Universal remotes have been around for a long time but few have justified themselves as a necessary in the living room. Mostly, it's just easier just to pick up the normal remote.
Griffin is looking to change all that with its Beacon, a Bluetooth and app-powered remote that turns your Apple device into an all-in-one controller for your living room. The idea is that you simply reach into your pocket, grab your phone and change the channel. In principle it works well, thanks in part to the nice app design by Dijit which makes pairing different devices to the Beacon very straightforward.
The Beacon itself is nicely put together, the £60 price tag however is definitely reflected in the materials used. It's slightly plasticky and the semi-translucent red blob on top of the Beacon wasn't really for us.
What we do like however is the single button approach to pairing. Once you stick the batteries into the Beacon all you need to do is either push the blob down to get started. Once the single blue light flashes you can pair the thing with your iPhone or iPad and then leave the Beacon to do its stuff. It is as simple as it needs to be.
The Beacon is battery powered, taking up four AAs for around about 2 months of life. Griffin has done a good job designing the device to be as power sipping as possible. It goes to sleep after 60 minutes of devices being out of reach and thanks to the battery function, means it doesn't take up another plug in your home media centre. Some might not like the battery approach, as a normal remote will get a lot more life out of a pair of AAs but personally the fewer cables in our sitting rooms, the better.
The application itself is what the Beacon (or Dijit) does best. Once downloaded and the device paired via Bluetooth on your handset, you can begin to add devices. There is a massive library of things to choose from and the application uses clever button tests to work out exactly which remote you are using. TiVo users take note, don't use the actual TiVo preset itself, opt for Virgin Media, it works properly.
You get pre-programmed commands for input switching, mute, volume, channel and menu controls but can, if you are so inclined, build custom controls for the remote. It works like the iPhone home screen, allowing you to drag and drop wobbling D-pads and guides and all sorts of other selections and presets for television, DVR or stereo. It even has gesture-like capabilities with all sorts of crazy volume controls and multiple direction pads to choose from.
The are also activities you can build which reminds us of creating actions in Photoshop, albeit a lot simpler. Say, for example, you want to build an action that turns the television off, TiVo off, Hi-Fi off and everything else off all at once, you can do it very easily using the actions. But, this is where things get a little bit difficult. As great as the Beacon is, it faces that age old problem that all universal remotes suffer from: why exactly do you need it?
If you are a fan of keeping things minimal in the living room, then Beacon is perfect. Remotes in the cupboard, iPhone in pocket, Beacon does the rest. If you aren't that bothered however, then why go to the hassle? It just feels easier to use the remote that shipped with a device. It's worth noting that our American friends get access to Netflix and TV listings, as well as the ability to share choices to social networks.
Issues aside, Griffin has definitely got it right coming up with an Apple-based universal remote. It feels far more logical to use something as slick as the iPhone as a controller rather than a single, nearly always plasticky, universal remote. The ability to program actions and add different buttons is unlike any other remote and takes full advantage of having a proper touchscreen to play with.
The Beacon looks decent enough, isn't massively expensive and makes a tempting alternative for those desperate for an all-in-one control solution.