Saturday, September 22, 2012

Universal Remote Control Gets More Universal

I love engineering. Sometimes we work really hard to do something great. Sometimes we do something because we can. And sometimes we do a ton of work just to make life marginally easier. I think the universal remote control is that last one. And you don't even know the half of it.

(Long side note. I wonder if everything started as making things marginally better while that guy's wife was saying, "You did all that for what?" The early computers were terribly large and did relatively little. I'm positive those guys' wives said, "Just use a pen and paper!" But look what they've become now. So although it may seem like a total waste of time to spend hours working on saving a few minutes or seconds, it may grow into something much more important.)

I was recently visiting family and my wife and I went to the DI, or Deseret Industries (a thrift store), while we were there. I was looking through the electronics and came across a Clearplay DVD player (a CP-427-USB). These are no ordinary DVD players. These are designed to filter out bad stuff from your movies like swearing, sex, violence, and there are even categories for flag dishonoring and mushiness with graphic, explicit, and inferred levels of filtering. Inferred mushiness? Gone. Graphic violence? Keep it if you want. You download filters onto a USB flash drive and plug it into the front of the DVD player. When you load a movie, it figures out which movie you put in, looks up the filter on the flash drive, and downloads it to the DVD player. You can choose to play with Clearplay, or filtering, enabled or without. You can also block all movies with a certain rating.

So, I bought it. It was $12. The audio out jacks had old plugs broken off in the plug sockets. No problem. When I got home I popped the case off and pushed those broken plugs out. It played back a movie without issues. But I didn't have a remote. There were marks on top of the DVD player like the owner had taped the remote onto it when they donated it. So I went back to DI the next day to find it. No luck.

Very good! This post is about universal remote controls. I didn't forget.

The remote for the Clearplay player is critical. You need it to access the Clearplay menu to filter or pretty much do anything other than start a movie with its default settings. But these are relatively unpopular DVD players because most people like the swears, and they're kind of expensive new, and Clearplay charges $8 per month to keep getting filters for new movies. Because of that you can't really find a universal remote that has codes for Clearplay players (that's not true as I'll mention later).

In my search for a universal remote I came across the JP1 Forums. There they had a file for my DVD player that I could use with a JP1 remote. I had never heard of JP1. You probably haven't either. That's because 99.99% of all people are fine with that huge sheet of codes that comes with a universal remote control. JP1 is a six pin interface on your remote control PCB. These pins are often found under the battery door next to the batteries. The remote that came with our Comcast cable box actually has it but I never saw it because the remote came with batteries. You had better be sure that if I had put those batteries in myself I would have seen the pins and began a thorough investigation right away. But why would I check if I never knew and didn't need to change the batteries? The reason they're often found in cable or cable replacement remotes is that when customers return the remotes, all the cable company has to do to get the remote back to its default settings is plug in a cable and let a computer do it.

Great. I've got a file that tells a JP1 remote how to talk to my DVD player but I don't have one of those remotes (that's what I thought before checking my cable remote) and I don't have a cable to connect it to my computer. So I bought the RCA RCRP05BR. Found on Amazon for about $13.50 new or eBay for $10 refurbished (at the time of this writing). Can you guess where I bought it? I won't say much about it but that it's one of the few, inexpensive JP1 remotes still available for purchase and that I like it. It even has learning capabilities (which is probably how someone made that file for my Clearplay DVD player).

Guys on the JP1 Forums have worked hard to make free software to do a lot of the hard work for you. This is what it looks like assigning Clearplay remote buttons to my remote's buttons. The Clearplay button names are on the right. I can make assignments visually or by button name.

You still need a cable to interface with the remote, however. Newer versions of JP1 (JP1.2, JP1.3) use a serial interface and thanks to Tommy Tyler in the JP1 forums, I learned you can use a simple USB to Serial converter using the FTDI FT232R chip. Sweet! I've always (always=about two months) wanted a serial converter! Now I have an excuse to buy one. Of course I bought it off eBay. It was $7 shipped from China with lots of other pins from the chip broken out to a PCB. It can do 5V or 3.3V, which is what my remote needed. It took just over two weeks to arrive. My remote, shipped from the USA, took two days. With the complaining over, his document and others describe how to connect the serial converter to my remote.

Okay. Remember what I said about engineers taking lots of time to make things marginally easier? That's how JP1 is. If you start reading their "beginners" guides, you'll get lost faster than my wife once her phone's GPS navigation stops working (which is every time I'm not with her and she decides to use it). You can make those remotes do pretty much anything you want. I can hear my wife's voice, "Seriously? You can't just press a few buttons?" No. I can't. I want one button to do eight things at once. I want to control more than just the five devices I would normally be able to control. I want my remote to know if things are on or off. I even want my remote to work with my air conditioner. Don't get lost if you dive into JP1 remotes. The vocab is weird and they throw you in the deep end. That's how I felt.

Just to be sure I needed to, I even did a code search because sometimes manufacturers will copy another's remote codes. No luck. So today I finally got to program my remote. It worked! I loaded the file into the remote programming software, assigned buttons on the Clearplay remote to my remote, and uploaded the configuration to the remote. Awesome. For $17 I got my Clearplay remote and it works for everything else I have and I can take it with me after we move. Awesome awesome.

I said earlier I couldn't find a universal remote that worked with Clearplay. I did, however, find one after I ordered my remote and cable, of course. The Logitech Harmony series of remotes also would have worked. The least expensive model, the Harmony 300, is about $25. It's easy to plug in to your computer and easy to program and very up-to-date on new remotes. To most people I would probably recommend that as a universal, or one of their higher end models, because they're much simpler. The downside is cost, especially as you move up their product line, and the Harmony 300 can only control four devices. My RCA can do five but with JP1 it can actually control eight! JP1's downsides include complexity and fewer new device code files are found online (so get a learning remote if you get JP1). There seem to be fewer available for purchase than just a few years ago, too.

I'm pretty happy with my RCA remote. I've got it programmed for four devices right now. It's also got a lot of potential for when I get a sweet home theater setup (probably in the next life) to do things like pressing one button to turn the TV on, get it to the right input, turn the receiver on, get it to the right input, set the right volume, and turn the satellite receiver on and turn it to my favorite channel. All with one button press! (A sequence like that is called a macro, by the way.)

A final note about my Clearplay player. I signed up on their website and entered the serial number of the player to get filters and I got a free two month trial, normally $8 per month or $80 per year. I downloaded the filters to a jump drive and plugged it in. Nothing. Well I found out the USB port didn't work on it. I was sure because normally you'd get 5V on one of the USB pins. Nothing. So I opened it again and checked. 5V from the main board but nothing on the other end of the connecting cable. In my attempts to remove the cable from the plug, I broke it. So I ended up soldering the cable to the USB plug and now it works great. We tried it out with Baby Mama and all the poop jokes were gone! Swears, gone! Explicit dialogue, gone! I'll have to adjust the filtering to my liking but it seems to work fine. And if nothing else, it's a DVD player, which is something we didn't have before.

Update 1/25/2013:
I want to give a followup on my experience with the Clearplay DVD player. The model I have, the CP-427-USB, is pretty well known for it's... well... crappiness. Depending on whether your USB stick was plugged in or not, you couldn't really modify some settings. It wouldn't respond to remote control commands immediately or sometimes at all. Even with all the Clearplay filtering disabled, it just couldn't function as a normal DVD player. I've given up on it and have since purchased another player.

The filtering itself was hit and miss. Their filtering categories and levels are, to me, somewhat ambiguous and it was hard to know if my movie would end up so chopped up I couldn't understand it anymore or if it would let by all the things I didn't want. Very difficult but it did work. With more time and movies I'm sure I could have found a comfortable level of filtering. I still think the best filter is just choosing the right movies in the first place.

The customer service was great. They were helpful and tried to resolve the problems I was having with the player even though I hadn't purchased it new from them. They knew that model was pretty bad and because they didn't support it anymore officially (at least with new firmware) they offered to discount a new player in exchange for the old one. I appreciated that. They were a fair company to deal with. I'm not sure how their current players are but I think they recognize they really stepped in it with the CP-427-USB model and I imagine the newer ones are much better. The service is just not for me, though. With the growth of online streaming, I think their business model is going to have to evolve, which is just the nature of business, I suppose.

The remote control still does it's job. Love it.