Control Your World: FLIRC Review

flirc_feat

With the trend towards digital media, more and more consumers have been using their computers as a way to store and playback their movies, music, and pictures. Well known software like XBMC can turn your computer into a fully functional home theater, but there has always been one problem with self-built Home Theater PCs (HTPCs): controlling it. You could buy a remote control (and associated receiver) for your HTPC, but that comes with it’s own problems.

What is FLIRC?

Remote controls intended for computer use, on the whole, include a cheap IR remote and a USB receiver which interprets button presses from the remote into input events the operating system can use. These products are fairly cheap, and more or less get the job done, but they aren’t perfect.

For one, you are left with yet another remote in your surely growing collection, made even worse by the fact that this one is probably of significantly lower quality than whatever came with your TV or audio receiver. The other, more practical, problem is how you utilize the remote itself. When you buy a remote and receiver combination, the functions of all the buttons on the remote are predetermined and generally can’t be changed. If you wanted to do something special, like assign a particular button on the remote to an Alt+ key combination, you would need third party software that could translate whatever static event the receiver spits out for that button into a keyboard event.

Enter FLIRC, a product designed to change the way people use IR remotes to control their computers. FLIRC doesn’t include a remote control, instead, it uses whatever remotes you already have. This immediately remedies the first problem, as you can simply program FLIRC against whatever remote you are already using to control the existing A/V equipment. But even better than that, FLIRC gives you incredible control over what happens on specific button presses. This is really the greatest strength of FLIRC, as it allows the user to create advanced control layouts that would not otherwise be possible.

For example, in my home theater the surround sound receiver’s remote includes a full number pad, even though in my particular setup it is non functional. With FLIRC, I can program these otherwise useless buttons to command various functions on my HTPC, turning what was once a half useless remote into something I can use for two separate devices without them interfering with each other.

How FLIRC Works

FLIRC is fundamentally different than other products on the market, as the mapping of IR input to keypresses is not static, but user programmable. While it is possible to get this type of functionality with standard USB IR receivers, it requires intermediary software to be constantly running: adding another layer of complication and potential failure. By saving configuration on the FLIRC device itself, the user no longer has to constantly keep software running to interpret remote commands into their desired keypresses. What’s more, since FLIRC stores its configuration internally rather than on the computer, you can move FLIRC between computers and devices without having to reconfigure it.

The key is that FLIRC reports itself to the operating system as a standard USB Human Interface Device (HID), so any modern OS will be able to read it as if it was a keyboard. Even if the device or OS you want to use FLIRC on has no included support for remote controls, you can program FLIRC to “press” keys that the system will understand. For example, I was able to program FLIRC to interpret the directional pad on my remote to standard keyboard arrow keys; I then plugged FLIRC into my Android device and was able to navigate through the applications with my remote.

This allows for incredible flexibility. Being able to program FLIRC from a different device than what you end up using it on and the fact that it emulates a USB keyboard means you can use FLIRC where other products would be useless.

FLIRC Hardware

The FLIRC hardware is a small and unassuming little clear box that plugs into your USB port, about half the length of your average USB flash drive. The clear casing is pretty cool as you can see the internal workings of the device, though I was somewhat surprised there were no LEDs to indicate IR activity like in the other IR receivers I’ve used. It seems logical enough to have a little SMD LED on the PCB if the case is going to be clear, but on the other hand, a random blinking LED might look a little odd in your home theater setup. Still, it would be handy to have a visual verification that the FLIRC dongle is receiving the IR signals from your remote, especially since the nature of FLIRC means you will be throwing random remotes at it and hoping FLIRC is able to understand them.

Of course, that being said, I had no problem programming FLIRC against any IR remote I threw at it. The FLIRC documentation suggests some remotes may not be compatible, but I certainly couldn’t find any that didn’t work exactly as expected.

Build quality feels very good on the FLIRC; the plastic case is made thick enough that you’re not going to break it under normal use, and there is no wiggle at all where the PCB lays into it. I also liked the new packaging, which is simple to open and doesn’t waste a lot of materials. It’s interesting to note that the packaging isn’t strictly necessary at this point in FLIRC’s development (as there are no retail stores that sell it yet), but is included simply to make the product look more professional.

Between the construction and presentation, it’s clear that the FLIRC team is committed to delivering a polished and professional device, which is definitely something to be commended for such a small group. It would be easier and cheaper to have made the FLIRC out of cheaper materials and ship it to you in a plastic bag, but they’ve clearly taken the high road throughout the production of the physical device.

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Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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  • boitol

    I am a bit confused about how this works. When I press the buttons on the remote to control the computer, won’t my TV pick them up aswell? E.g. I map the volume control as a command to XBMC, won’t my tv’s volume go up aswell?

    • lordpenguin

      Yes, sorta… But your XBMC computer probably doesn’t have speakers, so this would be the desired operation…

      For instance, I use a universal remote with my FLIRC (a cheap $20 Sony). My volume buttons turn the receiver volume up and down. I did not map volume controls for the XBMC, because, why?

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