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Tech Review: Streamzap’s PC Remote

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Streamzap’s PC Remote is one of several remote controls intended for Microsoft Windows-based computers. Like other such gadgets, it is primarily designed for controlling media programs such as iTunes and Windows Media Center. It is available from a variety of retailers, including ThinkGeek (which provided the review sample) and Amazon.com.

Superficially the Streamzap looks like one of Logitech’s Harmony remotes. It has the same slightly curvaceous profile that is supposed to make it sit easily in your hand. It feels lighter than the average universal remote, however (even with batteries installed), and has fewer controls. In addition to numbers, the Streamzap has the standard set of playback buttons (Play, Pause, Stop, Fast Forward, Rewind, Skip Forward, Skip Back), as well as buttons for Mute, Exit, Menu, OK , up, down, left and right arrows, Channel changers, Volume Up and Down and the four color buttons that are common on BD player remotes. These color buttons can be programmed as hotkeys that can be used to directly open programs on the controlled PC. To relay commands to the computer, the remote component comes with a receiver attached to a long cable that you plug into a USB port.

Look on the back of the Streamzap’s packaging and you’ll see the claim that it can ‘control over 120 programs.’ Below this is an extensive list of software programs that it is supposedly compatible with. Unfortunately it doesn’t give version numbers so there is no way to tell if newer releases of these programs will work. Also, there seems to be no active support process by which the manufacturer is providing updates for the remote’s driver.

Getting the Streamzap up and running is simple in principle but I found it to be frustrating in practice. The first thing you are instructed to do is insert the driver disc and then plug in the receiver when prompted. If you are a Windows 7 64-bit user you need to know that the drivers that come with the Streamzap aren’t going to work. They are intended for Windows XP and Vista. There is a suitable beta driver available but you won’t find it mentioned on the Streamzap’s PC Remote Downloads webpage. In fact, the age of the latest driver update listed (Version 3.0.0) is revealed by the statement that it was intended to provide support ‘for all 32-bit Editions of Microsoft Windows Vista.’ Do a Google search, though, and you’ll turn up a page on the Streamzap server that includes a link to a downloadable zip file.

Even if you can use the drivers that come with the Streamzap the installation process might not work the first time. Or the second time, for that matter. I initially tried to install the drivers on a 32-bit Windows Vista machine. I inserted the driver disc and waited dutifully for the prompt telling me to plug in the receiver. This appeared after a few seconds with the promising statement that it would disappear when the drivers were installed. I waited… and waited. Nothing happened for ages so I clicked the Cancel button. A PowerPoint presentation then popped up telling me that the Streamzap driver had installed correctly. I was able to confirm this by following the instructions in the included slideshow. I decided to reboot the computer to make sure everything worked after a restart. Vista stalled during shutdown until I removed the Streamzap receiver from its USB socket.

Not convinced by this haphazard procedure, I checked for updates on the Downloads page of the Streamzap website. The latest version of the driver was the same as the one on the disc that came with the remote. Nonetheless, I installed the driver from the Downloads page to see if the process went more smoothly. This time I got the “Blue Screen of Death.” I later struggled to uninstall what in Windows’ Device Manager appeared to be the driver. Ironically, installing under 64-bit Windows 7 using the beta drivers proved to be much easier, partly thanks to the excellent instructions on the page linking to the zip file.

If installing the Streamzap is a frustrating exercise, using the device is a hit or miss affair. I tried the remote with iTunes, Windows Media Center, XMBC and Power DVD 10 and 11 in either or both Windows Vista and Windows 7. The results were mixed. Windows Media Center responded properly but slowly under Windows Vista. When used with the latest build of iTunes (10.2.2.12), the Streamzap worked fine with audio files but not videos under Windows 7 (when instructed to pause or stop video or music playback, the software would begin playing again after a second or two). This also happened (with a longer delay) when playing back a DVD in PowerDVD 10 and 11. Also in PowerDVD, the Skip button sometimes worked and sometimes paused playback. Pressing any of the arrow keys once in XMBC on Windows Vista caused them to respond as though they had received the instruction several times.

To be fair, there is a warning on the Streamzap packaging that states that ‘Volume, power, mute, mouse control and macro buttons work regardless of program but other functions may depend on the version and features of the software you are using.’ Generally this proved to be true, except in the case of the mouse control option. This can be selected by right-clicking the driver icon in the System Tray and opening the Streamzap Settings software. Once activated, mouse control allows you to use the arrow and OK buttons on the remote to move the cursor and left click. Even this didn’t always work, though. The first time I tried it I was using iTunes and it responded effectively. When I opened PowerDVD it stopped functioning and the driver somehow got disabled.

It’s too bad that Streamzap has not maintained support for its PC Remote. It’s a solid, lightweight, simple and cheap remote control that includes most of the keys the average multimedia fan uses regularly. The presence of programmable hotkeys is another plus. Yet, it’s hard to recommend because its operation is too unreliable. Moreover, the absence of clear support for Windows 7 and the lack of compatibility with updated software mean that it feels like it’s out of date.

There is a link to Linux drivers for the Streamzap on the product page on ThinkGeek.com but I didn’t test these for this review.

Product images in this review are from ThinkGeek.

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About Michael Simpson