Tech Talk: Take control of your TV

Play movies on your TV direct from your phone with an app like this
Play movies on your TV direct from your phone with an app like this
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It’s time to pension off your zapper, says David Behrens

WE’VE had remote controls in Britain since the Seventies, and for the most part they’ve hardly changed at all. Until now.

The standard method of controlling a device has been to zap it with an infra-red signal. But now that we have wireless networks criss-crossing our homes, that’s about as efficient as shouting at the moon.

Today, an app on your phone can control suitably wired devices from anywhere in the house, with your touchscreen serving as a window on all the content within.

Any telly or set-top box which connects to the internet does so by accessing the same wi-fi network as your phone, PC or tablet. Additionally, if you use your network to store videos, music or pictures, your phone can send them to your TV or music player automatically. It’s like having your own personal iPlayer.

Virgin Media’s TV Guide and BSkyB’s Sky+ are currently the best-known remote apps, with mini on-screen programme guides from which you can select what to watch or record, and, in Sky’s case, the ability to swipe the screen to play, pause or rewind.

But there’s a newer and much cheaper device that does a better job. The £30 Raspberry Pi microcomputer, much beloved of schools and hobbyists, is capable of running a full-scale – and free – media centre which connects in high definition to your TV and home cinema speakers. You need some technical knowledge – or a handy teenager – to install the OpenElec or RaspBMC software, but you’ll have a device more functional than a smart TV costing ten times the price.

The Raspberry Pi comes without even a plastic cover, let alone a remote control. So your phone is an ideal companion – and free apps for Apple and Android handsets let you control every aspect of its operation.You’re not restricted to playing content on your own network, either, as the XBMC media centre software at the heart of OpenElec and RaspBMC can also connect to YouTube, iPlayer and most other online services. All of which is likely to make pointing your old zapper at the telly as redundant as, well, getting out of your chair to kick it.