Tech Files mailbag: Using tablets and smartphones as remote controls

I often receive email from readers of my Tech Files column who are looking for advice or recommendations. Starting with this post, I plan to republish edited versions of some of these questions and my answers here on SiliconBeat. 

Q:   How I can use a tablet or smartphone to control my television?

Nearly all remote controls that ship with televisions connect to and control them using beams of infrared (IR) light. That can pose an obstacle for smartphones and tablets, because they generally don’t have IR emitters. But there are plenty of exceptions and workarounds; one way or another, you should be able to use a tablet or smartphone to control your TV.

One notable exception to the rule about smartphones and tablets lacking IR emitters is Sony’s new Xperia Tablet S. Not only can it beam IR light, but it also ships with a universal remote control app. So, consumers should be able to use the Tablet S to control their TV without needing any other equipment.

With other gadgets you can sometimes get around their lack of an IR emitter by using their WiFi radios instead. Some TV manufacturers are offering apps for Android and Apple handheld devices that allow those gadgets to connect to and control certain models of smart TVs that are connected to the same network. The set-up works much the same way as if the smartphones or tablets had an IR emitter, but instead of sending signals to the TV via IR, they send them over WiFi.

Unfortunately, this set-up only works with Internet-connected TVs and then only with some of them. I found apps in Apple’s App Store and Google Play for certain models of Sony, LG, Toshiba and Panasonic smart TVs. But I didn’t find apps for Vizio’s smart TVs. And Samsung appears to only be offering its app for Android devices, not for Apple ones.

The other option is to buy an adapter that will send IR signals to your TV on behalf of a smartphone or tablet. These adapters can plug directly into your phone or tablet via their charging ports or they can be permanently situated in front of your TV and other entertainment equipment.

An example of the former is the L5 Remote, an IR emitter that plugs directly into the iPhone (or iPad).

Examples of the latter include Griffin’s Beacon and Logitech’s Harmony Link

Regardless of where the IR emitter is situated — attached to your device or sitting next to your TV — it typically works in conjunction with a specialized app. The unattached devices usually have to be attached to your home network in order to communicate with your phone or tablet.

If you’re interested in controlling your other media center equipment besides your television, you may find the situation easier. Many set-top boxes — both traditional ones such as the one you get from Comcast and newer ones that deliver Internet content such as Apple TV — already connect to your home network and can be controlled via apps that you can download from Apple or Google’s app stores.

Similarly, the latest Blu-ray players can typically be connected to the Internet; in many cases, the same apps that TV manufacturers offer to control their smart TVs will allow you to control their Blu-ray players also.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (248 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.