When deleting unused apps from my Android phone last week, I realized just how many remote control apps I’ve downloaded. My iPod touch is in the same situation. My virtual remote control clutter now rivals the piles of physical remotes that threaten to take over the lab, and my home office:
(and many more are lurking in my basement)
While some of these apps offer clear benefits over the traditional remote, most don’t offer any additional functionality. And although there are a number of “premium” apps out there that will set you back a buck or three, in most cases the free apps offer a much better experience.
So, instead of leaving you to weed out the bad remote control apps, we’ve done the legwork for you. Here’s a breakdown of our favorite remote control apps:
Roku holds the dubious honor of having the largest collection of remote control apps, with examples from about a dozen different developers on each platform (Android and iOS). Many of these are paid apps, but they don’t really offer any new functionality over the physical remote. Even worse, some of the paid apps have gone a couple years without an update and no longer work.
The official Roku app, for iOS and Android, works pretty well except for the occasional issue auto-connecting to my Roku device.
(Roku official remote)
It does require you to sign in to your Roku account during initial setup, but once up and running the app is similar to the physical remote. It adds some nice features, such as the ability to browse the channel store and install new channels:
Romoku (Sojo Software LLC), is another good free app for Android devices. This remote control includes a scrolling channel row above the normal remote control buttons, so you can jump to another channel without going through the home screen.
Able Remote for Google TV (Android only)
This app works pretty well and is generally less cluttered than the official Google TV remote control app, but is still more complicated than any of the remotes for Roku and Boxee.
When I first tried out this app months ago, it had a “voice control” option that allowed you to search using Google TV’s browser, launch apps, and the like. This feature is still there, but it’s now hidden – you have to go into the app settings and swap out one of the existing buttons for voice control.
In using the voice control feature again, I noticed that it no longer launches apps, where it had no trouble before. As you’ll see in the screenshot below, Able Remote did a fine job of picking up the words I said to it, but then pretended not to understand when I ask it to launch an app. If I said “launch Netflix,” for instance, I get an error “unknown voice command: Netflix.” But if I say “search Netflix,” the app will pop up in the search results and I can launch it from there. Curious.
Best in Show: Boxee Thumb Remote (Android Only)
Boxee Thumb Remote (Creator: Menny Even Danan) is a free remote control app for Android devices that lets you control your Boxee Box with a single thumb. (side note: Leslie, sorry I didn’t know about this one when you were laid up with The Hand!)
Out of the remote control apps we’ve tested, this is the only one that I consistently use in place of the physical remote. It’s never had trouble auto-connecting to my Boxee Box via the wireless network (this tends to be an issue with many of the apps we’ve tested), and it has a lot of little things built in that really improve the TV experience.
For starters, the Boxee Thumb remote displays the program information for what you’re watching, be it a local file on your network or a web video (though this didn’t work for live over-the-air TV when I tried it). When the phone’s in landscape mode you can view the episode description; in portrait mode the image (which doubles as a touchpad) dominates the screen.
My favorite feature of the Boxee Thumb Remote app is that it will automatically pause the video you’re watching when the phone gets an incoming call. I discovered this while poking around in the settings, and I think it’s absolutely genius. In my tests this feature worked flawlessly when playing files from my local network, though it doesn’t seem to work at all with live TV and sometimes fails if web content is still loading when the phone rings.
(And look at all the other stuff you can customize. Touchpad too sensitive? No problem!)
I’m hoping that we’ll eventually see these features implemented in remote control apps for the other OTT devices, but I suspect Boxee’s APIs may be a little more open than most (just a guess.)
Remote control apps can be a wonderful thing, saving the day when your Boxee remote is wedged between the couch cushions or repurposed as a chew toy. They can also make text entry much easier, as I’ve said before. But the glut of poorly-designed “me too” applications can make it hard to find the good ones.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go delete a few dozen apps from my phone.
Note: There are plenty of other OTT devices with remote control apps that I didn’t mention here, for example the WDTV and NeoTV. These two devices have Android and iOS apps created by the manufacturer, but don’t have all the mediocre 3rd-party apps clogging the search results.