Running PCs in ones living room, or “lounge” as some of you may prefer to call it, has become rather more fashionable of late… well, fashionable amongst “our kind” anyway. It certainly has benefits. For one you can stop burning DVDS of all those dodgy rips of japanese cartoon erotica you download from the internet to watch them on your TV with the curtains closed. With a PC under the telly you can just watch them straight off disk (I’d still recommend closing the curtains). You can of course watch proper DVDs on it too, and listen to your music similarily either off shop-bought CDs or straight from the wholly legitimate mp3s you bought off allofmp3.com.
So we have a box in the living room that can do these wondrous things (and more besides, but we’ll stick to mainly watching non-stolen telly programs for now) but the control system is a little lacklustre. The typical coffee table might have a couple of remotes on it (these days probably about seven of the buggers) but a fully fledged keyboard and mouse look a little out of place and don’t leave much room for all your super stylish “I’m hip” coffee table books you never read. No, what you need is a remote control (yup another one!) for your PC. And, wouldn’t you just know it, we’re about to take a look at two available models right now.
Microsoft MCE Remote
This is probably the most prolific remote out there, and that’s probably because it says “Microsoft” on it and gets sold with Dell PCs (maybe?). It’s also a pretty good remote, if a mite ugly in a garishly “Beko” kind of way. I hope the silver plastic era of home entertainment stops soon, it’s getting a bit much. Anyhoo enough of my blabbering; pictures!
As you can see it’s fairly nicely laid out. All the major stuff (we’re talking play, pause, stop, all that guff) is up the top there and the play button’s extra big so your fat thumb can find it more easily. Below the playback controls there’s a neat four-way directional thing with an OK button in the middle. This mimicks the similar controls found on DVD players, which is fairly handy and not too surprising. Below that arrangement is a big green button with a Windows logo on it (they had to cram one in somewhere). This button is designed with Microsoft’s Windows Media Center Edition [it's spelt "Centre", chaps, we invented the language so I'm pretty sure we're right...] software and is as far as I can tell used to turn it all on. More typical buttons surround it – volume up/down, channel up/down and a mute button. We then have four shortcut buttons to “Recorded TV”, “Guide”, “Live TV” and “OSD Menu”. Again these tie into Windows MCE.
The bottom half of the control, in that hugely attractive recessed area (..), contains a big number pad that I can’t imagine much use for* and some other buttons that make it look like an old teletext TV remote.
Overall the MCE remote isn’t a hugely attractive or exciting prospect but it’s arranged pretty well and it’s got everything you’d imagine needing to control some kind of amazing media centre program on your computer (a bit more on that later). Oh, and it lights up! Which is obviously bonus points.
* oh yeah, changing channels :$
Logitech UltraX Media Remote
This is much less common than the MCE (at time of writing) and according to the Logitech website it doesn’t even exist. Freaky. But since I don’t remember travelling forwards in time and stealing it from a government research laboratory I must come to the conclusion that this is available from retail outlets in the United Kingdom right now.
If you ask me, it’s much much more stylish than Microsoft’s “my first remote” offering. In plain matt black with a super shiny strip up the middle it certainly looks like a remote control for some “proper” equipment and so if you put it on your coffee table you might want to hide the remote for your Goodmans stereo system from view. It’s also littered with buttons, which unfortunately means I have more stuff to write down.
At the top we have all the various functions that tie into the software Logitech send you (called “MediaLife”) – TV, DVD, FM RADIO (?), PICTURES, VIDEOS and MUSIC – they’re all in capitals on the remote so I didn’t want to change the impact they have by using lower case. There are also three more buttons on the very top row – START, HOME and CLOSE… fairly intuitive I feel.
We then have the ubiquitous number pad, followed by volume and mute controls and then the DVD style up/down/left/right/ok navigation buttons. After those we get the playback controls, again with thumb friendly massive play button. The shuttle buttons are rather stylish I feel, but the record button and stop button are almost dangerously close and similar. Just below are the channel up/down buttons. Also note the lack of any backlighting, which is clearly going to lose the Logitech ground against MS’s luminous efforts.
The final section has some proper function buttons.
BACK, DVD MENU, ANGLE, SAP (satellite?), LAST:CH, LANGUAGE, REPEAT, INFO/EPG, SUBTITLE, SHUFFLE, CC/TELETEXT.
These are real functions like on real remotes, much more impressive than a green Windows logo button. This almost makes up for the lack of LEDs. Almost.
How they compare
There are major differences between the two remotes beside one being silver and the other being black. The MS remote is an IR (infra-red) device, like a normal remote. It has a receiver which you have to put on top of your TV or on the VCR or something and then you have to point the remote at it to make it do things. The receiver plugs into a USB port and has a stupidly long cable so locating it should be easy. There’s also two plugs on the back and two extra IR thingies – these ones are just a little diode and as far as I’m aware these are meant to point at your other equipment so they can send info to them. Why the remote can’t send that info itself I don’t know, I’m not sure I believe in this.
The Logitech remote uses RF – that’s like radio to you and me – which means there’s no pointing to be done, the remote sends the commands through magic and the receiver picks them up after they’ve passed through everyone in the rooms brains and done some kind of damage no-one yet understands. This is good in a way because there’s no receiver box to position or hide and, erm, you don’t have to point it at the TV. I suppose you could even control it from another room, which if you had some clever setup whereby the PC was upstairs or in a cupboard or something would be pretty awesome for you. The USB receiver is TINY so don’t accidentally eat it.
Both remotes worked as soon as I plugged them in, which for someone like me who remembers changing config.sys files to make commander keen work with sound is AMAZING. In a normal windows environment however both controls are fairly useless. I just hit some buttons and I could scroll up and down in notepad with them and even use the numberpad – 140665 – see? Apart from fantastic things like that though there’s no real use for the remote until you load up the right software. In my case, that means MediaPortal.
MediaPortal is awesome. It’s very alike Windows Media Center except that it has a rather drastically different price – it’s free. It’s been very stable for me, plays my media accross my wireless network reasonably well (the occasional jump but I blame my £10 wireless USB crapstick), runs DVDs beautifully and boots up pretty quick too. I don’t use any of it’s PVR functions but it does sport a pretty impressive set of them. For the purpose of this little test, MediaPortal could be replaced with whatever your preferred interface – top ones seem to be Meedio, GB-PVR, MediaPortal and Windows MCE. Whether or not the controllers do the exact same things in each program, however, is uncertain.
Plug and play
Without doing anything at all, just having the remotes plugged in, both perform quite remarkably well in MediaPortal. This might be to do with the amazingness of the programmers or even the gradual standardisation of controls for most applications, but the fact that these things work at all straight out of the box is really quite astounding. Navigating menus is a doddle using the joystick-style directional controls, and skipping through episodes of 24 to miss out all the annoying crap in between explosions was super-easy using both remotes. Fast forward buttons perform as you would expect, and skipping through with the directional buttons works flawlessly too.
MediaPortal supports the MCE remote and you can “turn it on” in it’s setup program. The Logitech isn’t in there but as we’ve already established it works anyway. Installing MediaLife was an all together much less fantastic experience. The software first steals association with DVDs (which is always immeasurably annoying, especially when you have everything set up as you like it). Once running, it crashed within about five minutes. I realise I should have kept on with it but really first impressions are all important and it didn’t impress me at all. I’ve learnt not to bother installing software that comes with hardware anyway, installing MediaLife was just a lapse of my “rules” in the interests of science. Never again.
Back to MediaPortal then, and some unfortunate shortcomings for the Logitech control. These, though, I suspect are the softwares fault and not that of the remote. There are certain things that don’t make a huge amount of sense in MP, one of them is that hitting back repeatedly when watching a film navigates back through the menus and puts the video into a small screen. Getting the video maximised again with a keyboard is easy – the X key – and is equally simple with a mouse – click on it. But with both remotes it proved tricky. I eventually discovered through extensive research (yes, I just pressed everything until something happened) that the RED button on the MCE remote does the same as the X key – flicks between full screen and thumbnail. Unfortunately no key on the Logitech remote is mapped to do that as default. I also discovered that none of the awesome DVD buttons work in MP. Hitting DVD MENU is rewarded by absolutely nothing happening – similarly for subtitles and languages. I suspect the ANGLE button does nothing too, but I don’t have any of those “specialist” DVDs that tend to make use of that feature.
The MCE remote however behaves impeccably well in MP. Everything can be controlled from the remote with no need to ever pull the keyboard out from behind the TV set. You can even turn the PC off from the remote and I suspect, with some techy wizardryness, you could turn it on from the remote as well (might need a couple of BIOS tweaks). I feel that if MP supported the Logitech remote some of the additional functions might be mapped by default. The MCE is only able to do the more clever bits like the MP menus and whatnot when it’s “turned on” in the MP configuration. Hopefully someone will write a plugin or I’ll figure out how to set it up manually.
Which one is better then?
Well… as much as it pains me to say… for pure functionality and compatibility (with MP at least, although I think it’s safe to say with MCE as well) the Microsoft remote wins. It’s so easy to use; I gave it to my Dad, who has complained about the PC in the living room ever since it arrived, and he was instantly overjoyed at how simple it was. The fact that the keyboard controls were pretty much the same is neither here nor there – the familiar feel of a remote control in the hand is what really made the difference, and he was flipping through Arrested Development episodes within seconds.
The Logitech is a much more professional looking device and for me represents the better product. But as happens so often, the better product simply doesn’t have the support to perform. As soon as there’s a plugin for MediaPortal I’ll be a very happy man. But for now the media PC downstairs uses the Microsoft MCE controller and the Logitech is resigned to use up here for the occasional Media Player outing.
Both great products, the MCE has the edge in software support.
Oh, and MediaLife sucks. In case you’re interested, it seems to be an even less capable version of CyberLink Power Cinema.
IR sender thingies for your sky+ box
It’s MS, so it’ll probably work with Windows stuff
Looks tacky (I mean, really, ugh)
IR, so no wall-hacking action
It’s Microsoft, so you lose geek points with your nerd mates
Blends in better with other equipment
Even cheaper (OEM)
RF, so works through walls
Very compact receiver
Plenty of buttons
The plentiful buttons don’t actually do anything
Bundled software is dire
No support for MP (yet)
automatedhome.co.uk – mainly just pictures though.