Review: Griffin AirClick USB
At a Glance
Griffin Technology has completed its AirClick hat-trick by delivering the $40 AirClick USB, a USB receiver/remote-control combination that allows you to remotely control applications on your Mac or Windows PC via radio frequency (RF). Couple the AirClick USB with Apple’s AirPort Express, and you have an enticing combination for remote play of your music library.
The AirClick USB package contains four pieces—the same AirClick remote control found in Griffin’s other AirClick products, the AirClick receiver module, which is a bit wider and thicker than a USB key drive; a CD that contains versions of the AirClick USB software for Mac and Windows; and a 44-inch USB extension cable.
For those who have yet to read our iPod reviews roundup, the remote control features five buttons—Play/Pause, Next/Fast Forward, Previous/Rewind, Volume Up, and Volume Down. On the right side you’ll find a handy Hold switch that can keep you from accidentally engaging one of the buttons. On the back is a spring-loaded plastic clip for attaching the controller to a belt or pocket.
The receiver module bears a male USB connector on one end, a hinge near the bottom that allows you to cock the receiver at a 90 degree angle up or down, and a small embedded red LED near the top. This LED blinks when you first connect the receiver as well as when it receives a command. I found both functions helpful. After plugging the receiver into the USB port on the front of my PC, the unit was unresponsive. I then recalled that, unlike with my Mac, the receiver didn’t blink when I plugged it into the PC. I gave it a little extra shove and saw the reassuring blink—it wasn’t fully seated on the first attempt. Another time I pressed Play only to have nothing happen. The lack of a blink reminded me that the Hold switch was engaged.
If I have one complaint about the receiver, it’s the lack of a cover for the USB connector. This is a device I’ll want to carry with me when I use it to control presentations on my laptop and it would be nice if Griffin included the same kind of cover found on USB key drives to help protect the connector.
The AirClick software is fairly straightforward. After installing it, launching the AirClick application on a Mac places an AirClick icon in the Mac’s menubar. From this menubar you choose the application you wish to control. On the Mac you can control Apple’s DVD Player, Keynote, iTunes, PowerPoint, QuickTime Player, Griffin’s RadioSHARK radio receiver, and the VideoLAN Client (VLC) media player. The Windows software installs an AirClick icon in the System Tray and allows you to control iTunes, PowerPoint, and Windows Media Player.
With iTunes the various buttons do what they suggest—play/pause, move to the next or previous track if you click once on the buttons or fast-forward/rewind if you press and hold on the buttons, and raise or lower volume. The AirClick software adds nice visual touches to these commands on both the Mac and PC. Whenever you press a button while controlling iTunes, an image large enough to be seen across the room appears on the computer’s screen, telling you what’s going on—symbols for play, pause, forward, and previous appear as well as large volume indicators that, with a thermometer display, show you where the volume is set.
Other applications perform appropriate operations when you push the controller’s buttons. The two supported presentation applications, Keynote and PowerPoint, move from one slide to the next with the press of the Next button, for example. (Pressing the volume buttons when synced to these applications controls the computer’s volume settings.) When synced to Apple’s DVD Player application, the Play/Pause and volume buttons do what you’d expect and the Next and Previous buttons move you up or back a chapter with a single press and fast-forward/rewind when you press and hold. In video applications like QuickTime Player and VLC, the Next and Previous buttons perform the same functions as their onscreen counterparts. When controlling QuickTime Player a transparent image appears that tells you in hours, minutes, and seconds where you are in the movie (you’re also shown the movie’s total running time). Nice.
Once you’ve chosen an application, pressing any button on the AirClick controller launches the application. On the Mac the menubar icon also displays an orange radio wave indicating that it’s received a command from the remote—a nice touch not found in the Windows version of the software.
Working Through Walls
As we pointed out in our review of iPod remote controls, RF doesn’t require line-of-sight between the controller and receiver. As long as the receiver can “hear” the controller’s commands—whether through walls or from across a large room—you’re in business.
As with its other AirClick products, Griffin claims that the AirClick USB will work from up to 60 feet away. My tests concluded that the company’s claim is pretty close to the mark. Working outside with the AirClick USB connected to my PowerBook G4 I was able to control it reliably from 45 feet away. At around 50 feet I found that it would accept commands most of the time, but miss some. By adjusting the angle of the receiver (you may recall that it’s hinged) I was able to improve its responsiveness from this distance. Going for broke, I moved to the 60 foot mark and was able to make the device respond by finding a “sweet spot” (which, in this case, was fully extending my left arm). Given my results, the 60 foot range is possible in an unobstructed environment, but you should take that as an outside range.
Unless you’re extremely well-heeled or live in a warehouse, you probably don’t have rooms that span 60 feet, but you undoubtedly have walls. In my indoor tests, the AirClick managed to communicate through one wall and sometimes two (the closer the controller was to the receiver, the more walls it would handle). I had no problem controlling my PowerBook from one room away or from a floor away (as long as I was in the room directly above). I also managed a bedroom and den away in one test but failed when I added a bathroom to the mix (bedroom, bathroom, den, living room). As expected, the walls cut down on the device’s range but overall it was powerful enough to do the job one might reasonably expect of it.
Again, the angle and position of the receiver makes a difference in reception. For instance, when I successfully connected it to the USB port at the bottom of my PC, it didn’t get the same kind of range I got from my PowerBook that was less obstructed. Using the included USB extension cable I was able to place the receiver in a more favorable position and increase its range. Though dangling the receiver from an extension cable isn’t as pretty as shoving it directly into your computer’s USB port, doing so can significantly increase its range.
Although the AirClick USB can’t directly control Apple’s AirPort Express wireless base station, the two can work in tandem in a welcome way. Suppose, for example, that you have an AirPort Express attached to the stereo in your living room. From the office downstairs you’d like to stream music from your laptop to the living room. Unfortunately the wireless card inside your laptop is out of range of your AirPort Express. What do you do?
Attach an AirClick to the laptop and move the computer to a place where it’s in range of both the AirPort Express and the AirClick remote in your office. From the office you can then remotely control iTunes on the laptop with the AirClick controller and the music on the laptop can stream to the AirPort Express, which is now in range. This isn’t an ideal solution as the AirClick is limitied in how it can navigate through your iTunes library—you can’t see titles and playlists as you can on the laptop nor can you move from one playlist to another—but it’s a reasonable way to extend the range of your wireless network.
I’m very pleased with the AirClick USB but I’d like to see other applications supported or users given the tools necessary to add support for applications of their choosing. For example, it would be nice if the AirClick worked with Apple’s iPhoto so you could remotely control a slideshow. And surely Windows users would like to control multimedia applications other than iTunes and Windows Media Player. And for the truly lazy, why not configure the Next and Previous buttons to control a browser’s Back and Forward buttons or flip from one page in a PDF file to another? Griffin Technology’s leader, Paul Griffin, says the company plans to provide the means for people to easily modify or extend the currently supported applications in a future software update.
The AirClick USB performs as advertised and does so in elegant fashion at a reasonable price. It offers good range, works well with its supported applications, provides visual feedback where it’s needed most (both on the device and in software), and provides a workable solution to out-of-range AirPort Express networks. I’d like some protection for the USB connector and I look forward to support for additional applications (particularly Windows applications), but these requests hardly keep me from recommending the product highly. Griffin’s done good work here. If you’d like to be untethered from your computer, the AirClick USB is an excellent way to go.
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