Back in the good ol' days, all you needed to enjoy your television was its bundled remote… and the remote for your cable… oh, and the remote for your surround system. OK, so maybe those weren't the "good ol' days." Fast-forward to the present: We can now use a single remote to control our television and cable box.
But in some cases universal remotes don't match up with older hardware. This is especially true if you have a remote that works via Wi-Fi and hardware that relies on infrared communication. In these situations, you'll often find a little piece of gear called an IR blaster.
What the heck is an IR blaster, and how does it work?
An infrared blaster (IR sounds better and less techy) is a gadget that accepts some sort of input from your remote and "blasts" it via infrared to the IR-compatible device you're trying to control. One common example is with some smart remotes, like the Logitech Harmony Elite.
This remote doesn't have to communicate directly with your device. Instead, the remote talks with the Harmony Hub. You can attach mini IR blasters to the hub and these blasters can then send your commands to devices like your cable box, stereo receiver, or Blu-ray player.
The main reason you'd something like this is you don't have to have line-of-sight with the device you're controlling; only the IR blasters and the hub they're attached to have to be near your boxes. This means you can place boxes out of the way (or even sometimes hidden in an AV closet) and still control everything like they were out in the open.
What sort of trickery lets the IR blaster communicate with my cable box?
To communicate with a cable box, an IR blaster must align to the same infrared frequency. Luckily, this is done automatically during the setup process of capable smart TVs. You will be asked for your zip code and what cable service provider you use, and sometimes the make and model of your cable box. After answering these brain-busters, your TV will adjust to the proper frequency, and ask you to change the channel to make sure the blaster is working.
Are there any other benefits to using an IR Blaster?
We’ve reviewed some TVs that have terrible IR sensors on them: Pressing a button on the remote will not do anything unless it is pointed directly at the sensor. There are no (appropriate) words for this kind of frustration.
This brings us to an additional benefit of using an IR blaster: It can extend the range of your remote, and it can overcome obstacles. Since this device is pumping out a stronger signal than your TV or cable box, you can sit at a comfortable distance away from your electronics and still change the channel, plus the signal will go through certain walls. Cable box blocked by a stack of Blu-rays? Not a problem.
What devices are using IR blasters these days?
As we detailed above, the most common are universal remotes like the Logitech Harmony series. IR blasters are also found with devices like the Slingbox M2, which use them to control your TV from anywhere you have an internet connection. This is how you're able to change the channel while streaming your live TV from anywhere.
You will also find IR blasters on some phones. Though it's less common these days, phones like the LG G4 and Samsung Galaxy S6 included IR blasters on the tops of phones. This let you use your smartphone as a regular ol' smart remote. There are very few new phones that still do this, but you can pick up old versions of those phones if you want one.
Top photo: Flickr user Lnk.Si, Creative Commons
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