This week I ran in-depth reviews of three iOS-based universal remote systems. Each uses a separate remote unit, as opposed to dongle-based IR blasters like the Ri remote and others. We'll take a look at those other IR remotes another time. The question is, of the Peel, UnityRemote and Beacon, which one should you choose? As usual, it depends upon your needs.
The basic universal remote
If all you need is a working universal remote, your best bet is the UnityRemote from Gear4. While it lacks the bells and whistles of Peel's guide and Beacon's customization, I found it "just works" and is better at controlling your devices than the others. UnityRemote tries to make sure it gathers discrete on/off codes, for example, walking you through a testing sequence upon setup.
The relative simplicity of the UnityRemote is a good thing for the average user, I believe, and its small footprint and advanced settings menu will appeal to home theater enthusiasts as well. Plus, the advantage of a native iPad app can't be understated -- the iPad is a natural living room companion, probably more than your iPhone would be, and UnityRemote really shines on the larger screen real estate.
The TV junkie
If you watch a lot of TV but not necessarily the same thing every day, preferring to "zone out" on some TV whenever you get the chance, take a look at Peel. You will have to put up with a more complicated setup than the others, but you won't have to activate the remote every few hours, and the way Peel handles show discovery is unparalleled thus far.
That said, you can always use the Peel app by itself. The hardware won't work well in large homes or if your router is far from your TV, and I found that as a universal it was lacking several controls one might need. If you want to tune to a specific channel or program a recording, for example, it falls down completely. But it does allow you to set reminders for shows, and that's a plus -- but the remote hardware isn't needed for reminders. Still, if you aren't bothered by the cost of a somewhat limited remote hardware solutions, Peel is worth a look.
The home theater power user
If you want the ultimate combination of guide, customization and affordable hardware, Griffin's Beacon is a good choice. While there's work yet to do on the Beacon, the combination of Netflix support, Roku control, and universal remote can't be beat. Plus, the Dijit app allows more customization than any other remote on the market (including those dongle-based remotes), making it a pleasure for those of you with complicated setups. Actions and gestures are icing on the power user cake, so there's very little you will find Beacon can't do.
Beacon does use more batteries than the others, and lacks some of the advanced tuning features found in UnityRemote, but Beacon hopes to avoid that by providing updates to the app and hardware so that everything "just works." For now, the product is early in its lifecycle and I expect it will only get better. Plus, as the lowest cost solution of all the remote with the most flexibility, I'd say it is overall the best bargain of the bunch. That's a good thing if you've already maxed out your credit cards buying all that AV gear for your home theater!
There's no such things as "one size fits all" when it comes to technology. Each remote had quirks and flaws that could be deal killers for you personally. I recommend downloading all the associated apps first and trying them out before you buy the hardware. Since the interface you'll be using will be on your iOS device, you'll want to spend some quality time ensuring buttons are comfortable to you, and all the additional features are things you'll use. When you do buy a remote, look for a retailer with a generous return policy as these are all first generation products prone to issues anyway. If you don't like it, you'll want to return it.
If you have suggestions for other universal remote solutions, leave us those in the comments.