If you’re looking for the latest and greatest universal remote than you have to consider using an Apple iDevice (iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad) where the technology and options are growing faster than any other segment in the business. Controlling your AV equipment with your iPod requires a combination of hardware and software from the AppStore – much like the solution we are reviewing today. The Square Connect SQ Blaster hardware converts the WiFi signal from your iPod to an IR signal to control your home theater equipment.

The accompanying SQ Remote software is available free from the AppStore and is an advanced, well-featured solution comparable to the professional programming software available with other universal remotes. The SQ Blaster with SQ Remote is different than other WiFi solutions available today because it may also be integrated with a Mios Home Control System for Z-Wave home automation in addition to AV control. In the first part of this review we will focus on the control of your home theater audio/visual equipment and then follow up with the home automation in a follow-up review.

Unboxing the SQ Blaster
Square Connect was kind enough to send us an SQ Blaster unit for review. The device itself is available in either a Cherry wood or Bamboo finish which look very nice with the decor of traditional wood furniture and is a refreshing change from the piano black and gloss-white finishes that have become obligatory for iPod accessories. After all, the SQ Blaster is an accessory for your home, not just your iPod.

The SQ Blaster has a clear center ring with 1 light that is the status indicator, 3 bulbs for the internal IR Blaster and an IR receiver for learning commands from your remotes. There are cut-outs in the SQ Blaster’s bottom wood plate for the USB power connection and a standard mini-jack output for external IR extenders.

The SQ Blaster is available as a stand-alone unit or in a bundle that includes the Blaster Unit in the finish you select with your order, a power supply unit, USB cable and one 3 Head IR Emitter Cable.

Setting up the SQ Blaster
The SQ Blaster is a wireless device that must be added to the WiFi network in your home. Square Connect has made this process easy by creating a Network Set-up Wizard Application that you run on your PC or Mac with the SQ Blaster connected via USB cable. The Setup Application will recognize your SQ Blaster and show you a list of available networks that it discovered in your home. If your network is secured, you will have to enter your network passphrase and then your SQ Blaster will be ready for programming. The Setup Wizard Application also has an option to select and use an External Antenna. This antenna is not necessary in most homes but if you are experiencing a weak signal or unreliable performance the antenna may be the solution to your problems.

When we first programmed the SQ Blaster in the Remote Shoppe demo room we experienced a few WiFi problems and erratic behavior but I believe that you learn a lot about a company when you things don’t go as smoothly as you might expect. Tech support at Square Connect was knowledgeable and helpful and even worked hard to duplicate our network settings to update and improve the product. They updated the firmware and sent us an external antenna for our unit and I am happy to report that we were able to achieve a fully functioning control solution on our iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone 4. I doubt your wireless environment will be quite as noisy as ours so your set-up should be much easier. We were running 2 other WiFi remote control systems and countless wireless devices all at the same time. I also doubt that you’ll need any tech support at all, but if you do, you can trust that you’ll get all the help you need. Our techs are now well versed in trouble-shooting and the techs at Square Connect were top-notch.

After the SQ Blaster is connected successfully to your network you may unplug it from your computer and place it in it’s final resting place with the supplied power adapter. Be careful not to tuck the SQ Blaster too far out of reach yet because you may need to access it while you program the SQ Remote App.

Setting up the SQ Remote App
The SQ Remote App is a free download from the AppStore and may be installed on an iPad, iPod Touch or iPhone. The App is currently formatted for the smaller screens but still looks good in 2X mode on an iPad. I know that full iPad resolution support is planned for a future release which is a perfect example of why this technology is catching on so quickly. The SQ Remote has already been updated a few times since we’ve installed the App and new features are constantly be added. This may not be done with traditional remote controls!

The first step in programming any universal remote is to add your devices. In the SQ Remote App you add devices by selecting the brand (Panasonic, Sony, etc.), device type (TV, DVD, etc) and then code set. There is a search field to help you quickly make the selections you need, or you can scroll through the list. While programming our equipment we were very impressed by the code options and commands available. Square Connect licensed both the standard UEI code database, with the most comprehensive list of codes available, plus a professional code database packed with codes for high-end devices like multi-zone receivers, projectors and more. The combination of these two databases give you the best chance of finding every code you need. If you can’t find a specific IR command, the SQ Blaster may also learn codes from your original remote. This is why I suggested that you may want to have access to the SQ Blaster until everything is completely programmed, If you need to learn codes you point the original remote to the IR learner spot on the SQ Blaster so it may be recorded and stored in the SQ Remote App.

Once all of your devices have been successfully programmed you may create “Control Pads” for each of the activities or devices you use. Control Pads are added to a home screen carousel that brings you to all of the commands you need. Our final test carousel let’s us spin the wheel to choose a control pad for 1) Setup, 2) Watch TV, 3) Play XBOX, 4) Play Music 5) Watch DVD or Blu-ray Disc.

The first step to create a Control Pad is to give it a title and an image that will appear in the carousel. Once your new control pad is added and you select it will launch a page group that includes a main page plus six tabbed pages that are blank by default but have on-screen instructions so you can add controls and link to one or more of your devices. You select the EDIT button followed by the GREEN PLUS icon and you will have several choices:

1. Add Preset Control Panel – *Recommended*
Preset control panels are common groups like number pads, menu navigation, transport keys, etc and they may be easily added to any page. Just select the group and link the devices that you want to control and the buttons will all be added to your page.

2. Mios Vera Controls for home automation (more info on this in part 2 of this review)

3. AV Button with Icon

4. AV Button with Text
If you don’t see the specific button you want in the pre-configured control pads you may add one of your own with an icon from the extensive image library or a text label.

5. List Control
Add a scrollable list of your favorite channels to any page in your control pad for quick and easy navigation.

6. Text Label
Adding a text label is different than adding a button with text and is best to use for navigation queues and other dialog that will help others use your remote more easily.

7. AV Grouped Controls
These button groups for menu and player controls are groups of commands much like the preset control panels except these are made to be added to a panel with other commands. Unfortunately the SQ Remote App does not have “Snap-to-Grids” or “Alignment” features for objects like a lot of the desktop programming software so it’s helpful to use these pre-grouped buttons to keep the rounded objects in line.

Once your buttons are added you may select the Blue icon to move the buttons around the control panel or the Red Minus icon to delete buttons from the panel. If you open one of the other panels from the side tabs you also get an “abc” icon for you to set a title for the tab.

There is also a grey icon with red beams that will let you check and assign IR commands to each of the buttons on your page. I highly recommend using this to spot check a few of the IR commands populated in the preset control panel or add assignments to buttons that may be missing commands. Unfortunately, some devices use different names for common functions so they do not always get mapped properly (i.e. ENTER, OK, SELECT). When you use the grey beams icon to check your IR assignments you will see a green beam over all buttons with IR commands associated with them or it will be greyed-out if no command is assigned. If you have buttons that are missing commands the first step would be to hit the Assign button, the device, and then try to find the command you need. If you do not see it in the list you may learn a new command and test it here. You may also use this method to assign a Macro or List to your control panel but these must be programmed before they may be assigned.

Once your control pad is fully designed (or before-hand if you’re one of those folks who actually plans in advance) you can go back out to the Setup for advanced programming options. These options include Macros and Command Lists.

Macros are a series of IR commands sent to your devices with the press of just one button on your control pad. The most popular Macros in home theater configurations are Power On and Power Off and these may be programmed in SQ Remote. Just select Macros > Add New Macro > Name it > and add your respective steps and delays. One Macro we programmed is Watch TV Power On and it includes several steps and some very lengthy delays. The sequence is TV Power On > 500ms delay > AV Receiver Power On > 1000ms delay > AV Receive Input HDMI > 3000ms > TV Input HDMI. As you can see, our TV takes some time to turn on before it can reliably accept the input command and finding the right timing took a lot of trial and error. Fortunately, SQ Remote lets you test your macro as you program it so it’s quick and easy to tweak it until your system responds just the way you want it.

Command Lists are the scrollable lists we mentioned that may be added to your control pads and are perfect for favorite channel lists or anything else you can imagine. When you add a new command list you may add channels, macros, or Mios scenes. These are a great way to make the most of your real estate and consolidate many commands on a single panel. Be creative and be sure to let us know what you’re using the command lists for with your SQ Remote.

The last option in the Setup Menu that I wanted to point out is the “Back up and Share Configurations” option. This cool little feature allowed us to program the SQ Remote on our iPad and when we were done we downloaded the complete configuration to another iPad, an iPod Touch and an iPhone 4 all in just a few minutes. Just create a free online storage account at box.net, login, and save your configuration file online. You may then load that file on any other device that can access the same box.net account with just two clicks. AWESOME!

Now that the SQ Remote App is communicating perfectly with the SQ Blaster and controlling all of our AV equipment we’re looking forward to setting up the Mios home control system to review the integrated home automation capabilities in part 2 of this review… COMING SOON.

The SQ Blaster is currently available at Remoteshoppe.com.