A dedicated HTPC is a great step up from a more basic media player, but sometimes the experience of using a computer does not translate well to the loungeroom.
While there are a range of dedicated remotes, or mini keyboards and mice, that can make control easier, there is also another way.
With a familiar and easy touch-based interface, smartphones and tablets make excellent controllers.
In fact, with a few apps and setup tips, you may never need to leave the couch again.
This do-all app is one of the best solutions for controlling a HTPC remotely via a mobile device and Wi-Fi.
It’s designed to be very intuitive to use, and automatically configures for a ‘it just works’ experience.
Unified Remote comes in both a free version, which covers the basics, and a paid ($4.12) upgrade for most of the best functionality.
Perhaps most importantly, it is a massively cross-platform bit of software, and can be used on just about any loungeroom computer and phone or tablet combo.
The controller-side app is available for the big three — Android, iOS and Windows Phone. The computer-side software is just as versatile, available for Windows, Mac and Linux.
It also has installers for Raspberry Pi and Arduino, as well as legacy versions for older versions of your favourite OS.
Unified Remote acts as a universal remote, combining control for all your favourite programs and services into a single app.
At its most basic, it replaces a keyboard and mouse, using touch input to move a cursor, click and type. You can also turn the volume up and down, play, skip or pause music and video, and shutdown/wake up the computer.
The app also supports options such as screen mirroring, and has a dedicated file browser.
Going beyond basic control, the app has a range of remotes designed for specific PC applications. For example, it can handle iTunes, Chrome, Kodi, Plex, Netflix, PowerPoint, Spotify, Winamp, VLC, YouTube and more.
The free version has 18 remotes, while the paid upgrade gives access to 90+ options, as well as the ability to create custom remotes.
Unified Remote also can create widgets and quick actions for your most used remotes. It also has voice commands, as well as the ability to control IR blasters, or set up actions based on NFC tags.
It even integrates with your smartwatch. Importantly, the app creators are also continually updating Unified Remote, and working on new features such as support for Chromebooks.
Unified Remote is very easy to get running.
Download (and install) the app and server software of choice and run both. Make sure both are on the same network, and the app will automatically find and connect to the server software.
The default screen shows your installed remotes, such as Basic Input and File Manager. Touching the round green ‘+’ symbol in the bottom right allows you to browse and select more remote options.
Hitting the settings tab (top left) opens up a menu with loads of extra options and configurations.
‘Servers’ takes you to a list of all the accessible server clients, where you can switch to control different PCs — such a HTPC and your desktop or laptop.
Other customisations available through the menu include mouse setup preferences, IR learning, widgets, theme options and how the app integrates with your mobile device and more.
The Unified Remote app website also includes a comprehensive help section, as well as tutorials for more advanced options, such as configuring wake on LAN.
There is also an online community, with requests for specific features, and a place for people to show off their projects.
Kore (Official Kodi Remote)
There is a good chance your HTPC is (or should be!) running Kodi (formerly XBMC) — just about the best home theatre software out there.
To make control easier, there’s an official remote app available called Kore.
It’s not only free, but has a very easy-to-use and stylish interface.
The remote app is available on Android and iOS, and one of the best options for interfacing with your Kodi-based HTPC.
Intel Remote Keyboard
Not as comprehensive as some options, but still very handy, the free Intel Remote Keyboard app is designed for use with NUCs and Compute Sticks.
It replaces a keyboard and mouse, using touch and onscreen buttons to control your compatible device. The app side of the remote is available for Android and iOS, though the server side only works with Windows.
Probably the best media player out there, VLC can handle just about any format and has loads of handy features.
The problem is that it’s designed for use with a keyboard and mouse, so can be a bit fiddly for HTPC use. Fortunately, though, there are a range of third-party apps available that can turn your mobile phone into an excellent VLC control system.
Our favourite is VLC Remote, which has a free version as well as a paid premium upgrade for $4.05. The app is available on iOS and Android, and brings all the relevant VLC controls together into one handy interface.
Anymote Universal Remote
Controlling an HTPC is all well and good, but what about the TV itself?
Some phones (such as many of the HTC and Samsung range) have inbuilt IR transmitters, and can directly replace your existing remotes.
The Anymote Universal Remote app and a compatible phone can control a staggering 900,000+ different devices, from TVs to air conditioners. The app also links into your Wi-Fi, and can control options such as Kodi, VLC and many smart TVs.
There is a free basic version, while the premium remote with all the bells and whistles costs around $9.
It’s easy enough to use your everyday phone as a remote, but sometimes a dedicated device is better.
The problem is that it’s one more thing to forget to charge, leaving you scrambling for a cable just to watch some TV.
Instead, use an old phone with wireless charging — then simply drop it on a charger pad each evening.