Hercules Tunes Explorer remote control for iTunes
WinAmp, RealPlayer, Windows Media Player too
Review Not every living-room computer is a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC or a Mac capable of running Apple's Front Row software. Both systems can connect to a TV and provide a remote control to help you select content to play, but there are plenty of older machines out there that have been put to use as song storage systems. What can they use?
Hercules, the once well-known graphics card company and now Guillemot's gadgets division, has the answer: Tunes Explorer, a radio-frequency remote that's tied directly into a range of popular music playback apps. Nothing new there, you might say, but Tunes Explorer has something many other wireless remotes don't: a display.
The remote itself is an iPod-sized unit in matte white plastic with a four-line, monochrome backlit LCD of the kind that once featured on almost every compact, Flash-based MP3 player about three or four years back. Below it are a pair of volume controls and a five-way circular control designed to look like an iPod's clickwheel.
On the right-side of the unit is a BlackBerry-style scrollwheel, and a slider key to lock and unlock the unit's other buttons. There's a hatch on the back of the remote for a pair of AAA batteries - not included in the box, please note.
The remote talks to the host computer through a USB-attached rectangular, brick-like wireless transceiver. Hercules pitches the product as an iTunes accessory, but it will work with WinAmp, RealPlayer and Windows Media Player. Surprisingly, it also ships with Mac software, though on this platform Tunes Explorer only talks to iTunes.
I tried Tunes Explorer with my MacBook Pro. The software installs in the usual way, though it drops the control application into the Mac's /var folder, a product of the OS' Unix underlay. The utility is called up at start-up using Mac OS X 10.4's LaunchDaemons facility - or the StartupItems system under previous versions of the operating system.
The HTunesExplorerWireless app essentially communicates with iTunes the selections you make using the remote. After a restart, plugging in the USB dongle launches then hides iTunes. Pressing the Select button on the remote's five-way control to turn it on initiates the link with the dongle and in a few seconds you're ready to go.
The Remote's display allows you to navigate your way through iTunes' library, playlists and standard listings like podcasts, internet radio and the app's Party Shuffle feature. That said, they appear on the remote even if you've disabled any or all of these in iTunes itself. You scroll through the display using the side-mounted scrollwheel, pushing the control in to make a selection. Push the Menu button on the front to go back a step.
With a track playing, the scrollwheel cycles through the song's ID3 tags, shown in the top two lines of the display. Pushing the scrollwheel in calls up a screen that allows you to rate each the song, with the rating almost immediately written back to the original track and iTunes' library file.
Likewise, selecting any of the equaliser or repeat-mode settings modifies iTunes' playback accordingly. Ditto adjusting the volume, though while the volume reduction key was fine, the volume up button on the sample unit took a lot of hard presses to get it to register.
In other respects, the system proved very responsive, loading new albums and songs into the dedicated playlist the software slots into iTunes, and skipping back and forward along the tracklist nice and quickly. If I have a complaint here, it's that the remote is slow to recover from sleep.
Tunes Explorer has a slightly cheap feel about it, but then it is an inexpensive product - just £40/€49.90. A bigger problem for me is the tiny screen. It's not bad, but it is very small, particularly if you're used to a big iPod display - even the Nano's screen dwarfs this one. It's not a read-out you can scan at a glance, and folk with weak eyesight will find themselves squinting at it.
But Tunes Explorer integrates well with iTunes and does exactly what it promises it can do. Logitech's Wireless Music System, which I reviewed earlier this year , operates with an iPod rather than iTunes, but essentially delivers the same result: a remote for your digital music. But Logitech's product is more than twice the price of the Tunes Explorer. Griffin Technology's AirClick is cheaper, but it has no screen.
Hercules' Tunes Explorer may be aesthetically challenged - it's no iPod, that's for sure - but it gives you not only full control of your music playback but also allows you to browse your entire music library away from your computer. If only the screen wasn't so pokey... ®