Hands-on review: Peel universal remote control

Late last year, the Internet-connected Peel that transforms an iOS device into a universal remote control debuted. Here's the hands-on review.

Late last year, the Internet-connected Peel that transforms an iOS device into a universal remote control debuted. Here's the hands-on review.

SET-UP

The best place to start is to download the free Peel app from iTunes, which is compatible with not only the iPhone but also the iPod touch and iPad (as long as any one of these devices is running iOS 3.0 or higher). From here, you'll be asked to customize some settings, such as picking favorite genres, specifying your age and gender, and then determining your cable/dish programming provider.

Next, it's time to hook up the Peel dongle itself. There aren't many contents in the box. Just what you see in the photo to the side: the Peel IR controller, a C-size battery and the cable Wi-Fi hub that connects to a router via Ethernet on one end and then to a wall socket on the other.

Peel reps advised me that it's best to have the pear-shaped device set up on a coffee table in front of the entertainment center, at least the first time during set up. Thereafter, it should work nearly anywhere in the same room. It's also best to have the stem of the pear where "Peel" is inscribed at top to actually face away from the TV.

USE

When all of that was completed, I thought I would be finished. But, unfortunately, that was not the case. I was able to set up my TV and DVD player to work with the Peel app without a problem. Adjusting the settings to get the app communicating with my Time Warner Cable box took much, much longer. (One could argue that my first problem is having Time Warner Cable, but that's another story altogether.)

However, even when the app was able to adjust the volume on my TV, turn my DVD player on and off, and change the channel on the cable box, there was a big hurdle remaining. The app itself wasn't showing any program listings, which is kind of part of the reason of buying this device in the first place. Even though the app is free, the Peel fruit is useless without it.

In each of the menus (Top Picks, TV Shows, Movies and Sports), there are supposed to be program listings with descriptions that should automatically take you to the corresponding channel when clicked. You can see some examples here on Peel's website. It's a very graphically-rich and useful app - when it works.

I tried playing around with the settings, even altering my zip code and other channel information. Yet after an hour, I realized my efforts were futile. So I shot an email over to Peel's customer service reps.

It's not often that you get such great help from a customer service rep, but I was pleasantly surprised. The gentleman was also very patient when my iPhone 4 (again, another problem of my own here) kept dropping the call. However, after trying many different troubleshooting tricks, we were still nowhere.

At one point, I was put on hold for awhile, and I was troubleshooting with my TripIt app as well. On that program, the times weren't showing up on my itineraries, which again, renders the app useless. However, I found a similar question on a random support page (Thanks, Google!), which suggested switching the phone's settings to military time. It worked like a charm. Then, I clicked back on the Peel app, and guess what. It worked! It displayed listings for the most popular programs in the 6:30PM slot, including reruns of Friends and Two and a Half Men. Winning! (Sorry, couldn't help it.)

Thus, when the app was finally working, the Peel did feel like a real asset. We have three remotes in our living room. While I might have to use the big cable remote sometimes, the Peel really simplifies things as I don't have to go through the entire guide on the TV screen but the Peel not only lets me pick and cut programs from the suggestions, but it also offers recommendations based on my choices and taste. I don't know if I'd pay the high price for the Peel fruit myself, but I can't deny how efficient it is. You know, once the set-up process is over.

AVAILABILITY

The Peel Universal Remote Control retails for $99.95 (with free shipping) and is available for purchase now from Apple, either online or in stores.

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