Gadget Bits: The Ray Touchscreen Universal Remote

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Function: The Ray is a touchscreen universal remote designed to act in place of each individual device remote that comes with your home entertainment system. It seeks to make setup simple, and deliver functionality like a modern mobile phone does.

Reviewer’s Take: The universal remote is something of a holy grail for geeky folks who love their elaborate home entertainment setups, but get sick of the people in their lives not understanding which buttons need to be pressed on which remotes to enable the proper configuration needed to watch last week’s episode of Agent Carter. Most entries in this category require lengthy setup times, and often deliver a compromised experience because they need to provide buttons for a variety of uses, but still have to be familiar enough that there’s a low learning-curve to use them.

The big fish in this post up to now has been the Harmony line of remotes from Logitech. I’ve reviewed a couple of generations of the Harmony remotes, and each one took significant steps forward. They’ve done a good job of trying to incorporate every possible configuration of devices and activities, but this has made setup somewhat challenging, requiring using web-based software for setup, and then syncing to the device, which has a small touchscreen, and then a variety of buttons that are common to many TV/Cable/DVR setups. However, once you have them set up, they work really well.

But Ray has entered the fray in a big way. First, they’ve taken a cue from modern phones and tablets, and gone touchscreen all the way (there are just three buttons, all on the side of the device, for power, selection, and volume control). The remote feels like a good iPhone or Android device in your hand, and the touchscreen is bright, colorful, and very responsive (it sports a Dual core, ARM Cortex-A9, 1.0GHz, GPU with 1Gb LPDDR2-SDRAM and 8Gb flash memory storage. It’s almost as if they made an iPod touch with just one app.

Setup is a real treat, too. The Ray is only meant to be used with systems that incorporate a cable or satellite system (but it will work for literally thousands of different TVs, tuners, and other A/V or game units). Indeed, via both Bluetooth and Wi-fi, it syncs with your box to learn the channel guide and (if available) DVR info, and will display what’s available on live TV or on your DVR on the remote itself, leaving the TV screen free while you browse. This is a pretty jazzy feature, though in our house sometimes everyone actually likes browsing what’s available together.

Setup takes less than 15 minutes. You connect it to your home wi-fi, the device asks you the important questions about your TV service, tuner, TV, and any other devices (we have an XBOX One that we included), and sets up the various configurations as you go. There’s no need to go configure it somewhere else, and then come back; it all happens right there. It also allows easy configuration of favorite channels, or collections of channels based on themes, like sports or kids shows.

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The remote is quick and responsive. It’s funny – not many people want to use their phone as a remote in their living room; we’re all used to having a dedicate device that lives where the TV is for that purpose. So Ray solves the problem: it gives us the feeling of a smartphone, but it’s focused on this specific task. Everything looks pretty on it; TV listings and DVR entries all download the art you’d seen on your screen. The menus switch quickly, without lag or jitter. I’ve only have a couple minor quibbles. They also promise to move beyond just entertainment devices to other connected home devices, like Phillip’s HUE and the like, in upcoming software releases, which is very interesting!

Once in a while, the remote will have a problem re-syncing with the cable box to get the listings, and you need to be line-of-sight with your devices. And the location of the volume buttons on the side make it easy to accidentally toggle them while trying to get to the power button, at least with my normal hold. But otherwise, I’m really impressed with this device. It feels like there’s real competition in the high-end universal remote market again, and right now, Ray is on top.

Price: $249 from Ray.co, or from Amazon.

[Note: Ray provided a review unit.]

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