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Review of the X10 IconRemote RF/Nstinct

Note: X10 is now pushing in the NStinct remote. This is basically the IconRemote RF reviewed here, with a slightly tweaked image/device database, buttons that use a cheaper technology and a button layout that most people consider less user-friendly. They got so many back that X10 was giving away refurbished Nstinct's free with any order, so I grabbed one. No major advantage over the IconRemote RF, and the DirecTV DVR is less usable, as they lost the soft buttons the IconRemote RF had.


The folks at x10 have been peddling the IconRemote, and more recently, it's bigger brother, the IconRemote RF, as "Logitech Killers". While I'm mostly happy with the Logitech 880 I've been using for the last few years – bar a period when they broke the macro facility – I've never really gotten used to the buttons on it. I've also gotten into hacking home automation much more heavily since getting the 880, so when the price on the IconRemote RF fell to $49.99, I decided to pick one up and check it out.

The Remote

This is a big remote. Much bigger than most other remotes I have, being nearly an inch longer than the 880, and half an inch wider. But one of the selling points is "big buttons" and "a big screen", so I guess that's the price one pays. It came with the three AA batteries required to run it, and was usable pretty much instantly. It's also thicker at the bottom, where the battery compartment is. All in all, it's a nice, hefty feel, and not to bad to use.

The buttons are, as advertised, big. Except for the soft buttons besides the LCD screen. For some reason, those are tiny, and close together. The groups have radically different shapes, so you tell them apart by feel. This is a good thing, because they aren't illuminated. Then again, I don't really expect that in a $50 remote.

The LCD is every bit and big and bright as you could wish. There are three buttons above it: Power in the middle, and His and Hers on the left and right, respectively. Below it are "Home", "Mode" and "Favorite" keys, in that order. Of these six, only the "Power" key can be programmed. The other five are the only non-programmable keys. Favorite brings up a menu of favorite channel lists; His and Hers go to the first two of those lists, initially labelled as "His" and "Hers". Home brings up the initial menu, allowing access setup and some presumably important functions. Mode brings up a menu of devices, or modes, which have an associated setting for all the programmable buttons.

Below those are a five-way pointer, surrounded by volume up/down and channel up/down pairs. Then a row of rectangular menu/guide buttons: "Menu", "Guide", "Info", "Quit". Next a numeric pad with circular, with "-" and "Enter" on either side of the zero. A row of five round – but detectably smaller than the numeric buttons – TV control buttons: "SAP", "CC", "ARC" and the misplaced "Last" and "Mute" buttons. Then six rectangular media control buttons, and finally another row of five small round buttons: replay, down, input, up and skip.

The layout is a bit odd in places. Most notably, the mute button is nowhere near the volume controls, and the previous channel button is nowhere near the channel up/down buttons, both of which placements are almost standard these days. The bottom row is hard to reach, and just seems like leftovers. I could get used to it, and would probably prefer it to the Logitech 880 after a while.

Setup

One of the more amazing claims – which most reviews seem to validate – is that this remote can be set up in under five minutes, and no computer is needed. This is done via the "Setup Wizard", which uses the LCD to guide the user through setting up one or more devices. After the setup is done, the wizard can be reached via Home->Setup.

I'm willing to believe the five minute setup, providing your kit is all mainstream, and you're happy with a remote that just physically replaces multiple remotes, without making using your A/V system easier.

That's not me. The "five minute setup" process failed to find any working codes for three of the four sources in my A/V system, only working with the DirecTV HD PVR. The PS/3 IR interface, the Toshiba HD-DVD player and the Mac got nothing. Actually, the Mac has two IR interfaces; the one that comes built into every Mac these days, and one built into the HD tuner that's plugged into it. The Logitech software knows about all of these devices, including both Mac interfaces!

Worse yet, when I tried to actually use the thing, I discovered that the A/V receiver setup didn't include a button to switch to the input the DirecTV HD PVR, and the DirecTV HD PVR didn't set up a soft button to bring up a list of recorded shows. Since I pretty much never watch live TV, this last one is pretty nasty. I eventually found it on the "closed caption" button or some such. But part of the point of wanting a remote with a large LCD and soft buttons is to avoid having to remember what obscure button you used for a critical action that didn't have one, so I added a soft button for it.

None of this is fatal for my using the remote, as it is a learning remote, so can be taught the codes missing from the remotes it knows, and complete remotes when those are missing.

The X10 Interface

The ability to control X10 modules from this remote is fantastic. I've seen nothing short of a real computer interface that compares to it, though some of the high end home automation remotes can probably be set up to match it. You enter modules you want to control, including both the X10 housecode and the unit number, where applicable, placing them in one of the 9 rooms available. You can then examine and control the devices in a specific room, or all of them. Actually, they use the terminology "room", but they're just groups. You can rename them, so presumably could group them however you wanted. When a module is selected, the hard buttons on the remote can turn it on and off, and dim or brighten it if it supports that, plus provide camera controls for security cameras. Selecting the soft button associated with it will bring a complete list of capabilities.

Further, you can have up to 27 X10 macros. These are much like any other remotes macros: just a set of module/command pairs to issue when that macro is triggered. For instance, I quickly created one for when I'm ready for bed: it turns off all the lights in the living room, turns on a bedroom lamp and the bedroom stereo.

The remote does use the X10 RF protocol, so if you want to control power line devices, like lights, you'll need an RF/PLC transceiver. These are usually available in packages with another module and controller for $10 to $20. However, other RF remotes, unless they're also X10 remotes, won't be able to control these devices at all. In order to do so, you'll either need powered devices with IR remotes, or an X10 IR/PLC transceiver, which is also about $20, and seldom on sale. Both solutions need one extra box for each house code, but I don't believe the IR/PLC transceiver can be set up so you can control more than one in a location.

Basically, I love this. This feature alone is worth the cost of the remote, at least unless you have a very high end home automation system that provides these capabilities already.

The last bit of functionality from the X10 RF interface provides is access to other x10 RF tools. In particular, you can purchase an RF/IR transceiver, and set particular devices to RF mode, allowing them to be controlled even without a direct line of sight. You can't use it with X10's PC remote equipment, unfortunately. Nor will you be able to control other companies RF gear – not unless they also use x10 compatible RF, anyway.

Other wins

Various things this remote does better than most universal learning remotes, in no particular order.

Favorites

Besides the big buttons and the quick setup, this remote has some other major wins. Most notably, the "favorites" key is actually three keys. The "favorites" key itself brings up a menu of "favorites" categories, each of which can hold at least 10 favorite channels. The "His" and "Hers" buttons go to those two favorites categories. Compared to the 880, with 24 favorites, this is phenomenal. Of course, they have to serve for your tuners, whereas the 880 has a different set for every tuner, but even so, this is much more convenient than what the 880 offers.

Child safe mode

The remote also support a "child safe" mode, which emulates some of the "children's" remotes - most devices locked out, no general channel controls, and access only to channel lists you selected. My children are past the stage of needing this, so I'm neutral on it. It might save the cost of a child's remote if you need one, but it also means the child in question could lose your universal remote.

QuickPower mode

This is an interesting mode that brings up the list of modes on the LCD, with the soft buttons acting to toggle the power on each one. This makes it easy to get the right devices turned on or off for whatever you want to do. The X10 button in this mode is yet another X10 macro.

Punch through

The punch-through facilities on the IconRemote are better than most, allow for not only the usual volume, but also media controls and channel up/down to be mapped from any arbitrary mode to every mode - including X10. Unfortunately, the media control mappings don't include the replay/skip buttons.

Mini macros

Some learning remotes support what the users call mini macros. This is the ability to learn more than one button on a single button. The ability tends to be inconsistent, limited to a very few commands, and not supported by the manufacturer. Except the IconRemote RF, which by design supports learning multiple buttons for those buttons that can use learned functions. This is a major improvement on learning remotes!

Button cycling

The non-programmable buttons tend to cycle through useful things. I.e., Favorites will go back and forth between the favorites buttons and the X10 groups display. The "His" and "Hers" buttons cycles between those lists and the list of all X10 devices.

And the losses

Modes

Continuing from the wins, the Mode button doesn't cycle anything. And there's no way to return the LCD to the soft key programming for that mode if you've used favorites or some other key that changes the LCD display, except by hitting the mode button and selecting that mode again. Having the "Mode" button cycle through the display of available modes and and the LCD buttons for that mode would have been consistent with the other hard buttons behaviors, and more convenient than what it does now.

Macros

As convenient as the mini-macro facility is, it isn't a real macro facility as found on other remotes, which let you program in a sequence of button presses to play back. Unfortunately, the IconRemote RF doesn't offer any such facility. All you get is learning macros. This isn't really that bad, except it means you still have to have the original remote around to program any kind of macro, or change one you've already set up. And of course, learning from another remote isn't always guaranteed, so you may well have to go through a complex sequence of buttons several times in order to learn it properly.

But the real killer is that you can't learn X-10 codes. So if you wanted, for example, a "shut down the system" macro that turned everything off and turned on the room light, you're out of luck. If it learned sequences of button presses to play back, then presumably you could just press the buttons in the right order to invoke the X10 functions. But you can't, so the only option to integrate X10 commands into a macros is to by the IR/PLC transceiver, just like any IR-only universal learning remote.

Logitech Killer?

Since X10 advertises that this is a "Logitech Killer", I figure I should point out why it isn't. At least not for me.

High-end remotes – and the Logitech is one of the few intended to be programmed by the consumer, rather than by a professional installer – recognize that controlling the devices is just a means to an end. You actually want to use the remote to do things like watch DVDs, or listen to CDs, etc. So they have modes that don't correspond to devices, but to whatever the installer wanted them to. The Logitech is relatively constrained, in that it only has one other type of mode, but it covers most of the common uses. These can be programmed to use any of the buttons on any device available to that mode, including sequences of buttons programmed on a single button. The device mode is a storage space for commands, and so can have all the commands the device understands, even if they weren't on the original remote.

In particular, most modern devices have no fewer than three "Power" commands: "Power On", "Power off" and "Power toggle". The manufacturers remote and the IconRemote RF will only have "Power toggle", so it has to actually remember the state of a device in order to put it in the right state. The Logitech and similar high-end remotes will have the ability to turn it on or off, without needing to know the state, contrary to the X10 blurbs about this.

So, seeing the QuickPower mode on the IconRemote, I thought that would be nice to have on the Logitech, and pretty easy to setup. On second though, I realized that I'd probably never use it, because when the Logitech switches into one of the non-device modes, it uses the extra power buttons to put everything in the right state, and has a "Help" button to go through that again.

Since I have all the commands understood by any device in my audio system available from the Logitech 880, I really can put the other remotes in a drawer, and forget about them. With the IconRemote RF, I don't get all those commands, so if I need to do something obscure, or just reprogram a macro, I'll need the original remote again.

Summary

I wanted to like this remote, I really did. It has a comfortable feel, and the wins are really cool. But the bottom line is that this is not a "Logitech Killer". It's a very good learning universal remote, but that's not the same thing. If all you want from a universal remote is the ability to control the critical functions of all your devices, including X10 devices, and you hate the Logitech device modes because you can't stand paging through all the unusable functions, then this is an excellent, and not very expensive, choice. But if you want your remote to provide an easy way to control the entire experience of using your A/V system, automatically switching all the components to the right mode and setting the lighting, then this isn't the remote for you. Or for me.

In spite of that, I'm going to keep this remote. The Logitech doesn't work very well with X10 devices, so I keep an X10 controller next to it. The IconRemote RF is going to replace that remote, not the Logitech. The only problem with it then is that half the buttons in X10 mode are dead. But having access to devices on both housecodes and macros more than makes up for that. If there were an X10 controller available that were basically the working part of this remote in X10 mode, I think it'd be a smash hit.

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