Whether the idea scares you or not–some don’t like relying on one device to do too much–your smartphone may soon be your automated controller. An automated controller is what makes audio/video systems easy. You want to watch TV? You press a button on an automated controller that says “TV.” The controller, or “remote,” then tells the TV to turn on, tells it what input to go to, tells the cable box to come on, tells the stereo to turn on, and tells the stereo what input to turn to and what sound mode (e.g. Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, Stereo) to be in. The remote also knows that when you then press “7” it’s to tell the cable box to go channel 7, and better make that the high-def channel 7!  With just your typical universal remote, if you don’t press the right button before you press the “7” button, you may be telling the CD player to skip to track 7.  With an automated remote, if you want to watch a DVD you push the button that says “DVD.” If you want to listen to Sirius, you push the button that says “Sirius,” and similarly for your other audio and video sources. And, you don’t have to aim automated controllers–the better ones, anyway–at the TV or at the other equipment. It’s truly user friendly a/v–the way electronics that are designed for the average consumer should be.

For a few years now, our smartphones have been effectively letting us choose songs, and make playlists, for listening to on our stereos. These apps allow one to pick songs and to make playlists from the music on our computer and from the music offered by the likes of Rhapsody, Beats Music, or Spotify (i.e. internet-based companies that offer just about any song or album). These smartphone apps also allow us to listen to internet-based radio such as AM/FM stations (i.e. the stations on your table radio, but all of them and all crystal clear), and internet-only music stations (Apple has some, Logitech has some), and Pandora, a service that serves up songs it thinks you’ll like based on songs you type into it. It’s mind boggling to be sitting in a recliner, smartphone in hand, choosing among all the worlds’ commercially recorded music to playback through the stereo. Now is a golden age for the music lover.

Getting back to our smartphones and touchpads, still relatively new to the market and not so user friendly are apps that control our a/v receivers (e.g. to choose CD or radio or DVD or to change the volume), DVD players, TVs, and cable boxes.  It seems reasonable to think that not only will these apps grow in number, they’ll rapidly get to the point where they work well.  But, no matter how well these apps work, a friendly user experience requires more.   Because, even if the app that controls your SmartTV is as intuitive and responsive as you could want, you will likely still have to run a separate app for each and every other in-use device (e.g. stereo, cable box, HDMI switch, etc.).  That’s a lot of page flipping to do on your touch screen and things will get confusing quick. This is the problem with the standard type of universal remote. Sure, it may be able to control all your devices and replace 5 remotes, but you have to know all the right buttons to push.  This is a far cry from the one-touch ease of the automated controller, where you push the “TV” button if you want to watch TV and then everything that needs to happen to your a/v system happens automatically.

The good news is that apps that control multiple devices are appearing.  The promise is one app to control all of your home theater system. You do not have to switch to Comcast’s app for the cable box and switch to Denon’s app for their receiver and switch to Samsung’s app for the TV. Instead, one app handles all.  The reality now, however, is that the automated controller/remote is still the more reliable and less expensive way to go.  Not only is the all-in-one app on the more expensive side, think how many times your home’s network has to be rebooted or your Wifi is less-than-ideal.  If you have these troubles than you’ll be expanding their reach by relying on an app to control your a/v.  A night will come along where you think you’re gonna watch TV but you’re going to have to reboot the router first and, if you’re lucky, that’ll do the trick.  In my experience, the average person would find this unacceptable.

What many users find very much to their liking is a mixture.  Specifically, they augment an automated remote–which doesn’t rely on their home’s network–with an app on their phone/touchpad for selecting network-based music. It’s just a two-step process. First, they press a button on the automated remote that says “Network Music.” Second, they pick up their iPhone or their Android and launch an app. Now, smartphone in hand, app loaded, they’re in the driver’s seat to access the worlds’ commercial recordings. No one I know who has done this is all that concerned about how soon the smartphone will be able to do it all. The current combination of automated remote and smartphone is that good. And, many are comforted by the fact that the automated remote will work just fine even when their network is down. App based control? Not so much.