How to use iPhone to control HTPC

Posted in Hardware,M@H,Software by Ruslan Ulanov on the July 1st, 2009

Most of Windows Media Center features are easily accessible with IR or RF remote controls and unless you need to type something remote is the only control device you’ll need to enjoy your media.

But typing on the remote control resembles chatting on a cell phone without a dedicated keyboard. It requires multiple key presses to enter almost every character. And if you need to enter non-latin characters it becomes even more dubious.

When it comes to typing, you are better off with a wireless keyboard such as Logitech’s diNovo (Edge or Mini) or Microsoft’s Wireless Entertainment Desktop 7000. Those are great keyboards, and they include some kind of a pointing device (such as trackpad or navigation pad) along with media controls (play/pause/fwd/rew/stop).

Though there are a number of points that you should consider before investing in specialized media keyboards:

  • they will run you $100+ in most cases;
  • they are not compact (maybe with exception of diNovo Mini) and you cannot operate them with one hand like a remote control;
  • you’ll have to always have them by your side and that’s not very convenient considering  their size especially if you are not sitting in front of the desk;
  • having to switch from remote control to keyboard and back will not improve your experience;
  • you are bound to only one (or in best case – two) language layout(s) on the keys;

So what are our options? 

iPhone to the rescue!

There are several (actually, quite a few) applications in the AppStore for both iPhone and iPod Touch, that will bridge the gap between remote control and the keyboard. Usually, those applications consist of two parts, a little server/receiver application that runs on your PC and the control app that’s installed on the iPhone. In most cases you will need both PC and iPhone to be on the same WiFi network for the app to work. Other than that it’s a seamless and very easy set-up. Also one iPhone application can control multiple computers as long as they all have receiver software installed on them.

I’m a long time user of Logitech’s diNovo Edge keyboard and I enjoy it a lot, but recently I stumbled upon an application called Zemote. I decided to try it to control my HTPC running Windows 7 Ultimate RC. And I have to tell you, it works quite well!

The application has 3 modes of operation:

  1. Full-screen Trackpad
  2. Keyboard
  3. Media Control

In Trackpad mode you are presented with a big touch area, where you control cursor’s movement, along with left and right mouse buttons and a virtual scroll wheel. 

When switching to Keyboard mode you have two keyboard layouts with a custom (not native iPhone’s) landscape keyboard that features some PC-specific keys (like Esc, F1-F12, Alt, Ctrl, Win, cursor keys, etc.).

In Media Control mode you have a remote control interface with all familiar navigation buttons: Play, Next, Prev, Rec, Volume, Back, and a flick control area in the middle that you can use to navigate Media Center’s contents.

As for the Cons, I noticed the following:

  • when UAC prompts come up the application loses control of the desktop
  • the keyboard has only one “standard” US English layout, so for all those who need to type in other languages, you still can switch language in Windows, but you’ll have to memorize the layout of your language’s keys on the keyboard to type.
  • there’s no dedicated Guide button to call TV Guide on WMC.

Other than that it’s a great application with clean and simple user interface and I would highly recommend it as addition to your HTPC set-up.

There are quite a few other options available in the AppStore, some offer more control, some sleeker UI. The most notable are:

  • Air Mouse Pro – the sexiest design I’ve seen so far!
  • Snatch – the closest match to your real remote control;
  • WiFiRemote – has preset remotes for common media applications;
  • WMC Remote – designed specifically for Windows Media Center;
  • iRemote Suite – original feature – it displays part of the PC’s Desktop surrounding mouse pointer right on iPhone’s screen, which allows you to control PC even when you are away from PC’s monitor (like in another room or on the patio).

N.B. Some Windows Mobile and Android-powered devices might also have applications similar to those listed above. Check Handango for available titles.

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  • thm82

    perhaps you should try a real two way remote to remote the Windows Media Center from your IPhone: vmcMote
    It is in my eyes far supperior to this simple one way remotes, as it lets you browse your music library, shows the currently played track and so on 🙂

  • Nice, thx for this info!