hour of inactivity (so that it's not on all the time which would otherwise drain the batteries much faster).
Speaking of the Dijit Universal Remote application, it's free and feature-rich, though for now only optimized for the iPhone display (it runs in 2x mode on the iPad). And like the multiple command function in my custom setup, Dijit supports multiple commands as well via the 'Advanced Settings' option. There are also hooks into Facebook and Twitter to let the your followers know of your media viewing and IR selection habits as well as share your Dijit settings with other Dijit users. The app also includes Dijit's TV Program Guide (as well as Netflix integration) so you can select a program to watch and Dijit knows which channel change code to send to Beacon. Nice touch!
While the Beacon delivers what it promises, I decided to go back to my custom configuration after completing my review. Why? First, the choice to go with a Bluetooth radio in the Beacon requires you to essentially be in the same room as the Beacon to use it. That's great if you're near the device, but I have appreciated the times I could turn off the TV from several rooms or even several miles away. Second, Griffin opted to keep the extra cost and external wires out of the equation by powering the Beacon with batteries that need to be swapped out for a freshly charged set every eight weeks or so. Finally, Dijit failed to optimize their Universal Remote app for the iPad, meaning that for now I have to stare at a pixel-doubled iPhone screen instead of taking advantage of all the extra screen real-estate that the iPad has to offer. Dijit should take a look at the Apple TV Remote app to see how a Universal app should take advantage of the display on iPhones and iPads.
Even with these criticisms, the Beacon adequately provides an easy-to-implement solution for those who want sometime to 'just work'. I have to tip my hat to Griffin for taking on such a bold objective, given the universe of IR commands that have to be programmed into the Dijit Universal Remote and the incompatibilities and/or limitations that can arise. And given just how many different media devices there are, the Dijit app interface is easy to use, uncluttered and intuitive… and it looks considerably better than my home-grown Do It Yourself (DIY) alternative! So if you don't have the time or inclination to work on a DIY TV remote automation project but want the benefits of a universal remote on your iOS device, Griffin's Beacon delivers a usable alternative. Hopefully if the Beacon is embraced, its second generation feature set will expand to include a power supply, an open API so that other iOS developers besides Dijit can leverage the hardware for their own apps, and adopt WiFi as an option so that it can work with your iPhone beyond the radius that Bluetooth allows.
Manufacturer: Griffin Technology
Rating: 4/5 stars