Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Remote Control your HTPC - A Review of the USB-UIRT

If  you delve very far into the world of Home Theater PC's (HTPC's) you'll soon find out that one of the first things you'll want to tackle is freeing yourself from the keyboard and mouse.  If you really want to trasform your HTPC as more a TV box and less of an HTPC, you obviously want to control it with a remote (aka 10-foot interface).

Last week I gave you a peek at a way to create your own USB IR receiver to do this very thing, but if you aren't quite up to messing with electronic components and such, there's a much easier way.  The most popular and arguably best way to do this is with a simple little device called the USBUIRT.  This IR receiver/transmitter may not be the most exciting part of the HTPC, but it certainly is one of the more important components.  I know many today will be trying to find out whether Obama or McCain is ahead in the exit polls, but there's plenty of room for controlling the HTPC as well :)

Read on for more on the USB-UIRT as well as a chance for a free USB-UIRT (4 available for giveaway complements of USB-UIRT and GeekTonic!)


The USB-UIRT is a IR (infrared) receiver and transmitter.  In plain speak, this simple-looking device lets you control your PC with a remote control and lets your PC control your Cable or Satellite Box.  The name comes as an acronym of Universal Infrared Receiver Transmitter.  The USB-UIRT connects to your computer through the USB port and allows your computer to receive IR signals from any IR remote.  I've used it with my old TV remote, a Hauppauge remote, the SageTV HD Extender remote, a URC MX-500 remote, Haromy 880 remote and many others - you should be able to use about any remote control that emits IR which would be most of them.

Another important feature of the USB-UIRT is that it can send (blast) IR signals to control your AV equipment such as a cable box, DVD Player, receiver etc.  You can also program the USB-UIRT to handle "discreet codes" (power on only or power off only for instance) that aren't found on your remote control - check out RemoteCentral for a nice database of device codes.  I use a USB-UIRT to control the channel changes from my Hauppauge HD-PVR "tuner" to the HD Cable Box - this is a very important feature and an advantage the USB-UIRT has over many other IR receivers.

The USB-UIRT works out of the box with many programs out there including SageTV's HTPC software.  Even if the program you want to control with a remote control doesn't have USB-UIRT support built-in, you can use Eventghost, LMGestion, Girder, Intelliremote and a whole host of other software to help you control any IR device you want with the USB-UIRT.  With this device  your computer can be controlled by any Infrared-based remote control. 


I asked the maker of the USB-UIRT, John Rees how he became a maker and seller of USB-UIRT's.  The answer is very interesting.  John was an early adopter of HTPC's.  When I say early adopter, I mean VERY early - like 1999 which is well before most of us entered the HTPC world!  He told me he was so impatient to get a progressive-scan DVD solution, he tore apart an old CD player and converted it into a progressive scan DVD Player himself.  He did this by packing a computer into the DVD player.  As part of the project, he wrote software to manage the DVD player and wanted to manage the other TV & AV equipment in the setup.  So he designed the UIRT based on code from another pioneer in the field, enhanced it & incorporated the USB-UIRT into his personal HTPC.

What John found was that many others were looking for a similar solution.  He ended up corresponding with other users struggling to get their own hardware up-and-running and also struggling to use the serial port to make everything work (serial IR receivers were the standard at the time - and there were few of those even.)   So he decided to design a USB version from the ground up and build a few for those interested.  He designed the hardware, built about 25 UIRT's and the rest is history.  John tells me that the USB-UIRT's largest market is actually the "vertical market."  The USB-UIRT design has been incorporated into many dedicated hardware boxes that you'd never know were the USB-UIRT.  In addition the device is used by many test houses and AV companies to test their equipment on production floors.  That should be a testament to how well designed and useful the USB-UIRT is.


Main Features
  • Infra Red Extender Port, for external IR transmitter
  • USB Connection
  • USB Wake-from-Standby Capability
  • Fully Plug and Play
  • Driver Support for Win98, WinME, Win2K, WinXP & Vista
  • Developer API for simple integration into other products
  • Flash-Upgradable Firmware
Programs that Support the USB-UIRT:
  • Girder (3.2 or higher) Plugin available
  • Intelliremote Support
  • EventGhost Plugin available
  • SageTV support out-of-the-box
  • 100 + other public programs and probably another 200 or more non-public programs that use the developer API
Features for IR Reception (Receive IR signal from remote control to control HTPC and computer)

  • Infrared Receiver
  • 34-40KHz Frequency Range reception
  • 56KHz IR Receiver Add-On Optional
  • >26 feet Sensitivity
  • IR Wavelength Filtered
  • Built-in wide band IR detector for accurate Learning, including carrier frequency.
  • USB Wake-from-Standby Capability
Features for IR Transmission (Send IR signal to control cable or satellite box for example)

  • Infrared Transmitter
  • 20-60KHz Frequency Range
  • Two built-in High-Power Emitters
  • 1/8" Mini-Jack for External Emitters
  • Extended-length code support in hardware (up to 96burst-pairs)
  • Max-length burst code support in driver (up to 2048 burst-pairs)

Hardware Details
The USB-UIRT is a small, 2.4" W x 1.5"D x 0.7"H black plastic case with a 6' long cable that attaches the receiver/blaster to a USB device.
On the back of the USB-UIRT is a 1/8" jack

For those of you curious of what's inside, here's a screen-shot of the device without it's black-plastic shell:

Software and Drivers for USB-UIRT available online
USB-UIRT Support

BeyondTV Setup:
The USB-UIRT website has a nice how-to on setting up the USB-UIRT with Beyond TV

SageTV Setup:
To use the USB-UIRT to receive remote control IR codes, go to Detailed Setup>Commands>"Remote Control Configuration: USB-UIRT Configuration"
After that, use the "Link Infrared/Keystroke to SageTV Command" function in the same menu
Here you can assign the buttons on your remote to each SageTV command that you wish to use.

To use SageTV and the USB-UIRT to control channel changing on a Cable/Satellite box, follow the new tuner device setup and select USB-UIRT/External Box.  It's very easy.  Below is a screen-shot of a 1/8" jack from a IR emitter (not included) that you plug into the back of the USB-UIRT.  You then place the IR emitter near the cable/satellite box you want to control.

This photo below shows the IR emitter plugged into the 1/8" jack on the back of the USB-UIRT

Multiple Zone Control
You can control 3 separate external devices since the USB-UIRT has 3-zone output control Read This for SageTV instructions for multple, USB-UIRT zones.

USB-UIRT Java Wrapper
There is a Java Wrapper for the USB-UIRT with native dll provided by the developer of the USBUIRT.  The project also includes a User Interface to transmit and capture signals from the UIRT device.  Check out the UIRT-J

I've controlled SageTV, BeyondTV, Media Portal, GBPVR, Meedio, PowerDVD and many other programs with the USB-UIRT.  Some of these include built-in control with the USB-UIRT and others will require girder, eventghost or another program of your choice to help control your computer.  My experience with the USB-UIRT has been flawless.  It just works and works all of the time - for IR receiving and IR blasting.  I use a USB-UIRT today to control my cable-box via the Hauppauge HD-PVR instead of the Hauppauge blaster that came with the HD-PVR because the USB-UIRT works that much better.

If you need a device to receive and/or blast Infrared, to control your PC or your cable/satellite box; you can't go wrong with the USB-UIRT.  I believe in this product and highly recommend it.  I use two of these for my everyday HTPC tasks and have never had a problem with them.  This product is worth the $50 ($55 with the extra 55Khz sensor) for anyone using a Home Theater PC or even anyone who wants to use a remote control to control their computer.


Giveaway - 4 free USB-UIRT's To Give Away!
Now that you know nearly everything there is to know about the USB-UIRT, you want one right?  Well you can buy one at their website or post a comment below by midnight, November 9th to tell me how you currently use or plan to use the USB-UIRT - I'll be pretty lenient on the comments so don't miss this opportunity.  Thanks to USB-UIRT for the donated hardware.  I'll pay for shipping to anywhere in the continental U.S.  Only one entry per person.  Winners will be determined at random on Monday, November 10th.