How To Control Your HTPC

Posted on May 23, 2011

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Without a good wireless input device for your Home Theater PC, it’s easy to find yourself on the floor using a wired keyboard and mouse. This works, but it defeats the whole purpose of a “Home Theater” PC. Luckily, there are several wireless devices that can be a great remote for your HTPC, depending on your needs and how much you want to spend.

Wireless Keyboard and Mouse

One option to control your HTPC is to use a wireless keyboard and mouse. Many people already own a set, but there are disadvantages. First, the signal is often weak, forcing you to enter the same key multiple times just to get it to register on the computer. Also, having a full size keyboard and a mouse while sitting on the couch can be uncomfortable.

MCE Remote

The easiest way to control your HTPC is to purchase a Media Center Edition remote. There are several different kinds, and most won’t cost you more than $15 or $20. This was the first way I started controlling my HTPC (check it out). The great thing about these remotes is that they will control a variety of programs such as Windows Media Center, XBMC, Boxee, and even Hulu Desktop. Some even come with trackballs. However, these remotes don’t have keyboards, so it would be hard to use your computer to do other tasks like surfing the web. Also, they can only control one device (the HTPC). This might not seem like a disadvantage, but if you an HTPC, an audio receiver, and a TV, you’re already looking at three remotes.

Rii Wireless Keyboard

The Rii Wireless Keyboard is another popular solution. I have never used one, but I hear it works well, and I believe the keys are backlit. One neat feature is that you can hold it either horizontally or vertically so you can us it has a presenter (I think it comes with a laser pointer at one end). All you have to do is move a switch over and the track pad will adjust accordingly. The price is right as well, at just over $30 on Amazon.

Lenovo N5901 Wireless Keyboard

The Lenovo N5901 is a great device for controlling and HTPC. I personally use it for mine along with my Logitech Harmony One (see below). It sports a full keyboard and dedicated media keys, along with a trackball and left and right click buttons. It fits well in the hand and is pretty compact. The device runs off a small USB RF dongle that is included in the package. The keys are very responsive, as is the trackball. The only drawback is that the keys don’t light up, making it a little difficult to see the keys when it’s dark. However, it’s still a great deal. It usually retails for $60, but every few months, Lenovo has a sale and they go for just $30, a great deal.

Logitech diNovo Mini

The Logitech diNovo is the next step up from the Lenovo N5901. The main improvement are the backlit keys, so there’s no trouble seeing the keys at night. In addition, instead of a trackball, there is a track-pad that also can be switched to a D-pad. The device comes with a Bluetooth dongle, and is compatible with the PlayStation 3 as well. It has gotten good reviews, but the price is a bit steep at around $150. For me, it just wasn’t worth it, but look in your local classifieds to see if you can find a good deal on it.

Logitech Harmony

Logitech Harmony remotes are some of the best remotes out there right now. They are programmable to control several devices at once. I use my Logitech Harmony One to control my TV, HTPC, and sound system. What’s great is that the remote knows which keys apply to which device, based on an activity you create for the remote (which is very easy). For example, on my remote, I can select “Watch Movie,” and it will wake up my HTPC, turn on my TV and set it to HDMI input, and turn on my sound system and set the input to optical! From there, the remote knows that when I adjust the volume, the signals are sent to the sound system, and when I use my media controls, the signals are sent to the HTPC. This is great because I don’t have to use several remotes when I’m watching a movie.

The top of the line Harmony remote is the Harmony® 1100 Advanced Universal Remote. It features a large touchscreen from which you can select your activities. It’s a great remote, but it’ll cost you close to $300. The Harmony remote I own is the Harmony One. It has a smaller touchscreen and it is in the conventional shape of a remote. It goes for about $200. However, like I said before, check your local classifieds. I was lucky enough to find a brand new one for just $65!

With a Logitech Harmony remote, the possibilities are endless. You can control anything from a TV to your home theater’s lighting. There are literally thousands of devices that the Harmony remotes are compatible with, and you can combine them in just about any way to program its activities. If you ever come across a good deal one one, I highly recommend it!

Mobile Devices

If you’re looking to keep costs to a bare minimum, mobile devices are a possible solution. The Android Market has apps for XBMC, Boxee, Google TV, and many more. The same can be said for Apple’s App Store. Another app I recommend checking out is the Logitech Mouse Server for iOS devices. It requires a program on your computer (free), and it gives your iOS device a trackpad with left and right clicks, as well as a full keyboard. The best part about these mobile apps is that a large majority are free.

Other Options

Even with all the devices mentioned above, there are still plenty more solutions to control your HTPC, some cheaper and others more expensive. Make sure you read user reviews before you purchase a remote, and don’t forget to look for local deals in your area for new and used items. Feel free to comment and add your two cents about other remotes you might be familiar with.

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