Texting, talking and playing Angry Birds; that's as far as most people push their smartphones, but the potent dual- and quad-core processors powering today's PC-like handsets are capable of so much more. In our blog post, Cash, karma and cool ideas: What can you do with an old smartphone?, I suggested several ways you could put that technology to good use -- including transforming your phone into a fully functional remote control for your television. Today, I'll show you how to do just that with a handful of apps that will turn your tablet or smartphone into the hub of your home theater setup.
The tricky part: actually controlling your devices
Let's get the headache out of the way first; most phones and tablets can't actually control your home theater out of the box. That's because many mobile devices flat-out lack the infrared blaster (that your remote has) needed to send signals to your TV, receiver, cable box or other electronics. There are a couple of exceptions -- recent tablets from Vizio, Sony and Samsung come to mind -- that usually include pre-installed control apps, though.
Apps to the rescue
What are the rest of us movie buffs supposed to do? That's where hybrid app/hardware devices come into play. Solutions like the Griffin Beacon, Peel Universal Remote and Logitech Harmony Link consist of an IR emitter that you place within range of your home theater and an app to control it. When you change the channel or adjust the volume, the app will communicate the command to the IR emitter via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and then the IR emitter relays the command to your electronics.
It sounds complicated, but it's actually pretty seamless after the initial setup. Most remote control apps support a wide range of hardware, not just TVs and cable boxes, and several include baked-in support for streaming video services like Netflix. We cover the top options in-depth on the remote control app page of our universal remotes report.
Alternatively, you can purchase a separate IR emitter device that plugs into your smartphone or tablet for anywhere from $10 to $50. If you're only interested in controlling your TV rather than a whole home theater system, many manufacturers offer specialized remote control apps for their Internet-connected Smart TVs, which don't require infrared signals.
Now on to the fun part -- the home theater apps! You can use these whether or not your mobile device has actual remote control functionality.
Cable/Satellite provider's app (Various, free)
Virtually all major cable and satellite providers offer apps that let you manage your DVR right from your phone, including Comcast and AT&T. When the game goes into overtime, you can schedule American Idol to record without missing a minute of the action. Some even claim to let you control all of your TV's functions from your phone, no IR emitter necessary.
Dijit was made to be used to control the Griffin Beacon hardware discussed above (or IR-packing Android devices), but on its own, the app lets you browse your local satellite/cable listings, manage your Netflix queue or control a Roku box.
iMediaShare (Android and iOS; free Lite version, $4.99 full version)
IMediaShare talks to TVs, game consoles and various other Internet-enabled home theater electronics using your home's Wi-Fi. Once you've configured the app, it lets you stream videos, music and photos from your phone directly to your TV. It also comes preloaded with several web sources that you can browse through and beam to your TV screen, including Facebook, YouTube HD, CNBC, Revision3 (videos), TED Talks and CNN. IMediaShare requires home theater hardware that's DLNA and UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) compatible, however, so be sure to try the free version first and ensure it works with your setup.
Skifta (Android; free)
The Android-only Skifta is a great companion app to iMediaShare; it lets you stream media from your PC(s) to a Smart TV or any other DLNA-compatible device over your home Wi-Fi network, using your phone to direct the action. You'll need to install Skifta's desktop app on your PC to get it to work, however. Skifta's pretty simple to use and if you sign up for an optional account, you can access the media on your PC from anywhere in the world, assuming that both your phone and your PC have a working Internet connection.
HTPC control apps (Availability and pricing varies)
If your setup includes a home theater PC or streaming set-top box, good news: there's probably an app for (controlling) that. TotalHTPC.com has a comprehensive list of the best ones, including control apps for Roku, Apple TV, XBMC, Plex and more.
IMDB (Android, iOS and Windows Phone 7; free)
Where did I see that guy before? What's the lead actress's name again? The portable version of the legendary Internet Movie Database has the answers to all your questions.