I recently reviewed my shopping experience at outfitYOURS.com, and I received a Beacon Universal Remote Control System for iOS Devices by Griffin from them. I have spent some time getting the Beacon set up, and let’s just say that experience wasn’t as easy as my shopping experience was. I finally have the Beacon set up and running. Let’s give it a look and see if using it was worth the problems I had.
The only things that came with the Beacon was a set of four AA batteries and a User’s Manual. This manual will prove to be less than helpful in getting things set up.
The Griffin Beacon looks like an ornament you’d find in a Zen garden. The matte black plastic base is hard to measure because of the angled shape, but it’s about 3.5″ square; the Beacon is about 1.5″ tall at the highest point. The “polished stone” on top looks like shiny black plastic, but it’s actually made of that dark red, clear plastic that is often used to cover the IR transmitter on remote controls. It’s nice looking, and you won’t mind having it sitting on your coffee or end table.
The Beacon is powered by four AA batteries; there is no AC power supply, nor is one available. (Griffin says you can expect up to 8 weeks of battery life under “heavy use.”) The Beacon uses batteries to allow you to place it anywhere without needing a wall outlet. Placement is important. The Beacon sends IR signals to your home theater equipment, so it must be placed within 30 feet of your equipment and have a direct line of sight. That means you can’t set it on your media cabinet with your equipment; you’ll need to place it on your coffee table or side table, pointing at the cabinet.
You’ll notice in the upper picture that the bottom is marked with a TV set and a remote control. Place the Beacon so the TV side is pointing at your TV and other equipment; this is the side with the IR transmitter. The side with the remote has an IR receiver that’s used if you need to teach the Beacon the proper commands for your equipment. Remember where this is, because you’re going to need it.
When the batteries are in, a bright blue LED lights up on the edge of the plastic stone. This indicates the Beacon is ready to begin the setup process. The Beacon connects to your iOS device via Bluetooth, and it receives commands from the iOS device that it will convert to IR signals your A/V equipment can understand. The first step is to pair your Beacon with your iPod touch (2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation), iPad (original and 2), or iPhone (3G, 3GS, and 4). You press and hold the stone until the blue LED on the IR receiver side begins to blink rapidly, then go to your Apple device to complete the Bluetooth connection. I had no trouble pairing the Beacon with my iPad 2. You can pair it with all your iOS devices, but it can accept commands from only one at a time.
Now I was ready to download the free Dijit app from the iTunes App store. This app is the “brain” of the remote system. It’s here you’ll actually set up the virtual remotes for all your equipment. This is an iPhone app, meaning it runs in the small window on an iPad. I was disappointed that it wasn’t a universal app so it could make use of the iPad’s bigger screen for button layout. I was first asked if I wanted to connect to my Facebook account so I could get personalized TV recommendations from my friends – I declined the honor. Next I was asked to create an optional Dijit account; having the free account will allow me to save a backup of all my equipment remote definitions, so I created the account.
I was asked if I wanted to setup the free TV guide. I accepted, then had to choose my content provider. You can see I can select from over the air signals, cable providers, and satellite providers in my area. I choose my cable provider. I had decided I was going to use the Beacon as the universal remote for my living room setup: TV, cable box, Roku 2, and Apple TV box. I started by adding the TV to my setup. (The guide picture above is for the bedroom TV I ended up using.)
Griffin claims support for more than 200,000 devices with the Beacon/Dijit system, so I expected to have no trouble finding my equipment. You first select the brand. I next expected to specify the model number, but no such luck. I was asked if I wanted to use a wizard to find my TV or choose from a list. When I choose the list, I could select from two or three pre-defined remotes (depending on the device I was trying to set up). All the remotes had a minimal number of buttons, and the exact buttons varied depending on the device.
I found that all of the offered remotes controlled some of the functions for my TV, but none controlled everything. I backed out and tried the Wizard. This time I was asked to try a power button to see if it worked. When I found one that did, I was asked to try another button to see if it worked. It eventually took me to the same set of pre-defined remotes that didn’t work before. Also, I found that the channel change button flipped more than one channel at a time. I tried some other remotes for some of my other equipment and had the same bad results. I was about ready to throw the Beacon in the trash.
After some thought, I realized that I couldn’t give up on the Beacon and my review so easily. After all, the Beacon was sending out signals, but it seemed the Dijit app was giving it the wrong signals. After some Googling, I found the Dijit Community user forum that told me all the things that the user manual should have told me. I realize the app and the Beacon are two separate entities and neither is under the direct control of the other. However, each is useless without the other and they should both make more of an effort to make the system easier to set up. The Beacon manual should have told me that I might need to update the firmware and how I should do that. Luckily, the forum I found had that information.
Updating the firmware is done through the Griffin Utility app in the iTunes App store. After the firmware update was completed and after more reading on the users’ forum, I decided I’d give up on the living room system because the remotes in there had a combined total of a million buttons – and it seemed I was going to have to program all of them. I decided to move to the bedroom TV.
The bedroom has a Vizio TV, an older Roku box, and an Apple TV box. By the way, the Roku boxes already use IP remotes. The Dijit app automatically finds the Roku boxes on the network and adds the box to your list of devices. You could actually use the Dijit remote for the Roku without having a Beacon.
I started with a pre-defined TV remote like the one shown in the earlier screen capture. Since the remote didn’t work correctly for the Vizio TV either, I decided I’d teach new, correct definitions for each of the pre-defined buttons. In the Learn mode, each button is highlighted on the iOS screen, and the blue LED on the back side of the Beacon blinks. I held the remote up to the back of the Beacon stone and pressed the corresponding button on the remote until the command was learned. After going through this for the buttons on my TV and my Apple TV remotes, the Dijit/Beacon system worked properly.
I needed to create a few more buttons for my TV remote, so I used the Add/Delete/Remove Buttons function to create the above layout for my TV remote. Everything works great, except for one thing with the virtual Apple remote. The Apple TV accepts a long-push on the Menu button to send it all the way out to the top menu and a long-push on the select button to put it into standby mode. I can’t do a long-push with the virtual remote, and I haven’t dug around long enough to determine if that’s possible yet.
You can tell from the bottom menu in the image just above that you can define activities – for example, put all the controls you’ll need to watch a movie from a DVD player onto one remote. You can also define remotes for the setups in various rooms in your house. You can also delete devices should you get rid of one or replace it.
A little more about the guide feature. I don’t have cable for the bedroom TV, so I was able to set the guide up for the over-the-air channels I receive on that TV. I could even customize the guide by deleting the channels I don’t actually receive. You supposedly can scroll through the guide to see what’s on and quickly watch that channel with a single tap, but that’s not working right for me.
To conclude, the Griffin Beacon paired with the Dijit app is a functional universal remote control system, if you are prepared to spend some time setting it up. Unless you are much luckier than I was, you’ll have to teach the system every button push you want to use on every remote you have. I understand there are a lot of devices out there, but other companies have pre-defined remotes that have all the buttons already defined for you – and they work. Griffin and Dijit need to get busy defining some complete remotes before the system will be as easy to set up as it is to use. And by the way, there is a version of the Beacon system for Android users, too.
I guess the answer to my earlier question is: yes, it’s worth the work involved in setting it up. I just wish it had been easier to find the information that I needed to help me get it set up faster.