POWER A Universal Remote Case: Close but no Cigar

| In-Depth Review

POWER A 128The POWER A Universal Remote Case for the iPhone 3G and 3GS is just what it sounds like — an iPhone case that incorporates a transmitter that turns your iPhone into a remote control for audio and video components. It requires the free POWER A Universal Remote app; the combination of hardware and software can control most infrared-capable devices such as televisions, DVD players, cable boxes, stereo systems, A/V receivers, and so on.

The hardware is a three-piece acrylic hard shell case that looks like this: 

POWER A empty case

The POWER A Universal Remote Case

(photo courtesy of POWER A)

It’s a clever design with a single top part of the case that covers most of your iPhone (top in the picture above), plus a pair of interchangeable bottom pieces. One of them is the actual infrared remote controller with a dock connector (middle in the picture above) and the other is a plain old hard shell case (bottom in the picture above), which lets you leave the remote control piece in a safe place while you’re out and about. . 

Alas, while many of this product’s functions worked decently, numerous irritating malfunctions make it hard for me to recommend this otherwise promising product.   

Note: I’ve been testing several similar products — hardware/software combinations that turn your iPhone into a universal remote control — and will be reviewing all of them here in the next couple of weeks. So please bear with me if I say one of the products lacked a desirable feature found in another product… I’ll be reviewing those other products here soon.    

Testing

I don’t have a comprehensive selection of devices for testing this kind of product; all I can do is report on how it performed with the devices I do have, which are: 

Den: 

  • Samsung Series 4 Plasma TV
  • Toshiba XD-E500KU DVD Player
  • Onkyo HT-R410 Audio/Video Receiver
  • Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HD Cable Box
  • AppleTV

Bedroom:

  • Phillips 32-inch CRT TV
  • Sony DVP-NS501P DVD player
  • Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300 Cable Box

Each of these devices has a separate infrared remote control. 

Setup

Setup is relatively straightforward. After downloading the free software from the App Store, you start by tapping the Set Up New Remote button and typing a name for this remote: 

POWER A Naming a remote

I’m naming this remote “TV”

Now aim your device’s remote control at the POWER A remote control like this: 

POWER A Aim

Programming the POWER A Universal Remote Case

(illustration courtesy of POWER A)

To program a button, just tap the button on the EDIT screen as shown below. 

POWER A Volume button

Programming the Volume Up button for my AppleTV remote control.

The button is highlighted in red to indicate that it’s ready to learn. I then press the Volume Up button on my little white AppleTV remote (which is aimed at the POWER A remote as shown previously). If the POWER A remote succeeded at learning the button an alert appears on screen: 

POWER A Button Learned

The Button Learned Alert 

Continue this process one button at a time until all of the buttons you want are programmed and then tap the Save button. At this point you can either begin using your remote or create another remote and train it. 

You can create up to 20 different remotes with the POWER A app. I chose to set up one for each of the devices in my den as shown here: 

Power A By Device

A remote for each device

But you could just as easily create a remote for each place you intend to control devices remotely as shown here: 

POWER A By Room

A remote for each room

You can teach any button on the POWER A Universal Remote to any button on any infrared remote control. For example, I could have created a single Universal Remote for my den and had the volume buttons control my A/V receiver; the channel buttons control the cable box; and the Input button control the television’s inputs.

The bottom line is that it’s easy but time-consuming to train the Universal Remote. Note that other iPhone remote hardware/software combinations can use “codes” to program a device remote all at once by tapping a four digit code number. I’ll talk more about this technique in reviews of other products I’ll post soon but for now just note that the POWER A requires you to train functions you wish to use one at a time. 

The good, the bad, and the ugly

The POWER A Universal Remote Case was like the little girl with the little curl — when it was good it was very, very good but when it was bad it was horrid. Let me begin with the handful of things that worked flawlessly. Every function on my AppleTV remote worked as it should have. Every function I programmed for both DVD players worked as expected. And I liked the ability to combine functions from several physical remote controls on a single iPhone remote screen as I mentioned previously. 

Unfortunately, that’s about all that was good. What wasn’t so good were the constant error messages when I inserted the iPhone into the device:

Power A error 1

Power A error 2

Annoying error messages

Sometimes it took five or six tries — inserting and removing the iPhone — before the device and iPhone communicated with each other properly.

Another problem was that the POWER A Universal Remote Case had difficulty learning certain functions and was unable to learn other functions at all. For example, it refused to learn the volume up/down/mute commands for my cable box at all. No matter what I did I never saw the Button Learned alert. And while it appeared to learn the cable remote’s Menu button (which should display a list of shows recorded on the DVR), pressing that button on the Universal Remote Case displayed the TV Guide screen instead. To be fair, other cable box commands worked as expected.

I had trouble getting the Universal Remote Case to learn commands from my AV receiver’s remote. It would appear to learn a button but those learned buttons did nothing when pressed. Technical support (by email) identified the issue and instructed me to go into another room to program this particular remote control, which got everything working properly. It would have been nice if that info was in the (downloadable) User’s Manual.

I also noticed that the POWER A Universal Remote Case needed to be aimed more precisely than the physical remote controls it replaced. While my device remotes work fine when pointed in the general direction of the device, the POWER A Universal Remote Case usually needed to be pointed directly at the device. If I aimed a few feet above or to the side of the device the POWER A Universal Remote Case would often fail.  

Finally, every remote you create (up to 20 of ‘em) has the exact same layout, buttons, and button names. So, for example, while I could teach the Universal Remote Case to emulate the triangular yellow “A” button, square blue “B” button, and round red “C” button on my cable remote (essential for selecting options in menus and the program guide), I had to remember that the DMND button on the Universal Remote represented the “A” button on the cable remote, that the PAGE UP button on the Universal Remote represented the “B” button on the cable remote, and the PAGE DOWN button on the Universal Remote represented the “C” button on the cable remote. I would have really liked to be able to edit at least the button names, if not their shape, color, or placement on the screen (none of which could be altered).  

The Bottom Line

I wanted to like the POWER A Universal Remote Case but its shortcomings made it difficult if not impossible to use in place of the eight individual remote controls in my house. If you have a relatively simple audio/video setup you may have more success than I had, but I wouldn’t bet on it. That said, the developer acknowledges that some users have reported issues using the POWER A Universal Remote Case with cable boxes and satellite systems and is working to verify and resolve such issues. On the other hand, I’ve been using the product for a couple of months and the app is still at version 1.0 and has still not been updated.

Caveat emptor.  

Product: iPhone Universal Remote Case

Company: POWER A

List Price: US$59.99

Pros:

Reasonable price, includes hard shell case.

Cons:

Error messages for no apparent reason, inability to learn certain functions, requires more precise aiming than physical remotes, inflexible design, can’t rename buttons.

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3 Comments

Intruder

I’ve actually been pretty happy with the Re: remote. Didn’t have to go through the learn process. It had my TV (Vizio LCD), TivoHD and even my old Bose 321 already available. Connected it to my gen 1 iPod Touch and it works like a champ! Only thing I wish it had is a power passthru so I could connect it to charge up without having to remove the remote dongle.

If it could control my PS3, it would be perfect!

computerbandgeek

It seems that a lot of the complaints that you have about this can be said about every universal remote on the market, either for iPhone or as a dedicated device. However, things like the incompatible accessory warning are a dealbreaker.

Bob LeVitus

Some are better than others… but yes, many of the POWER A’s shortcomings are shared by other similar products.

On the other hand, the software these gadgets use varies greatly and, again, some are better than others. And POWER A’s software isn’t one of the better ones.

Watch for reviews of three or four other iPhone remotes in the coming weeks.

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