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Back from the dead: why do 2013's best smartphones have IR blasters?

Back from the dead: why do 2013's best smartphones have IR blasters?

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The lowly infrared transmitter has made a triumphant return on 2013's top devices

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IR Blasters
IR Blasters

Remember when you couldn’t buy a high-end phone without an infrared (IR) port? If your exposure to smartphones only starts with the iPhone’s appearance in 2007, you might not. But if you've been using smartphones for longer, you may recall that many of the Palm, Symbian, and Windows Mobile devices that once comprised the market were equipped with infrared transmitters and receivers. (Nokia even put IR blasters on its dumbphones years before smartphones were in the picture.) These were used for very basic — and slow — file transfers between devices, but some enterprising developers did write apps to let you control your television and entertainment consoles.

While IR transmitters were by no means absolute necessities on a mobile device, they did offer cool functionality if you wanted to take advantage of it. Then, when the IR-less iPhone hit shelves in 2007, other device manufacturers swiftly dropped the feature from their list of included specs as they raced to create thinner devices with larger displays and throw in other, newer technologies like NFC.

This year, both HTC and Samsung have embraced the IR blaster

But this year, the IR blaster has made a surprising return — at least for high-end Android smartphones. Flagship devices from Samsung and HTC now include transmitters and apps that let you control your entertainment center (kudos to HTC for neatly building the IR blaster into the power button on the One). While the infrared port has been missing from phones' spec sheets for a good five years or more, it seems to be a "must have" feature for high-end Android devices in 2013. The irony is hard to miss: while smartphone hardware has gotten simpler in design (with a few exceptions, most phones don't have removable batteries or expandable storage), one of the nerdiest features from yesterday has made a bit of a resurgence.

Granted, not everyone is a fan of the IR blaster and the clunky, cumbersome receivers that usually go along with it (The Verge's own Nilay Patel is a notorious hater). However, the functionality offered by today's smartphones doesn't require a clumsy receiver to talk to your TV or cable box — and setup with the vast majority of entertainment systems is a painless process that takes less than five minutes to complete. I've been using HTC's bundled TV app on the One smartphone and I've really liked it for basic things like changing channels and adjusting volume. Likewise, David found the remote app on the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 and Galaxy S4 to have similarly useful functions. I'm the type of television viewer that constantly has his smartphone or tablet in hand while watching shows, so having quick access to remote control functions is great. None of these apps will replace a proper remote — there are always extra functions that set-top box and TV manufacturers include on their own remotes, and the tactile feel of real buttons is not something to be ignored — but as a secondary device for quick changes, they work well.

IR blasters are more useful now because entertainment is more social

And that really speaks to why these IR blasters and remote apps are so much more useful today than they were five or six years ago, at the cusp of the smartphone boom. Television watching is frequently becoming a more and more social experience, especially for live events like the Super Bowl or awards shows. I can't recall the last live event or major TV show premiere I watched where I didn't have my smartphone in hand to keep up with all of the colorful commentary coming from my Twitter timeline (and to add a few quips myself). Bundling my television control scheme into the same device that I use for my social interactions just makes sense, even if it feels like a superfluous feature at first glance.

That isn't to say everything is great with today's setups. Both HTC and Samsung have included apps (built by Peel) designed to recommend television shows and movies on their devices, and in Samsung's case, even push that content to your TV — provided you have a compatible Samsung television, of course. These apps don't quite live up to that promise just yet — while they can provide reminders of when your favorite shows are on and even tell you the name of the episode and what channel it's on, they don't have all of the features of my cable service's proprietary app such as proper DVR management or live streaming. What's more, Samsung's ambitious feature to "push" video content to your TV from your device doesn't work nearly as well in practice as it does in Samsung's demonstrations.

It's likely we'll continue to see devices with IR ports hit shelves

Of course, the IR blaster likely won't gain a lot of traction or mindshare with average consumers unless Apple decides to include one on the iPhone or iPad, and chances are that won’t happen any time soon. But chances are pretty good that we will continue to see the lowly IR transmitter listed in the ever-expanding spec sheets of high-end Android devices going forward. While its purpose has changed from what was intended ten years ago — these days we have a plethora of better technologies for transferring data and content between devices — the core technology is essentially the same. What long-forgotten feature will be resurrected for next year's top-shelf devices? Let's just say that I won't complain if the camera shutter key makes a triumphant return.

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