By March 8, 2010

iPazzPort Wireless USB HTPC Computer Remote Control First Impressions Review

About a month and a half ago I wrote about the HDE wireless USB infrared remote control that I bought for my home theater personal computer (HTPC). If you haven’t read that review yet, here’s the short story: it sucked.

My dissatisfaction with the remote led me to buy the Lenovo wireless multimedia remote with keyboard, which I bought at half off. The Lenovo is very well built, does many things well, but still had room for improvement. I thought the full retail price was too expensive, and the device needed a backlight very very badly. The device is very difficult to use if you are watching TV in a dim room.

I was given a chance to review the iPazzPort wireless touchpad remote by Unisen USA. I was not compensated for my time in any way other than the chance to mess around with the remote. I sent the remote back after the completion of my three week evaluation.

Originally, I was going to compare the iPazzPort to both the Lenovo and the HDE. But let’s be honest: the HDE is a non-starter. It’s garbage. So how does the iPazzPort stack up against the Lenovo? Let’s take a look.

Specifications

  • Operates on the 2.4GHz band. Unisen USA claims 33 feet of range.
  • The 2.4GHz receiver is a USB dongle that plugs into your computer. Each dongle is paired to the iPazzPort controller at the factory in China.
  • The iPazzPort has an internal, rechargeable battery. The iPazzPort is recharged via a mini-USB port with the supplied cable. The manufacturer claims over 70 hours of battery life.
  • There is a large touchpad on the top of the iPazzPort, and a QWERTY-ish keyboard at the bottom. I’ll talk more about the key layout in a second. The keys are soft “chicklet-style.”
  • I was a doofus and sent the iPazzPort back before I thought to measure it. But it’s small. It’s thin. It feels very light. If you have hands like big lobster claws you can use it with one hand. If you have tiny mouse paws, it’s easy to use the iPazzPort with two hands. The form factor is very nice.

    http://gallery.drfaulken.com/d/8555-2/IMG_1259.JPG

Installation, range, and battery life

Don’t blink, I’m going to tell you how hard it was to install the iPazzPort on my HTPC running Windows 7.

  1. Open the package — it’s a clamshell, so you don’t need a Mad Max tool like the ZipIt to open it.
  2. Plug the USB-to-mini-USB cable into your computer and charge up the iPazzPort. I let mine sit for a day.
  3. Plug the USB wireless 2.4GHz adapter into your computer:
    http://gallery.drfaulken.com/d/8550-2/IMG_1257.JPG
  4. Let Windows automatically install the required drivers.

That’s it. Aside from charging the device, setup took about five minutes. It was super easy.

Unisen USA claims 33 feet of range with the iPazzPort, but I never found the practical limit on my evaluation model. My living room is less than 33 feet long, and I was able to operate the iPazzPort from around a corner over 20 feet away. Okay, okay, I was in the guest bathroom. It worked.

http://gallery.drfaulken.com/d/8557-2/IMG_1260.JPG
You turn the unit on via a switch at the bottom. The iPazzPort shuts off after a period of inactivity to conserve battery life. Due to the auto-shutoff (and my power miserly habits), I never recharged the unit during my three week evaluation period. I was very impressed with the rechargeable battery life, and this was a great design decision. Adding traditional AA or AAA batteries makes the device thicker and heavier, and I hate “button batteries” because I don’t have many of them in the house.

Usage and usability

There’s a term in the HTPC world called the “Wife Acceptance Factor,” or WAF. WAF is a layman’s usability metric: will my wife be able to use this with little to no instruction, and are the steps easy enough for her (and others) to use it on a regular basis? A great holistic WAF test is to boot your HTPC, hand someone the remote, and tell them to play a movie.

The mousing / navigation part of the iPazzPort has a very high WAF — it is super easy to use. If folks have been around a laptop they know how to use the iPazzPort. The touchpad at the top is large. Set to nearly maximum mouse speed in Windows 7, the iPazzPort is smooth and responsive without being “jerky.” You may tap the touchpad to register single- and double-mouse clicks. There is a left and right mouse button underneath the touchpad, just like a laptop user would expect. This part of the iPazzPort is very easy to use.

Unfortunately, the keyboard is a little weird. The alpha part of the keyboard is QWERTY, just like on a regular computer. Well, mostly. The iPazzPort is missing a few keys, and this was my first gripe about the device. There is no shift key, just a CAPS lock key. The tab key is also missing. Not having a shift key is odd if you’re a touch typist, but passable because of the CAPS key. Not having a tab key was a major blow when using Boxee or other full-screen programs. Without that key I couldn’t switch back and forth between programs via Windows’s alt-tab.

http://gallery.drfaulken.com/d/8553-2/IMG_1258.JPG

Typing out numbers and performing certain functions is difficult, because you have to use the function key. In a further usability mishap, the iPazzPort labeled the function key “SF.” I am not sure what the function key in the iPazzPort’s native country of China is labeled, but here in the USA it is “Fn.”

Companies should stick to what is accepted when designing interfaces. What people are used to is called population bias, and going against it is bad unless companies have a really, really good reason. Renaming the function key to “SF” may not seem like a big deal, but it goes against population bias and illustrates some of the other iPazzPort keyboard mis-steps.

Take the arrow keys, for example. On every keyboard I’ve ever used, the arrow keys are grouped together to the right of the space bar. The up and down arrows are stacked on top of each other, with the left and right arrow keys on the side. On the iPazzPort, the up and right arrows are to the left of the space bar. The down and left arrows are on the right of the space bar. More awkwardly, the right and left arrows are on top of the up and down arrows!

Ideally, I would have designed the standard keys as closely as possible to a regular keyboard. As it stands, the iPazzPort keyboard is serviceable as long as you don’t plan on typing much at all. Unfortunately for use as an HTPC keyboard, the “/” key, which is used for Web addresses, is a special function key that requires multiple keypresses to access. The “” key, which is almost never used in an HTPC setting (or in a regular computing session for that matter), is available via a single keypress. Doh!

On the positive side, the iPazzPort has something that every HTPC device should have: a backlight. I feel so strongly about this, I’m going to say it again:

EVERY HTPC REMOTE CONTROL DEVICE SHOULD HAVE A BACKLIGHT. DID YOU HEAR ME, LENOVO, A BACKLIGHT.

http://gallery.drfaulken.com/d/8559-2/IMG_1261.JPG

Well, look at that! The iPazzPort has a bad ass backlight. It is bright, makes the keys easy to read, and it’s an orange/amber color so it doesn’t mess up your night vision. This is an outstanding backlight color, and it is my second favorite thing about the iPazzPort (the first being how easy it is to mouse around with the touchpad). The backlight on the iPazzPort is so good that it almost made me forget my issues with the keyboard.

Except I had a few hardware-related problems ….

Quality control / hardware problems

My iPazzPort had a few issues. I am pretty sure I got a bum unit. I researched my problems online and also contacted my contact at Unisen USA, who wrote directly to the engineers who make the device in China. Nevertheless, I’m going to write them here because it was part of my experience with the device.

  • Hyper-clicking. Every once in awhile my iPazzPort’s left mouse button would continue to send commands to my PC. At first I thought the button was stuck, but it wasn’t. This behavior was annoying most of the time. It caused a major resource issue twice because of the number of windows it opened, including 28 Windows Explorer instances. The only response was to hold the power button on the computer and shut it off.
  • No-clicking. More prevalent was not being able to click on anything at all, either by using the touchpad or the mouse buttons. I could mouse around, but not click on anything. The workaround for this was to power off the iPazzPort, unplug the USB receiver from the back of the computer, plug the receiver back in, and then power the iPazzPort back on. It isn’t a big deal, but it was annoying and lessens the WAF.
  • Mouse / pointer device conflicts. When I had problems with the iPazzPort, I would try to use my old school wired USB mouse. Sometimes the mouse would work, and sometimes it wouldn’t. Turning the iPazzPort off had no effect, I had to unplug the USB receiver from my HTPC. The mouse worked fine after that. What’s the cause? I don’t know, but having to keep a wired mouse around and plug/unplug the receiver defeated the purpose of having a wireless HTPC remote in the first place.

As a last gripe, the iPazzPort can’t wake a sleeping computer. The Lenovo can, via any keypress — just like a regular keyboard. I’m not sure why the iPazzPort doesn’t do this, but it’s a shame. I configure my computers to sleep fairly quickly in order to conserve power. With the iPazzPort, I had to walk over to the machine and push the power button.

Conclusion

The iPazzPort is easy to set up, the touchpad is super easy to use, and the device is sized right for an HTPC remote. The backlight is so good that it’s an embarrassment to Lenovo that they didn’t include one on their remote.

On the downside, the keyboard layout is odd. The iPazzPort lacks a few critical keys if you are a Windows user, and I am concerned about the overall build quality of the device given the clicking / device problems I encountered.

According to some Web reviews I read before writing this article, the iPazzPort used to be available for as low as $20 on eBay. I can’t find a single iPazzPort listed there as of this posting. My contact at Unisen USA stated that some may be available via Woot! at a promotional price. It is also available via e-tailers for $49.99.

My main issue with the iPazzPort is the price. The Lenovo keyboard retails for $59.99. If you are buying multiple devices for multiple HTPCs (like I do), then $10 may make a difference to you. The value of the backlight may offset the mere $10 separating the two devices. However, the Lenovo keyboard has been on sale at least three times since its release. I bought mine at 50% off, and while the two following sales put the Lenovo at $41.99 I think it puts the iPazzPort in a very bad price vector.

I would be willing to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the iPazzPort if it were about $35. I think it’s an absolute slam dunk at $20 via eBay (if that were indeed ever a true price). However, with a price so close to Lenovo’s multimedia keyboard …. I have to give the nod to Lenovo.

That being said, if the Lenovo’s retail price is too steep for you, or if you really want a backlight, give the iPazzPort a try. It’s drop dead simple to use, and the touchpad is very nice. It is currently available in white or black.

Recommended.

As an addendum, Unisen USA is sending me the next iteration of their iPazzPort, called the iNavigator. Hopefully this will determine if my issues were a one-off problem or something more systemic.

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Posted in: review, technology

8 Comments on "iPazzPort Wireless USB HTPC Computer Remote Control First Impressions Review"

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  1. Brice says:

    Why not just buy a Firefly remote?

  2. drfaulken says:

    Hi Brice,

    I wouldn’t want to give up a keyboard at this point. I use it often enough on my HTPC that if I used a Snapstream Firefly I would have to leave a keyboard plugged in somewhere.

    For example, I had to download a codec last night on my downstairs HTPC. The keyboard on my Lenovo remote was a big help. I would have hated to use an onscreen keyboard or alt buttons on a “tv”-style remote to tap out what I needed to type.

  3. JimE says:

    Here are the knockoff versions….

    This white $37 one uses a 2.4GHz dongle and is backlit:
    http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.34357

    This one is bluetooth, black and also backlit for $42:
    http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.34355

    Jim

  4. Lyskar says:

    It doesn’t have a tab key but the alt+esc key combination works almost the same. I have yet to find and alternative to the TAB key. Certain key combos have certain different effect. does anyone know some good docking stands or cradles for it? Without having to do some heavy modding. thanks.

  5. Brent says:

    I don’t know how this got past product testing and went to final manufacturing without the “tab” key. Someone should lose their job over that one. The iNavigator doesn’t look like this is fixed at all, they just added a ridiculous yellow key and program. No tab on a full keyboard is almost a deal breaker. I relegated this to the bedroom almost instantly(low use area). Also the keys make an audible clicking sound when pressed, which is absolutely annoying. I enjoy soft no sound keys especially in the living room with other people around.

    Why did Gisteq stop making the WT100CR MCE remote??

    http://www.amazon.com/GiSTEQ-Wireless-Touchpad-Presentation-Multimedia/dp/B000XKCRGM

    I sigh heavily for that every other day. If you can find it somewhere on resale there is absolutely no equal to it. This unit is so responsive you won’t mind using an onscreen keyboard in Windows 7. It is a much nicer experience than the Vista or XP keyboard, but still worked a snap with it. Plus Alt+tab, full screen, backspace, mute, and volume were built in buttons. All but missing with the iPazzPort. Not to mention the four directional keys with enter in the center. What the hell is up with the opposites! and wide spacing on the iPazzPort directional keys (dealbreaker #2).

    Lastly the backlight is nice. But once you double press how do you turn the light back off without sliding the switch on bottom to the off position then back on. Why did they add a switch anyway if it has an auto-off feature?

  6. Mark F. says:

    Just bought my Ipazzport on ebay for $32…If you search enough, you can find em on ebay…

  7. A. A. W. says:

    I bought one of these last summer via the amazing $20 eBay deal mentioned in the article. I’m very happy with it, especially considering the price. I am using it with an HTPC running Ubuntu 10.04 LTS and it works almost perfectly for my needs. Where it loses points is, as mentioned in the article, in its weird keyboard layout.

    Surprisingly the lack of a tab key hasn’t been my biggest gripe as, in my case, it just means I need to use the mouse rather than tabbing to the next field in a form.

    When typing letters and numbers no user should have any problem using this keyboard. Punctuation, however, is a different story. Punctuation symbols share keys used by letters and are accessed using the “SF” button. The problem is that certain symbols are hard to find, even for someone like me who has used the device for over a year now. There is also a degree of ambiguity between the hyphen symbol and the underscore symbol – from looking at their symbol on the keyboard, it is impossible to tell them apart. This has been my biggest hurdle in trying to learn to use the device effectively but I now know that the hyphen is on the S key, next to the A which has the plus sign (plus and minus are together).

    I wish that the “SF” button didn’t work as a permanent toggle and instead would turn off after the next button was pressed – I don’t know how many times I’ve looked up at the screen after typing out a sentence only to see that everything proceeding the comma was typed as punctuation marks instead of letters.

    My final problem with the keyboard is that it lacks dedicated multimedia keys. While it’s true that you can easily create key-combinations to achieve the same result using the existing keys, I find it surprising that, as a keyboard designed for use with a home theatre computer, the designers didn’t include the basic keys for pause/play, next, last, stop, and volume control. I see no reason to exclude them other than to reduce the size of the unit but I can honestly say I’d take an increase in length of 10-20% in order to make room for those fundamental keys.

    In summary, I love the iPazzport – they’re really onto something, but unfortunately they’re just not quite there yet.

  8. JimE says:

    Here’s another keyboard that I just saw on Meritline. Bluetooth, backlit, touchpad and a laser pointer:

    http://www.meritline.com/bluetooth-mini-wireless-keyboard-for-htpc-with-touchpad-laser-point—p-55029.aspx