Since buying an iPod Touch, I’ve been seeking ways to integrate the device into our media system. Being a Microsoft Windows Media Center user, you wouldn’t think this would be very easy but as it turns out, there are several options that will not only allow you to stream content to a Touch/iPhone but remote control your HTPC as well. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of apps available to turn your portable device into a full use remote control. I’ve used two so far and you’ll find all the details below.
Let’s first discuss remote streaming. This app is one I’ve talked about before but I’m rediscovering just how easy it is to use. I’m talking about Orb. These guys have been around for a good bit of time now and it seems to just be getting better. You’ve been able to stream content to other net connected PCs for quite some time and now they’ve developed their own iPhone app which allows you to do the same. With Orb, unless you’re not going to be connected to the internet, there’s very little need to actually sync your music or video to your device. The app (along with the PC installed server) grants access to your entire media library from anywhere in the world. Music plays perfectly. You can even look at pictures and documents. With the former, you can download them to your iPod or iPhone and use them as wallpaper, send them to people, etc. I use Orb mainly for video streaming. In this area you get about what you’d expect. Standard Def TV shows and movies stream relatively well. Very little buffering and they start quickly. HD MKVs are a bit of a different story. For the most part I’ve found this has everything to do with your connection. (I’m using a Touch so no 3G testing for me) Most of the time, they run just fine but I have had a few which either had to buffer constantly or had audio sync issues. Kills the experience a bit but if you have a persistent connection, it’s the easiest way to get your DVR-MS or WTV files on a portable device.
Orb will also allow you to stream live TV to your portable device but the tuner needed is pretty specific. I have yet to have any success even with MPEG2 hardware encoding tuners, which they say should work.
When I wrote the article about buying a Touch, I had only tried one Media Center remote control solution. I have two separate apps that will let me control my HTPC from the device now and while they’re both remote control programs and operate in similar ways, each has features I like.
The first app I tried was Remotely Possible. Created by ValidBit, this app will provide you with a simple but effective remote control solution for your HTPC running Windows Media Center. Like most, if not all, of the remote control solutions available, Remotely Possible requires you to install a server (Free) on your PC and then to purchase the app from the Apple App Store. The program will run you $2.99. It’s also fully customizable and has the ability to control other applications on your HTPC such as Hulu Desktop or Boxee.
Remotely Possible is a simple, clean, and efficient remote control solution. Setup isn’t too difficult and the creator has provided everything you need right on the site. The walkthrough on getting everything working is straight forward and from then on, as long as Media Center is running, you can use your phone or device to control menus, volume and transport. The app works well and is extremely responsive over wi-fi. The app and server will give you good control from within your network for skipping music tracks and changing volume as well as sitting on the couch controlling whatever video content you’re watching.
After using Remotely Possible for awhile I came to the conclusion that what I really wanted was an app that would provide me with some sort of two-way communication. Being able to remote control my HTPC from anywhere in the house was great, but I wanted to be able to do so without having to run back to the living room every time I wanted to change songs or perform some other task. Since we have two-zone audio in our home we had to be able to see what Media Center was doing and if possible, make changes to what was playing.
That’s when I found vmcMote. Much like Remotely Possible, you get full remote control capabilities and then some. Really, you have to look at the screenshots I’ve included to appreciate everything this application can do. As a remote control, it’s on par, and in some ways better than Remotely Possible. I do like the fact that the remote control portion of the application is all on one screen so I don’t have to move back and forth and try to remember where each button is.
My favorite part about vmcMote.is the two-way communication. Using the iPod Touch/iPhone you can view coverart, browse your music collection, select artists, albums or songs to add to the queue as well as build complete playlists. All without going back to the room where your HTPC is connected to a display. This would allow me to sit outside during the summer and have full access to our music collection.
While the vmcMote server is free, it will run you a bit more in the app store, $7.99. The good part is that there is “Lite” version which you can try out for free. It is a bit feature limited but it will let you get a sense of whether the application is right for your needs.
When it comes to streaming, Orb is really the way to go at this point. While it’s not perfect, it’s as close as we’re going to get until someone thinks of a better option. It allows you to basically take all of your content with you no matter what size device you have. With a persistent connection, you’re all set.
With remote controlling your HTPC you have a lot of options and I’ve only used two of them so far. While you’ll typically pay for the application, it’s well worth the cost if you want to be able to control your content from somewhere beside the couch.