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8 October 2020

TV remote control apps: are they worth using?

If your TV remote is bad or is always going missing, using a remote control app on your phone could save you a headache.
Martin Pratt

Sometimes it's down the side of the sofa, sometimes it's unexpectedly on the kitchen counter, and other times it was in your hand all along. Wherever it turns up, there's one certainty: TV remotes are always going missing.

You could glue it your sofa arm to make sure it stays in one place or you could have an alternative means of controlling your TV for when the inevitable happens.

iOS and Android app stores have a bevy of remote control apps to download for free. We've tried a few out to see if they are worth using.

The official apps

LG, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony have their own official remote control apps. Here we explain how they work, and their pros and cons.

We asked people around Which? to try a few scenarios with each app, including turning on the TV, changing channels, searching for content to watch and switching inputs.

Samsung SmartThings app

It's a great alternative to the One Remote that comes with most Samsung TVs. Several buttons are hidden by default, such as numbers and the play/pause control, which is unusual, but you can choose which buttons appear to make the remote feel more personal.

This may depend somewhat on the phone you're using, but when we tested the SmartThings app we thought it was quick with very little lag between it and the TV.

It's best used for more simple commands, such as switching channels and volume, but you can do more complex tasks, too.

One scenario involved finding and downloading an app on the TV. We could do this with our phone, but were disappointed not to be able to use our smartphone keyboard to search. 

There's a dedicated button on the remote app to switch inputs, which is nice. You can also cast from within the app, so it's simple to display your phone screen on your TV screen.

Pros: Free to download, quick and simple, can do most of what a traditional remote can do, easy to mirror your screen or cast content from within the app, you can use the microphone on your phone to control the TV with your voice.

Cons: It doesn't make the most of the touchscreen, no way to type searches on the phone, some buttons are hidden by default, only works with Samsung TVs released in or after 2016. 

Permissions: Location, storage, camera, contacts, microphone, telephone.

LG TV Plus

 Like Samsung's app, LG's is entirely free and available to download on Android and iOS smartphones.

Connecting to our TV was a doddle and the app was very responsive with little lag between it and the TV. Again, this could differ depending on the phone. 

LG Magic TV remotes have an interesting motion-controlled pointer to easily select menus and options on screen. The smartphone app replicates this and we actually found it to be more precise than using the remote.

Downloading apps via the app was better than on the TV itself, since we were able to use the touchscreen keyboard to type the name of the app we wanted. Searching for content works well with the keyboard, but it didn't always return the results we wanted, although this is an issue with the TV itself not just with the remote app.

Pros: Same features as the physical remote, on-screen pointer is more responsive than the one on the remote, makes the most of the touchscreen by letting you type with the keyboard, possible to cast streaming apps and mirror your smartphone screen onto the app.

Cons: Not all the voice commands work on the smartphone app, not as easy to get to the TV guide.

Permissions: Storage, photos, media, files

Sony Video & TV SideView remote

 The official Sony app replicates the physical remote well and we found it intuitive and simple to complete the tasks, such as changing channel, switching inputs and searching for apps.

Unfortunately the app frequently disconnected, which required us to restart our phone, the TV or both to get them talking to each other again.

Casting content from your phone is easy, and it's nice to be able to access everything that is 'castable' from the Sony remote app, whether that's other apps, photos, videos or music stored on your smartphone. 

Sadly we weren't able to use our smarpthone keyboard to search for apps and content on the TV. There's a separate app called Video & TV SideView Voice that adds voice control to the remote.

Pros: Easy to connect to the TV, good interface, can do whatever the physical keyboard can do, easy to cast content from the phone and mirror your phone screen onto the TV screen.

Cons: Often disconnected from the TV, doesn't make the most of the touchscreen since you can't use the phone keyboard.

Permissions: location, telephone, storage

Panasonic TV Remote 3

 This app mirrors the controls on your remote while also letting you easily cast photos and videos saved on your phone to your TV. It also supports a huge range of Panasonic models going all the way back to 2011.

We haven't had a chance to give this a full tryout with all the scenarios, but we will update this article once we have.

What about third-party apps?

We tried a whole range of popular remote apps billed to work with TVs from different brands, but didn't find any of them worked well. When we could connect them we found most to be bloated with ads, making them fiddly to use. 

If you're going to use your phone to control your TV, you're better off choosing one of the official apps.

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