Submission by Rob Beck – I imagine that I began my first experiments in home automation in the same way as most people, with a vague idea about how cool remote controlled scene lighting would be.
The remote control itself is a very smart looking affair, although it was slightly chunkier than I was expecting from the publicity shots. It is possible, using just the remote control to learn infra-red (IR) control codes, from other remote controls, label buttons on the touch screen and set up macros. However, to really exploit the power and flexibility of this remote it is necessary to get your hands dirty with the NEOedit software (see the NEOedit section below). This will enable you to design your own start screen, using graphical buttons, such as in the example taken from my own NEO below, which was created by downloading some graphics from the internet, and reducing them to grey-scale using a standard graphics application. I’m sure that you could do better, but you get the idea!
For me, the built in database of IR codes proved to be of little use – maybe due to my equipment, but I ended up learning all of the codes from existing remote controls. On the whole, this was a relatively easy affair, but on some devices, it was particularly problematic – my Panasonic TV for one, fortunately, the vast amount of information available at Remote Central.com came to the rescue. There is even a forum for ProntotNEO users, and it was here that I discovered the knack for learning codes. It is also a valuable resource for downloading configuration files and graphics.
“So, how do I customise the remote to do justice to my home automation set-up?” I hear you ask. Enter NEOedit, familiar interface, drag and drop functionality, confusing error messages – in fact everything we’ve come to expect from Windows programs over the years! NEOedit is the software that allows you to create and modify configuration (.NCF) files . Configuration files basically define how your customised remote control will look and behave. NEOedit allows you to create .NCF files by defining devices, which correspond to the different items that you want to control (in the left hand pane on the screen image below), and screens for those devices (as shown in the right hand pane)
On the whole I found NEOedit to be well designed and intuitive, and was soon designing my own screens. I chose to name my .NCF files by date, so that I could easily backtrack if something went horribly wrong.
There are a few “features” to be aware of, that weren’t easy to locate in the help files – which to be honest could do with a bit of work! The main one of these is that the first thing any self-respecting touch screen remote owner is going to want to do is add their own graphical buttons. It is not readily apparent that to do this, you first need to add a regular button, and then use the properties sheet to replace the bitmaps representing its pressed and released state with graphics of your own choice. However, in order to have a replacement graphic available, you have to import the graphic into the gallery first. What is also confusing is that a new graphic is likely to make the size of the button bigger, and if that button is next to another then the buttons are likely overlap. Buttons are not allowed to overlap, and the following error is displayed, which as far as I am concerned is not strictly accurate, and caused me to waste a lot of time trying to make the graphic smaller, when all I really needed to do was move the button somewhere else!
You will almost certainly want to create your own custom start screen rather than use the standard device overview which is auto-generated based upon the devices you have added to the .NCF file. For reasons that I have been unable to ascertain, NEOedit allows you to edit and save the device overview screen, even though doing so has no effect, as it is recreated each time a configuration file is saved, as explained by the following helpful message!
One method of creating your own start screen is to program the F button to jump to a screen designed for the purpose – as in my example above above.
The Help files have an annoying habit of trying to connect to my ISP, to be fair, this could be a browser setting – I haven’t bothered to look in to it.
The ability to Copy and Paste button and screens is very useful, especially on my somewhat dated machine, as it takes quite a while to load the button gallery. By far its most useful application though is the ability to copy and paste entire screens along with their associated IR codes from one .NCF file to another. Indeed this was how I managed to gain X-10 control, by downloading an X-10 .NCF file from Remote Central.com Once pasted into my .NCF file, I was able to customise it, and link other buttons actions to it.
NEOedit also contains a program called NEOemulator, which allows you to try out how the remote will look and act with your shiny new .NCF file before downloading it to the NEO. It’s quite a nice touch, but did have a tendency on my machine not to shut down properly, on one occasion even requiring a re-boot before it finally got the message! – which as we all know is the computer equivalent of “sending the boys round”, and therefore rather an excessive amount of force for a well behaved program to require!
You will need to be prepared to use the software and be prepared for some frustrating attempts at getting the layout and learned IR codes just right, but there is plenty of help out there on the internet, and you will soon get the hang of it. It’s not difficult, and once done, it does its job well.
This review may seem to highlight a number of issues, but remember that a universal remote will always be something of a compromise, Personally, I wouldn’t be without mine!
In summary, the ProntoNEO, in common with all universal remotes, may have its short comings, but it does have loads of hard buttons, a very cool blue back-light, makes you more attractive to women, and in my case caused most of my hair to grow back.
The major plus and minus points, as far as I am concerned, are listed below, so you can make up your own mind.
- Appearance – especially the blue back-light.
- Programmable hard buttons.
- Replaces many existing remotes.
- Customisable graphical buttons.
- Standard up/down left/right and select buttons work well with just about everything, particularly Sky.
- NEOEdit performs reasonably well on old computers.
- Macros allow commands for various devices to be combined i.e. X-10 and DVD play.
- Lots of information available from Remote Central.com.
- Did I mention the blue backlight?
- NEOEdit saves .NCF files in US format by default – need to select European format each time.
- No tactile feedback from touch-screen – you often find yourself repeatedly pressing nothing.
- Slower to react than dedicated remotes.
- Even the hard buttons have a slightly spongy feel to them. Downloading a new .NCF file to the remote causes it to forget the date, time, back-light, and contrast settings – this is very annoying.
- Short battery life – this is because you will always want to have the back-light come on when touching the screen, for sheer coolness!
- Have to hide the dedicated remotes from the missus to prevent her using them instead.
- IR7243 seems to less able to react to X-10 commands as batteries get low.
- Learning IR codes can be a pain.
- Occasional lock ups, requiring a reset- although none noticed with latest firmware upgrade.
Disclaimer: the author has a known tendency to lie about the kind of effect that touch-screen remote controls have on the amount of hair he has, and his ability to attract women!