WinCESoft RemoteControl II 1.18

Introduction

Remote controls are like buses at midnight (bear with me here): you can never find them, or if you do find one, it's not the one that you need. Seven years ago I got fed up of the madness induced by five remote controls and bought a Marantz RC2000 mk II learning remote for about £100. Since then, we've added another 6 remote control devices to the fold… The Marantz has coped brilliantly: without a universal remote, life would be infinitely worse.

Figure 1: 10 remotes, one universal remote (top right), and one HPC to replace the whole lot

If you don't have a universal remote, you need one. The Marantz is not without its idiosyncrasies though - for starters, the interface is limited to how it can be configured and the display is exceedingly basic.

Of course, your handheld PC or pocket PC has an IR transceiver on it, and a touchscreen, and a rather spiffy display… So could that be used as a universal remote with the right software? Read on!

This is not a new idea: ever since the Psion Series 3c introduced IR capabilities, people have been hacking away at IR with varying degrees of success. SkyCommander was available for SH3 Jornadas, but seems to have disappeared. WinCESoft.de have been putting serious effort into their RemoteControl II software for a fair while now, which is the subject of this review.

Installing

RemoteControl II (hereon RC2) requires a machine with a StrongARM or XScale processor - check the website for exactly what's supported, but there's a great array of WinCE devices, including the Jornada 720 and 820, NetBook Pro… Three form factors are supported: Pocket PC, Handheld PC (640x240) and Webpad (800x600). A trial version, limited in the number of IR- transmit- actions per session, is available from the WinCESoft.de website which allows you to see the features, and check to see that your device/IRDA combination is supported. The full version requires registration before it will do anything: a text file is generated with unique machine data in it, which you email back to WinCESoft. A registration number is then emailed back, normally in record-breaking speed.

Installation is achieved through ActiveSync, as you'd expect. Those with more than one supported device can request multiple registration codes for each device providing they're not being used commercially. Kudos to the developers for this approach.

Besides form factor and UI paradigm, there seems to be no difference in functionality between the different devices, so we'll stick with the Handheld PC: this is HPCFactor.com, after all!

Setting up

By its very nature, a universal remote control will need configuring for your home entertainment system - the great news is that, out of the box, Remote Control II does its best to make this easy. You are presented with a default configuration which will give you access straight away to the most common features of your system, which really is a superb platform to start from and build on.

Right from the outset, it's worth mentioning just how configurable this software is: each master file (called a project or skin) has multiple layouts (called panels) which are dedicated to each device, or purpose. On each panel you can place as many buttons as you see fit. Each button can be assigned a purpose, the most obvious being to send an IR signal but there's also the ability to execute programs, run macros, load another panel, and more. Out of the box, panels for TV, Video, DVD and "channel names" are loaded for you. With the exception of channels, there are two linked panels for each device.

Figure 2: Panel 1 of the TV default skin

 

Figure 3: Panel 2 of the TV default skin

Projects can pull together panels from other projects, too, so if you find a panel you like you can pull it in to your own project.

All hardware keys can also be given the same functionality as any screen button, and this includes the hotkeys and screen keys. The Windows Media screen key or play button invoke Windows Media, but this can be removed with judicious editing of a file, or editing the registry.

If you're wanting to get started quickly, simply load the default project, then edit a panel by selecting the appropriate menu item. By clicking on the background of the panel, you can then choose to apply the IR codes for a device to the whole panel's buttons - so setting up my TV was simply a case of applying a Sony TV remote control to the panel, and everything worked.

Setting up new devices

Of course, you'll invariably have a device that isn't in the existing database of remote controls, and you'll be pleased to hear that you've got two options here, too: learn from your existing remote control, or enter codes from databases found on the web. Two sites are listed in the help file: Premise Systems IR Library, and RemoteCentral.com.

At RemoteCentral, you are likely to find that settings for your device are contained in a "CCF" file, which is a binary format that, unfortunately, is not understood by RC2. CCF files are configuration files for the Philips Pronto devices, which include graphics and layout as well as the IR codes. If you're determined, you can download ProntoEdit software for a PC, which will allow you to open the CCF files, see (and edit) the layouts used, but most importantly see the Hex codes. The bad news is that the hex codes are read only, and cannot be selected into the copy buffer of your machine, which means you could be entering up to 64 four digit hex numbers manually.

Given the hassle involved, you may just elect to have RC2 "learn" remote control codes from your existing remote. This is, after all, the only option provided with some universal remotes like the Marantz that I have. Again, you can do this in two ways: the "quick learn" way, or by using the program's IR database. "Quick learn" is great: select the quick learn menu item, and a help screen appears. Once read, you simply push the screen button or key that you wish to program, then transmit the corresponding function from your existing remote towards your HPC within 5 seconds. It's that simple, and the process is quick, and faultless. Learning is every bit as reliable as with the Marantz, which is no small feat.

The other option is the "proper" way of editing the program's IR database. Here, you can create a device type, manufacturer and appliance name as necessary, then create functions appropriate to the device. After that, clicking the "learn all" button walks you through every function and allows learning of the codes from your old remote.

Figure 4: Setting up a new device in the IR database

Here, I've added my NetGear MP101 remote, and am starting the learn process. You define which functions are supported by the device from a pick list that can include extended functions (which shows a fairly massive list of extra functions), or you can just type your own function name in the box provided.

Figure 5: Adding functions for your device

This takes only a little while longer than Quick Learn, but on the other hand gives you a file which is then usable on any panel, and that can be shared with other users. Quick learning stores codes in the default device of the panel, with a name like "QUICK_057" which is fine for single use, but if you're creating macros (more later) or custom panels, is not the best.

It's worth mentioning that many manufacturers are now supporting what are called discrete IR codes: codes that always have the same function no matter what state the device is in. Whilst your TV remote might have one power button which toggles power on then off, the device might support a signal which tells it to power off no matter what. This is known as a discrete code, and hex codes for control of common manufacturers' devices are available on the web.

Some remotes use "toggle codes" to achieve the same result: for example, the "mute" or "tape" buttons on my amp's remote actually send different codes on alternating button presses. This causes the Marantz some problems, and I've had to use two buttons for each function (mute on, and mute off). Within RC2, just select the "Use Toggle Codes" when doing a quick learn, or when editing the IR database, and the problem is solved. Alternatively, they could be stored as discrete functions. It really depends on what setup best suits your needs.

Panel editing

You've probably found that you've got a device which has a function that a panel doesn't have, and are wondering what to do. There's a panel editor built in, and thankfully it is simple, straightforward and easy to use. I was filled with a creeping dread that adding buttons to a panel would involve digging out graphics programs to draw each and every button, but this is not necessary: buttons are supplied as graphical templates, with text symbols used for the label on the button. Again, WinCESoft have thought of everything and helpfully provide two pages of appropriate symbols to use! These are contained in a font file installed onto your system when you install RC2.

Figure 6: Label editor with its graphical font

And, of course, mere text labels can be used too. If you would like to draw every button, rest assured that this is an option for RC2 as well.

You can also add bitmaps or text to a panel which have no function other than aesthetic. Buttons themselves can send an IR signal, call a macro, launch an application, show a battery or memory gauge, or the time, or toggle full screen mode (which gets rid of the menu bar and task bar). When sending an IR signal, you can send any signal for any device - you are not limited to the panel's "default" device.

To list all the features of the panel editor would make for boring reading, but it suffices to say that it's a full featured, easy to use, complete layout program. Snap to grid is supported, items can be moved with the stylus or by entering x,y coordinates, font type, size, colour and positioning are all modifiable per button, each button has an option of using two bitmaps - one for released, and one for when it's selected… the list goes on and on and on. In short, it's been very well thought about, and works brilliantly. Two minor grumbles are the lack of "undo" when positioning things, and the inability to select multiple items for movement or editing, but given that this is a process you go through once and then leave alone, I can live without that. As a rough guide, I'd allow half an hour to an hour for learning a brand new device, and creating a panel for it from scratch using the provided templates - that's how long the panel for a Netgear MP101 MP3 player took me, and the other devices took either the same or less time.
Macros
Here's where the fun really starts! Suppose you've got in from a hard day's work and want to see what's on TV. Turn on the TV, turn on the surround sound, set the surround sound input to TV, go to BBC 1, turn on teletext page 606 for "now and next", turn off the dvd and video and, if you're flash, dim the lights a bit. All of that is possible with a single button press on RC2 by creating a macro which does it all for you. Macros can be created which script any task that can be performed with RC2, from sending IR to changing panels, to launching external applications… You are limited by your imagination. The power of this really shouldn't be underestimated! If being hyper-critical, I would like to see the ability to reorder commands in a macro by moving actions up and down the list, or to "insert" at the currently selected point in the list rather than just add to the bottom.

Figure 7: Creating a "now and next" macro

Range

My Jornada 720 gives a working range of about 4m (13ft) with a Sony TV, and about 3m with the cheap Skyworth DVD/DIVX player that we've got. This is comparable to the Marantz, which is really quite surprising! To get better range, optional CF cards can be added which have more powerful IR transmitters, with these being supported by the software out of the box - however, you will need to check physical suitability for your device. The HP Jornada 7xx series has a CF slot embedded in the base, so IR transmitters won't work in there… The other option for Jornada 7xx users would be to plug the transmitter into a PCMCIA to CF adaptor, however the transmitter will be pointing the wrong way in that case!

Conclusion

WinCESoft has created a functionally rich, easy to configure, simple to use, stable, reliable and above all excellent piece of software for the HPC (and other devices). The software leads the pack in terms of what's available on this and other form factors, and holds its own well against expensive dedicated universal remotes. The developer's responsiveness to questions and suggestions is superb, the built in help is good, the walkthroughs on the website are great… During review, I found a display quirk where dropdown lists were too big for the HPC's screen. Two days later, version 1.19 beta was with me, which fixed this slight issue, and also fixed a few instances where the default templates had less than absolute optimal layout. Put it this way: it took me 2 minutes to notice the difference, but all the same the developer took the time to identify and fix the subtle display issue. I struggle to find fault with this in any other way (other than the lack of undo or multiple select in panel editor), and can only praise the richness of the overall user experience. As such, it has to get the highest marks.

My RC2 skin (still a work in progress) now caters for 10 IR devices, showing how flexible the setup of this software is. With hotkeys and a touchscreen, your Jornada is now the ultimate remote control!

For the future, I'd love to see WinCESoft provide an area on their website where customers can share their .ir files for their devices (this currently happens by people emailing their templates and IR files to the developers), and I'd also like to see them recommending that people take the time to use the IR database rather than quick learn so the resulting ".IR" files can be created and shared.

RemoteControl II costs €25 / $29 USD (£17.5 GBP, ¥3500 JPY est.) and can be purchased through links on the WinCESoft website.

In summary: better than the Marantz which costs 5 times as much!


System Requirements:

Windows CE 3.0, HPC2000, CE 4.x .net, CE 5.0
StrongARM, XScale

Rating  
Cost: 5 Star Rating: Exceptional
Usability: 5 Star Rating: Exceptional
Built-In helps: 5 Star Rating: Exceptional
Customer Service: 5 Star Rating: Exceptional
Overall: 5 Star Rating: Exceptional

RemoteControl II can be found at the following URL.
http://www.wincesoft.de/

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Nick Latito
Handheld PC Reviews