Is it time to say goodnight to the traditional remote control?

When you buy a new television, how much attention do you pay to the remote control it comes with? Is it comfortable to hold, easy to navigate and usable in the dark? And how many remotes are you going to end up with?

What if there was another way to control your TV or set top box?

The ultimate remote control is probably already in your pocket

Well, there is – and the good news is that you probably won’t need to spend a penny to try it!

If you’ve recently bought a smart TV and connected it to your existing router, you can probably take control of the television with your existing smartphone or tablet.

With no additional hardware required and no money to purchase an app, it all sounds a lot more enticing than an expensive universal remote that can set you back hundreds of pounds – and still not do as much.

The chances are you’re sitting with a smartphone or tablet while watching TV anyway, so why reach for that TV remote if you’re already holding the perfect controller? You may well be able to ditch that Sky remote too.

There are now apps available to control most brands of smart TV, available from the Apple App Store if you’re got an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, or Google’s Play Store for Android users. Best of all, they’re free.

A simple search, e.g. ‘Samsung remote’ will point you in the right direction – with some TVs having separate apps for smartphones and tablets – although the functionality is broadly similar on both.

It’s important to point out that you don’t need to own a Samsung smartphone to control a Samsung smart TV, or a Sony Xperia device to control a Sony Bravia TV.

All you need to do is make sure that the TV is connected to the same wireless network as your device. That means you won’t be able to control your TV if your smartphone is connected to your mobile network instead of using Wi-Fi.

Extra benefits

Once you’ve installed your new TV remote, you can now enjoy a range of benefits – and setting up is usually as simple as running the app, finding the TV and confirming permission on the TV itself – perhaps entering a code. This is a process that is only required once.

Unless you’ve got a very premium remote with backlighting, your new app is the perfect way to see all of the controls in the dark and you can also take control of your TV wherever you are, as there’s no longer line-of-sight required.

Besides being able to replicate all of the standard remote buttons, you’ll get additional controls too. For example, using the web browser on your TV (a feature that is probably the most frustrating thing to attempt to use with a normal remote) benefits hugely from being able to use swiping motions to scroll, using the on-screen touchpad, or using an on-screen keyboard to enter URLs.

You might also be able to access the bookmarks on your phone, or transfer the web page you’ve already got open on your tablet to the TV with a quick flicking action.

Suddenly a lot of the smart TV functions you’ve probably not had much incentive to use will become far more attractive.

If you’re trying to play a game on your smart TV, your app might also give you a virtual gamepad to make it easier to control the action. Once again, you will now feel more confident in using the extra features that were considered too frustrating with the original remote.

Play games on your smart TV with proper controls

All of these features are in addition to the existing ability to share your photos and video on the big-screen. Of course, you don’t need one of these TV remote apps for sharing media, as it is usually supported within existing gallery or video apps to share media using the DLNA functionality of your TV – or by using your TV to access your device and view media from an on-screen browser.

It might not be immediately obvious, but your TV remote app is actually receiving information from your TV too. If you’re navigating the Electronic Programme Guide, your phone or tablet might show what you’re watching (along with other information) on the display.

Reasons not to be cheerful

Just before you rush away full of excitement and go to chuck your existing remote in the bin, there are a couple of caveats. Sadly, these issues will mean it’s not a good idea to permanently relegate your remote to a drawer just yet.

What do you do if you’re using your phone or tablet for something else, or the person who has the device has taken it out of the house? You could just make do with the original remote, or perhaps consider buying a low-cost tablet (many costing £80 or less) to dedicate purely for TV control.

While this now means spending some money, it still makes more sense than buying a universal remote control – and it isn’t important to buy a device with an incredibly powerful processor or high resolution screen. As long as it has Wi-Fi, it will do the job.

There are other problems that aren’t quite so easy to overcome. The biggest one is the fact that you can’t use your smartphone app to turn on the TV in the first place. When the TV is off, your link is severed.

And even when you do turn the TV on, there’s a delay as your TV searches and hooks itself up to your network – although it’s less of an issue if you’ve gone for a wired connection instead of wireless.

On our Sony TV, it can take anything up to a minute for the TV to be connected. That’s one minute of being unable to do anything at all. If you’re frustrated at having to wait for your TV to start up, this added delay will drive you insane!

The last problem is battery life. Smartphones don’t have batteries that can last a year or two, so there’s always the risk that you’ll run out of juice at the most inopportune moment.

Remote alternatives: The Sky’s the limit

It isn’t just great to control your TV from an app. Imagine if you could control other devices too?

Well, you can do that too. Besides similar apps to control connected Blu-ray players and smart TV ‘enabling’ boxes, or your Google TV box, you can also take over control of your set top box – such as Sky’s recently updated Sky+ app.

Currently only offered to iOS users (Android users are promised support in the future, but Sky’s support of Android devices hasn’t got a great track record if Sky Go is anything to go by), the Sky+ app can take control of any connected Sky+ HD box in the home. Great if you’ve got any Multiroom subscriptions.

Browse the planner from your phone, without interrupting your TV broadcast

Rather than merely operating as a remote control, you can actually interact with the box while the TV continues to show programmes as normal. This allows you to scan through the programme guide without interrupting the picture, schedule recordings and also manage your existing content.

Sky has plans in the future to allow the sharing of content recorded on different boxes, so it’s likely that in the future you’ll be able to select content on one box and request it to play through another.

Anything you wish to record can be set easily, including series links, or you can click to watch anything you’ve already got on your box.

Looking for something to watch? Get the full synopsis on your phone, and then make a decision on what to do

From there, you can pause, forward and rewind without needing the original remote.

Besides the simple pause/play icon in the corner, you can also use gestures to perform the other functions – from sliding left and right for rewind/forward, to sliding up and down to change channels.

Take full control from your phone: Pause, forward, rewind – as well as seeing the details of what you’re watching at-a-glance

Whereas your Sky remote can also adjust the volume on your TV, you will need to use your original remote to do this, or swap to your TV remote app that might be running in the background.

This is possibly a little more fiddly than we’d like, but when it all works you really can’t help being suitably impressed.

A TV Guide app is also available for Virgin Media TiVo owners, although the functionality is currently rather more limited. In due course, you can expect to see similar apps for other Freeview/Freesat boxes.

Get by with a little help from your friends

If you’re heavily into social networking, or have an Android device and can’t wait to take control of your Sky+ HD box, there’s an alternative app from Zeebox.

Once set up, this lets you change channels by selecting programmes from an on-screen guide (but, without the other controls or access to your planner), along with a host of other features – such as finding out what your friends are watching, interacting with the broadcasts (from taking part in votes and competitions), to merely Tweeting and sharing your outrage at the judges’ decision to send your favourite artist home.

TV goes social: The enhanced TV guide with input from your friends

Zeebox is a lot more than simply controlling your set top box, but it can easily be used in conjunction with the other apps. What’s more, besides the current apps on offer today there will likely be many more available in the future.

So is it time to ditch your remote controls?

No – but it won’t be long.

The days of the traditional remote, often resulting in a large number fighting for space on the coffee table, are definitely numbered.

Even with some annoying little foibles today, it’s clear that remote controls as we know them today will soon be rendered obsolete.

Expensive universal remotes currently offer a solution to having loads of separate remotes, but they can’t offer the enhanced functionality that is available on your current smartphone or tablet. It’s probable that these will eventually be modified to run Android and allow the use of the above mentioned apps – but most likely at a huge premium.

As we see it, a sub-£80 tablet or £50 smartphone will do the job perfectly well if you still want a separate device that can be left by your TV at all times.

Even before all the problems are sorted out, there’s absolutely no reason not to try out these applications right now. You might just start to appreciate your smart TV all the more.

About author
Involved in tech since 1990, from selling mobile phones and computers, to writing about them for trade and consumer publications, such as Mobile News, What Mobile, Know Your Mobile and Stuff. If writing about mobiles wasn't exciting enough, being paid to watch TV during work hours is the icing on the cake. Jonathan on Google+

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