What's an IR Blaster, and Why Does My Smart TV Have One?

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Sure, an IR blaster can extend your remote's range, but it's also integral to new smart features.

Overview

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.

What technological milestone should we thank for this gift of gifts? The mighty IR blaster.


What the heck is an IR blaster, and how does it work?

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A TV's IR blaster allows it to "communicate" with another device, like a cable box.

An infrared blaster (IR sounds better and less techy) is a gadget that allows you to control devices normally requiring their own specific remote. Once a smart TV has internalized the infrared frequency of the cable box, it can control it. Then, your smart TV's remote gives a command to the TV, which then gives a command to the blaster, and finally, the blaster to the cable box—all in the blink of an eye.

The IR blaster, very small by design, is placed on or near the IR sensor of the device to be controlled. A long cable allows for flexibility in placement of your TV and accompanying devices. In other words, your cable box doesn't have to be right next to your TV.


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.


Why do I need to control my cable box with a TV remote?

You certainly don’t need to control your cable box using your TV’s bundled remote, but if you’ve recently bought a 2013 smart TV from the likes of Samsung or LG, you may want to consider the benefits.

On the surface, the ability to change cable channels with your TV's remote seems rather useless. But these new smart platforms have integrated voice controls: Saying “Go to channel ESPN” will actually do just that on Samsung’s Smart Hub and Google TV. To reap all the benefits of modern smart TVs, your friendly neighborhood IR blaster is required. While the software used to implement these voice commands is complex, the end result is quite simple: making your remote input a three-digit channel.


Are there any other benefits to using this magnificent device?

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 TVs are making use of IR blasters?

2013 smart TVs from LG, Samsung, and Toshiba are using IR blasters (also called extenders) in order to integrate cable programming into their respective smart platforms. In particular, Samsung's Smart Hub and LG's Google TV platforms do an admirable job of this. Both have excellent voice controls that allow users to simply say the name of a channel in order to access it.

Top photo: Flickr user Lnk.Si, Creative Commons