In a recent article we explored some economical ways to equip your living room with a budget media centre for a home theatre on the cheap. XBMC featured prominently as a free, powerful and easy to use media center application that runs cross-platform on a vast array of devices.
One of the best things about XBMC is its compatibility with remote control applications, of which there are no shortage on the App Store. Today we’ll be taking a look at the best free remotes for the job so you can transform your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch into a free remote control for your media center.
If you’re still not sure about XBMC then you can check out our coverage of the latest release and get a taste for the customisations possible with skins and plugins. The following all require the in-built XBMC web UI to be running; instructions can be found at the end of this article.
A relative newcomer to the many hordes of remote control applications found on the App Store, the Official XBMC Remote is a spin off of the Android project of the same name, after XBMC forum member joethefox decided that iOS users needed a quality free remote too. The project has come a long way since the first release, and now features server auto discovery, a theme that compliments Confluence (the official skin) beautifully and absolutely no adverts or in-app purchases.
The remote control area is packed with buttons for quickly accessing different media sources, enabling subtitles or cycling through audio streams and the directional controls and select buttons are just about big enough for use without having to constantly glance at the screen to make sure you’re not hitting the wrong thing.
The project can only go from strength to strength from here on out, and I’d recommend you give it a try even if you’ve pledged allegiance to one of the many paid apps out there. The only thing I’d personally love would be an option to use a gesture area for remote control purposes, perhaps we’ll see something added in later releases.
Before the Official XBMC Remote (above) matured to include a few of the features I had grown accustomed to, Constellation was my go-to app for controlling my media centre. While it’s far from perfect, it is at least free for the basic functions – though there are optional in-app purchases to unlock an enhanced landscape remote control style and rid the app of iAds.
Adverts and in-app purchases aside, Constellation does the job most of the time using a gesture area that takes up a little under half of your device’s screen along with standard playback and option controls. There’s a nice status area above the main controls which lets you know what’s playing, the quality, codec used and how far you are through. This is perfect for those of you using XBMC in conjunction with an audio receiver who don’t necessarily need your TV on while listening to music.
The remote is accessible at all times by dragging down from the top of the screen in the same way you would Notification Centre. You’ll probably get a bit frustrated at the placement of the adverts (cheekily designed for clicks) and the remote style might not be to everyone’s tastes either, but for free it does the job just fine.
Believe it or not but there are three different versions of XBMC Commander on the App Store, with only this latest release carrying the free price tag. Presumably this was somewhat of a response to the Official XBMC Remote being released, and while it does contain some adverts and restrictions it’s still worth giving a go.
One thing that XBMC Commander does really well is a nice, big, gesture area for moving around the GUI. This area features tabs for playback controls and shortcuts for common tasks like enabling subtitles or dropping in and out of fullscreen. Gestures allow for single handed operating without having to check you’re not pressing the wrong button – so if this is your kind of thing then you might want to check it out.
Despite displaying adverts, these are thankfully absent from the gesture area so if you were to solely use this as a remote for controlling your media centre’s interface you would probably never notice them. Unfortunately, Commander doesn’t feature auto-discovery of servers which can be a bit annoying if you’re always forgetting which I.P. address your media centre uses (like I am).
XBMC’s Own WebUI
The final “free remote” on this list is one you’ll have to enable anyway if you’re hoping to use any such mobile remote. From your system’s Network settings, found in System > Settings > Network > Services, make sure Allow control of XBMC via HTTP is enabled, input a username and password and make a note of the port which by default is usually 8080. Under the System menu heading is another option called System Info and you’ll want to make one quick trip here to find out which local I.P. address is currently assigned to your XBMC server.
Then in your iPhone or iPad’s web browser visit http://your-ip:port where your-ip is the I.P. you’ve just checked and port is probably 8080 if you didn’t change it. You’ll be prompted for that username and password you entered before, and then you’ll see a white page with options for Remote, Movies and so on.
From here you can control either the GUI using your iPad or iPhone (note pinch to zoom won’t work, instead you’re going to have to double-tap near the remote to zoom in) or select and view films or TV shows at your leisure. You can then add a homescreen shortcut, and provided XBMC is running and your media centre stays on that I.P. then you’re set. It’s not perfect, but it’s quick, dirty and completely free and Safari handles it pretty well on my iPhone 4.
XBMC Constellation and XBMC Commander are essentially trials for their feature-packed paid cousins, though both can be used extensively without having to pay a penny. The Official XBMC Remote is different in that it’s a community effort, will be free forever but might take some time to get around to implementing whatever missing feature you’re pining for.
If you have any favourite remote apps, recommendations or just an opinion then don’t forget to add your thoughts in the comments below.
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