As the market for complex learning remote controls expands at a staggering pace, mainstream manufacturers have built upon previous and well-received products to provide a high-level of flexiblity at an affordable price. Nigel Pond follows his SMR Home Theatre reviews of the Marantz RC2000 mark II and Madrigal IRIQ with an evaluation of their competitor, the Philips Pronto.
Thanks to Holland Jacob and Jennifer Deitsch of Brodeur Public Relations for providing the review sample.
Philips Pronto Touchscreen Learning Remote Control Review
At around the same time as the Madrigal IRIQ was introduced into the learning remote control market, Philips launched their own offering, the Pronto. Like the IRIQ it is aimed at the affordable touchscreen remote control market. Review samples of the Pronto have been in very short supply but thanks to Holland Jacob at Philips PR agency, I was able to get my hands on one, albeit for only a month. Readers should refer to my recent review of the IRIQ for some preliminary comments on "real" vs. "virtual" buttons: Madrigal IRIQ Review.
Construction and Ergonomics
The Pronto system has two parts. There is the remote unit itself (TS1000) which can be used on its own with regular disposable batteries, or it can be used with the optional NiMH rechargeable battery pack and table-top charging cradle (DS1000). I received a review sample of each, so I had a chance to evaluate the whole package. The remote is a little smaller than my trusty Marantz RC2000 mark II (of course, it doesnt need all those buttons!). It is a slightly wedge-shaped, greeny-charcoal coloured unit measuring 5.4" × 3.6" × 1.5" and sits very nicely in the hand. It does not dispense with physical buttons entirely along the top right-hand side of the unit are buttons for mute, channel + and channel , and volume + and volume . At the centre bottom are a pair of triangular buttons which can be programmed by the user. For a right-hander like me these buttons are well laid out and allow for easy one hand operation. The unit is well balanced and the weight (8.8 oz with batteries) seems evenly distributed which also contributes to the ease of use. The touchscreen is 3" × 2.3" and offers 4 levels of grey and excellent resolution (320 × 240, 0.24 pitch, to be exact). On the left side of the unit are a backlight button and a small wheel to change the screen contrast. The charger unit (measuring 5.9" × 3.5" × 1.1") is a very striking silver colour on which the Pronto rests at a slight angle while charging. The odd combination of colours at work here does not bother me too much, but the less aesthetically challenged may find it rather odd.
The review package also contained a well laid out manual, a serial cable for connecting the Pronto to a PC and instructions for downloading the Pronto Edit software and PDF-format user guide from Philips Pronto web site. Naturally, I downloaded both and installed the software. I didnt read either of the manuals straightaway, but, hey, who does?!
Before I attempted to use the software, I took a little time getting to know the remote in its out-of-the-box configuration. The basic operating premise of the Pronto is not quite as restrictive as that of the Madrigal IRIQ. The default configuration allows the user to set the unit up like any conventional remote programme the devices then switch between devices on-screen to execute device-specific commands, but before I got too far into device programming, I took a look at the settings menu. Pressing the Pronto icon for 3 seconds brings up the units first set-up panel, where the user can check battery level, set the time and day of the week, the LCD display-on time, and the backlight time. Scrolling down to the second screen, the user can set the sensitivity of the light sensor (for backlight purposes), calibrate the touchscreen and turn the annoying feedback beep off.
That done it was onto device programming. The Pronto only comes pre-programmed with proprietary Philips/Marantz RC5 and RC6 codes so the first job is to programme in device codes one by one, device by device, as is the case with the RC 2000 Mark II. The procedure is clearly explained in the well-written manual. I programmed the physical mute, volume + and buttons with their respective commands from my Lexicon MC-1 remote and the channel + and buttons with their counterparts from my cable box remote. The first screen of the default configuration is a device input screen so I programmed each of its buttons to switch to the appropriate input of my MC-1, so that pressing, say, the DVD button on the on-screen display would activate that input on the Lexicon MC-1. Pressing that button also switches the display to a screen of DVD commands. So the next job was to programme the first screen of DVD commands. With that done, the programmed commands worked fine.
However, I quickly realised that it was going to be a lengthy process to programme in commands for all my stuff, and that it would eat into the short time I had with the sample. Then Mark Sironi came to my rescue. Mark is an SMR Forums regular and he owns some of the same gear that I do - a Lexicon MC-1 and a Theta DaViD DVD transport. More importantly, he has spent a lot of time at Remote Central downloading configuration files for the Pronto and customising his own configuration. When he heard that I had a review sample he kindly e-mailed me the file for his complete configuration. This of course was an excellent excuse for me to fire up the Pronto Edit software and put it through its paces.
PC Interface and Programming
As you can see (to the right) the main screen of the application is pretty straightforward and is similar to the Windows Explorer interface. The left pane shows the three main elements of the system: HOME where one sets up basic system properties and the design of the HOME screen; DEVICES where devices are listed, added and deleted; and MACRO GROUPS for programming and editing macros. Clicking on the plus or minus signs within each element expands or collapses the configuration for each. In expanded mode a basic properties icon and icons representing each screen for the device are displayed. Double-clicking a screen icon opens a window in the right-hand pane with a WYSIWYG view of the panel. The screen illustrated below left demonstrates what I mean: I opened 6 of the MC-1 screens and moved them around so that they are all visible. In each of these screen windows the individual elements can be selected, graphics moved around or changed, text labels moved and edited, and the appropriate IR commands assigned. It sounds and looks complicated but it doesnt really take long to get the hang of it. It was relatively easy for me to use Marks configuration as a basis for my own, changing some of the elements to suit the rest of my equipment. A configuration can easily be saved as a .ccf file, so that a backup can be kept and different versions of a configuration saved in case a tweak needs to be undone later.
One very useful feature of the Pronto Edit software is the Pronto Emulator. Clicking the emulator button on the tool bar displays an almost life size image of the Pronto with the HOME screen of the loaded configuration. Clicking the cursor on any of the real or virtual buttons makes the emulator behave exactly as programmed, save for the transmission of the IR command. So, once you have created your configuration, you can test whether all the screen navigation commands work properly without having to download the configuration to the remote only to find that it doesnt work 10 out of 10 for usefulness.
From reading the manual and the press materials sent with the review sample it is clear that the editing software is capable of much more than I could explore in my limited time with the sample. It allows pretty near complete customisation including the importing of bitmap files to use as icons (for example customised transport keys, and TV channel and equipment manufacturer logos), and the importing of grid designs. There is no shortage of files available for download and import from sites like Remote Central and ProntoEdit.com. With the "file save" capability it is easy to develop customised design and functionality over time and still keep the remote in use. Since the initial launch of the Pronto, the Edit software has been upgraded at least once and, with an accompanying firmware upgrade for the remote itself, new functionality added. If Philips keeps this up the Pronto will not become obsolete for a considerable time.
I lived with the Pronto for a month, the first week just using it with my components codes programmed into the default configuration, the last three with Mark Sironis configuration customised for my system. In the default configuration the Pronto does pretty much all that a "basic" user would want, but where it really shines is the capability for complete customisation. Getting out of the habit of trying to operate the Pronto by feel was the biggest problem that I had adapting to it, but, with the backlighting, visibility is not a problem, and with the rechargeable battery, power consumption a non-issue. The "real" buttons give the right feedback when pressed and the screen always responded to a touch first time. The screen navigation features make it easy always to get to where you want to go, whether its back to the HOME screen, to other pages of commands within a device, or to other devices. I particularly liked the ability to programme the two bottom "real" buttons to do anything for different devices it is desirable to have them do different things.
The screen does attract some dust (but then so does my RC-2000 and, come to think of it, everything else in my basement), but it is easy to keep clean. The review sample had obviously been through several pairs of hands before it reached me, but it had stood up pretty well and only bore a few signs of heavy use in normal use it seems that it would be almost indestructible. The angle at which the remote sits on the charging cradle means that it is nearly impossible for the remote not to make proper contact so the unit is always kept charged. Despite its heavy use before me the rechargeable battery was not showing any sign of "memory" problems (my experience with other NiMH batteries has been variable, even though they are supposed to be immune to such problems). One problem that has plagued some universal remotes is the operational range and coverage angle of the IR transmitter. The Pronto had none of these problems in my hands and I tried it from pretty much everywhere within my home theater space and a little beyond.
I did not have much time to programme anything more complex than a couple of simple "system on" and "system off" macros but the programming was straightforward and execution effected by a single touch. Macros can be assigned to buttons on any device screen so with a complex system (for example, remote controlled lighting, shades and front projection screen) the control and customisation options are almost unlimited.
I have heard rumours that the Pronto cannot learn some of the higher frequency IR commands used by some manufacturers (Pioneer Elite for example). I was not able to test for this problem, but if it is true then I am surprised. The original RC2000 was criticised for exactly the same shortcoming which was corrected in the Marantz RC2000 mark II. If the Pronto does have this limitation then it is a step backwards. I will continue to try to get to the bottom of this issue.
You can probably tell that I am very enthusiastic about this remote. It was very hard to send it back after my month was up. It is a worthy addition to the past and current remote controls in the Philips product line.
The Remote Central and Pronto Edit websites provide plenty of operational and programming help and resources like these will be invaluable to an owner. It is obvious that there are a lot of people putting a lot of time and effort into customising the Pronto for their systems and who are willing to share the fruits of their labours with other users. All other things being equal, the programming flexibility the resources available swing the pendulum in favour of the Pronto over any of its similarly priced competitors.
Will I be buying one? Well I was going to, but the rumour of a colour version due out some later this year has delayed my decision. The current Pronto is something special and in my view takes the RC2000 mark IIs crown as the best value for money multipurpose remote control this side of the all-singing all-dancing, colour touch-sensitive displays of Crestron and AMX. If the rumours are true and the colour version follows in its footsteps, it will be a giant-killer then it will be move over Crestron and AMX, youre in for a big shake-up.
More information can be found upon the Philips Pronto web site, the Pronto Edit web site and Remote Central
Text © Nigel R. Pond; HTML © SMR Home Theatre and Images © Nigel R. Pond, Philips & SMR Home Theatre cannot be reproduced without permission. The images on this page are digitally watermarked: Digimarc http://www.digimarc.com/
Last updated 07 March, 2000
Return to the Reviews Index
Return to the SMR Home Theatre menu