If you've ever owned an IR blaster then you already know how finicky they can be to setup and use. Signals can be interrupted by passing bodies and transmitted commands will inexplicably disappear into the ether. But these are issues affecting all IR blasters and Square Connect has done its best to mitigate them by offering up a very flexible solution. One look at the SQ Blaster and you already know it's unique.
To start with, the puck-shaped $199.99 blaster is only available in a solid cherry or "achitectual grade" bamboo wood case. While we like the otherness and premium look of its design, some might be annoyed that it doesn't blend well with the plastic and metalic materials used by most home entertainment gear. An issue exacerbated by an intense green LED that flashes red each time the SQ Blaster receives a command -- something that can be very distracting depending upon where you place it in your cabinet.
Placement is flexible thanks to a trio of front-facing high intensity IR emitters and optional accessories you can hang off of the puck's 3.5-mm jack. $10.99 takes home a 9-foot cable with 3x external IR-LED emitters for somewhat tethered control (you adhere the emitters directly to the target's IR receiver) over three devices while $9.99 adds a long range IR Blaster slung off of a 7-foot cable. A six-foot $9.99 Y-adapter cable will split the signal allowing you to mix and match the two. A detachable ariel meant to boost the WiFi signal is also included in the SQ Blaster box. However, we found it superfluous to our needs even when placing the SQ Blaster at the extreme edges of the WiFi signal in our home (two floors and two room across from the WiFi access point).
But what about the power cable? Surely that will dictate the unit's placement? Not really. See, while the SQ Blaster ships with a USB wall plug it could conceivably be powered by any device with a USB port. And let's face it, that's pretty much any modern device meant for the living room. Unfortunately our grand plan to strap it to our ceiling mounted projector was foiled by a lack of pass-thru USB power when our Epson is plugged in but powered off.
Part of the appeal of the Square Connect control solution going into this review was its SQ Remote iOS app. A whopping $29.99 if purchased as a standalone remote control for the Mi Casa Verde Vera home automation server or free with the purchase of the SQ Blaster. And if you're a multiple iOS device family then you can copy your final SQ Remote configuration -- including all the automated macros and meticulously crafted button and panel layouts -- to each and every idevice in the house. An ideal solution for us since we have an iPhone 4 in the pocket and a previously unused iPhone 3G in a drawer.
Although we tried to avoid it, the SQ Remote manual is required reading. A humbling act for gadget nerds but a requirement in this case. Fortunately, once indoctrinated into the Square Connect ways you'll quickly toss it aside, never to be referenced again.
Adding devices is standard fare for anyone who's ever setup a programmable remote. First you search a database for preconfigured IR codes for the components you own. We instantly found three of our five test devices: an exact match for a one-year old WD TV Live streamer and two matches for the device families that cover a two-year old Epson projector and a ten-year old JVC receiver. We had to teach the SQ Blaster about a Samsung DVT set-top box and Iyama TV by pointing each device's remote control at the SQ Blaster's IR Learning port, then cycling through every button we wanted to map onto the SQ Remote's button layout. A tedious process, to be sure. The Z-Wave home automation devices were added automatically just as soon as we entered the Vera home automation gateway's login credentials into SQ Blaster's configuration panel.
With the devices added, you're now ready to create the carousel "control pads" and populate each with the device you want to control. For our setup, we created just three control pads: "Home," is our Z-Wave command console for lights, socket adapters, and sensors; "Movie," includes all the controls for managing the projector, video streamer, lighting, and surround sound; and "TV" is used to primarily control the television and set-top box. Each pad can be further augmented with up to six slide-out panels arranged along the side for more logical control of your devices. In other words, you place the buttons you use most frequently on the main control pad with any extended functionality you might occasionally require placed within the side panels. At least that was the solution that worked best for us. Fortunately, Square Connect provides several preconfigured button layouts -- both generic and specific to the devices found in its database -- which can be automatically assigned to each device you own. You can also assign button controls one at a time and reassign and reposition the controls anytime you wish. When we say the software is flexible, we mean flexible.
We do miss the ability to copy and paste assigned control sets across different panels and pads. For example, we wish we could copy and paste the audio controls from the Movie pad to the TV pad instead of recreating these from scratch each time. This became especially tiresome while optimizing our SQ Remote button layouts as we had to repeat the changes on every panel using the same controls. A snap-to grid feature to help keep the buttons allignd was also sorely missed.
The biggest issue we have (which isn't big at all in the grand scheme of things) with this kind of solution is the lack of a known device state -- an issue that affects all programmable remotes. Our JVC receiver lacks discrete IR codes for power on / off or for switching device outputs. As such, SQ Remote isn't actually telling it to turn on, it's just telling it to toggle its state. Occasionally, this created issues with macros like "Movie On" (created to switch on all the devices required to watch a film on the home theater projector) by inadvertently shutting off the receiver that had been turned on earlier in the day as the macro blindly cycled through its list of commands. Some IR Blaster solutions provide add-ons that will measure the voltage of attached devices to determine its state -- Square Connect doesn't. In our usage, this wasn't really an issue but could be in households where many people have control over the remotes.
We were already annoying the family with our "whoa, watch this!" demonstrations of wireless television and lighting control within just a few minutes of unboxing the SQ Blaster hardware. Within two hours, we had built a rudimentary remote control giving us full control over our home's lighting and socket adapters in addition to the home entertainment console. In four hours, we had brute-forced a macro together that would automatically dim the lights and power-on the home theater with a touch of a single button. On the second day everything was pretty much automated with macros, followed by a few weeks of subtle tweaks meant to optimize the command sequences, delays between commands, and signal repeat counts as we adapted the software to how we actually listen to music and watch TV and films.
Pro tip: Don't test during the prime time television viewing hours. As exciting as it was to accidentally shut the TV off from the other side of the house, your family members, like ours, won't be so delighted.
Our goal was to keep the physical setup as clean as possible. That meant using the SQ Blaster without the detachable arial, external IR emitters or long range IR Blaster attachment -- so, just the puck. We ultimately found the perfect placement for the SQ Blaster allowing it to control the television, WD TV Live streamer, audio receiver, and DTV set-top box in the cabinet in addition to the ceiling mounted projector located opposite (at a 5 foot diagonal) of the entertainment cabinet. Sure, we had to shuffle the boxes in the cabinet a bit but the housecleaning was long overdue anyway. In the end, we aimed the SQ Blaster at the projector and bounced the IR signal off the wall to each component in the cabinet -- a little trick made possible by the extra-wide IR spread created by the SQ Blaster's three internal IR blasters placed along the circumference of the unit. Demo time!
The Square Connect SQ Blaster coupled with the free SQ Remote iOS software has become an indispensable part of our home entertainment kit. However, it's not for everyone. Part of its particular appeal stems from the fact that it works so seamlessly with our existing Z-Wave home automation system built around the Mi Casa Verde Vera. As such, it fully integrates our lighting, power, and home theater controls through a highly customizable and easy to use iPhone or iPod touch remote control app. So easy to use that after just a few hours of trial and error we were able to achieve home automation nirvana: a single button press to dim the lights and power on (or off) all the disparate devices that comprise our so-called home theater system. Better yet, the Square Connect solution replaced five existing remote controls with a single repurposed iPhone 3G rescued from the island of unused gadgets. Not bad for $200.