Philips TSU9600
Home Control Panel

Philips Pronto TSU9600 Remote Control

It wasn't so long ago that if you had a DVD player, a receiver and a large screen TV, you thought you had an amazing home theater.

Standards have changed, and now you need a really big screen TV or projector, at least two good video sources, a PVR/TiVo, STB (Set top Box) A/V receiver, a streamer / HTPC / XBOX / PlayStation, and a few other gadgets to get into that club. All these toys mean you probably have a box to put all those remotes in.

I, for one, had an LCD remote for quite a few years. My first so called "home theater" had a TV, DVD player, and A/V receiver. In those days, three remotes were an annoyance to me.

I found out that a new product was on the market by Philips called "Pronto". I was torn between that remote and a joint venture between Microsoft and Harman/Kardon - yielding a humongous remote called TC1000 (TC= take control). I ended up purchasing the TC because of a nifty jog dial that allowed you to (theoretically) surf channels by simply rotating it.

Why bother with an LCD remote? First, no matter how many hard buttons you have in a universal remote, it is never designed exactly how you want it. I needed something that I could control 100% in terms of how it looked and how it did things.

The TC1000 turned out to be a horrible purchasing decision. The Pronto series of products was continually evolving, while the TC1000 was abandoned and was a mediocre product to begin with.

The greatest power of the original Pronto was also its greatest weakness. It required a combination of a graphics artist and a programmer to build a half decent remote design. In those days, you only had tiny graphics and only two shades of gray (and, of course white and black) to work with. But still, the Pronto presented you with a completely empty pad of paper. You could end up designing anything you saw fit with it. It was a product that was priced for end-users, but gave you more power than a custom installer had with other products.

Pronto models continually improved during the last decade, adding more features, larger screen areas, more shades of gray, more hard buttons, and more recently . . . color LCD.

The basic idea behind the Pronto has been that you receive an empty slate. You then decide what each button will look like and what it can do. Each button can link to another button's code, output I/R codes, add a delay, a beep or even jump to another screen.

Ultimately, with the critical help of www.remotecentral.com, some of the nifty features in the Pronto became much more powerful. Users were able to figure out I/R codes and share them among themselves. This even included codes that were not available on the original remotes. The Pronto code format became so popular that some companies give you a limited remote for their products, while the full functionality is simply in downloadable discrete codes on that product's website, and you put them on something like the Pronto.

People also started sharing Pronto screen designs. With each product generation, Philips continually supported older formats and allowed users to upgrade and improve their designs. Add an occasional Remote Central Pronto design contest, and you have some amazing graphical designs that you can adopt and use.

That really means that anyone with some technical know-how can now program a Pronto. You never really start from scratch anymore - you typically take an existing design, drop in some discrete codes, and start connecting the dots.

Philips tried another route with the RC9800 remote (not in the Pronto line of products) that basically asked you quite a few questions and ultimately created a design for you. The benefit of that product was that it connected to your wi-fi network, was able to stream content, and had bidirectional control.

The TSU9600

Philips has now introduced the newest item in the Pronto lineup - the Pronto TSU9600. This remote enhances the Pronto experiences in quite a few interesting new ways.

The design of the unit is completely flat and streamlined, and there isn't even an indentation around the touch screen. That's really an amazing achievement, and it does take some getting used to. The benefit, of course, is that dirt does not tend to bunch up after a few months at the corners of the bezel.

The screen itself is 640x480, using a new TFT LCD design that is much brighter and more attractive than other models. In fact, it has the best screen I've seen on a remote or even a PDA in quite a while. The images are crisp and amazing, and you find yourself often longing that the remote also showed the video itself.

The screen has a landscape orientation, which does get some getting used to. We're so used to elongated stick-like remotes that a landscape remote does feel strange in your hand.

There are several hard buttons (as opposed to software or "soft" buttons that you design on the LCD screen) to work with. The buttons are in shaped with the same slick texture as the rest of the remote, but are slightly raised and transparent. This gives the remote a very slick and streamlined look and feel. However, the downside to this approach is that any tactile markers that were available on the hard buttons in previous designs are now gone. Previous designs had small lines and grooves designed into them, allowing you to play with the remote without missing a split second of watching your home theater. With the new design, you will find yourself looking at the remote a lot more and awkwardly pressing the wrong button now and again.

The buttons are strategically placed on the right hand side (not so good for left handed folks). They are mostly accessible through the right thumb. The remote is much lighter than it might appear. It is designed to fit very snugly in your right hand while still allowing your thumb to quickly flip through the channels, looking for that critical episode of CSI you might have missed.

Still, if you're doing anything more than flipping channels, you'll need two hands for this remote. Whereas I could do virtually everything using one handed operations on previous Prontos, this is clearly too large a remote to do that. You simply hold the remote with one hand and use the other hand to control things on-screen.

Hardware button-wise, there are several new hard keys, including five keys below the screen: Menus key, EPG button, Channel, Volume/Mute, Power button, and Page Up/Down buttons (which can now be programmed).

The remote comes with a stylus, although I never need to use it, and it seems like that item will be a common complaint as it is way too easy to lose (there should have been some kind of string or wire attached to prevent it from getting lost).

The remote charges on a transparent base where it stands almost upright. The base is transparent and is lit up with white LEDs when powered on. When the remote is charging, a red light appears below it. In a dark room, this can be quite a spectacle. It is definitely a very cool look.

The 9600 comes with quite an advanced software package: the Pronto Edit Professional. This is yet another version of the software that can read older designs and support the phone in full. For the first time, the built-in template design comes with transition screens - animation screens that help you pass the time when you turn on your system and a long macro has to turn on your display, A/V receiver, switch them all to the appropriate inputs, switch to a particular channel and then to a particular channel, change aspect ratio, set the volume level, etc. Macros can have up to 250 steps, but given that one macro can also make another macro start running, you have endless possibilities.

The software allows you to import graphics from the Philips gallery (which is quite extensive), and in the near future, I'm sure Remote Central will also add their own gallery and designs to the mix.

Button graphics are in the new PNG alpha-blended format, which not only allows for a reasonable size compression with big files, but also allows for transparency control. This will let you create buttons that throw shadows or light up their surroundings. This, combined with such an amazing screen and a much faster CPU, completes complex macros much faster than any previous Pronto remote I've tested.

The difference in speed between the TSU9600 and the previous generation of products (TSU7000/7500 Pronto Pro, or RU980/990) is just amazing. They really did revamp everything.

Additional features now include much smarter capabilities on the software side. You can distinguish buttons that function globally (e.g., volume should always be controlled on my A/V receiver) from those that are done locally (channel up and down should work different depending on which screen you are on). You can assign particular devices to a screen, which makes creating new buttons and macros much easier to do. It still takes quite a while to work everything out, particularly when you have lots of devices in your home theater (or entire house, as you can automate everything with this remote). A wizard-based system to start things off would have saved a serious amount of effort and time.

The end result of the software is a new XCF format. With other Prontos, you could download this file to your Pronto or upload it back if you needed to. This version only allows you to download the files to your Pronto. I assume the reason is that custom installers were tired of having their expensive designs shared by different users and even shared on the Internet. Now, only the person who has the original file can modify it.

A nice idea, "borrowed" from Microsoft Power Point ™, is Pack-N-Go, which allows a custom installer to create an EXE file that the end-user runs and automatically uploads the modified design to the remote. This saves custom installers the bi-monthly call that sounds a lot like "press that menu button to load the file, did you do it? Now, click upload to Pronto". Since it doesn't expose the actual file, users can keep a copy of their design, without being able to change it or "share" it with their friends or on the Internet.

The 9600 comes with Wi-Fi capabilities. This serves to control other devices on the network (essentially Lutron and Escient systems). In the near future, Philips will also introduce a way to control your HTPC (through MCE) directly on your Pronto. WI-FI means it will have two-way control and will be able to verify each operation before proceeding to the next step.

If your computer is out of range, it will not continue to switching your TV to display it. Two-way control means you can also see what the unit is doing at any given time. With Escient, that means you can see your song collection and can flip through it using the circular silver jog dial surrounding the cursor buttons. Unfortunately, this button is not addressable through the Pronto professional software, which means that if you don't have a similar Escient Fireball server at home, you won't be able to use that hard button yet.

One downside to the Pronto 9600's WI-FI capabilities is that it only has WEP security and it is only 802.11b (i.e., only 10 Mbps). So, if you are concerned about your home network's security, you should be careful and either disable this capability on the TSU9600, or use it with its own dedicated WI-FI access point.

I received the test unit with two different extenders. Extenders allow you to control equipment all over the house or behind opaque cabinet doors.

The RFX9400 is the smallest extender. It can either be controlled without WI-FI (simple RF, but using the same 2.4 Ghz frequency range), with WI-FI, or using a wired network connection. You connect the unit to your network and then program it using a familiar web based system. Once programmed, the TSU9600 communicates with it and confirms each operation. You can then tell the unit that a particular device is extender-based and you can control exactly which IR port the signal will come out of. There are four IR ports which look like mono headphone jacks. These can connect to small IR emitters that can be attached to your device's IR sensor. Devices that have IR jacks of their own can simply be linked using cables that come with the unit.

Reception in my house was fantastic. It stopped working only when I went down one floor and exited the front door. Once that happened, the Pronto remote noted that connection loss. It then refused to proceed to go through a complex macro, because it could not switch the display on through the extender. This is a very neat solution for multi-zone control.

The more expensive RFX9600 comes in a 1U rack-ready case. It is able to do quite a lot of additional tricks. Not only can it control relays (easily accessible through the Pronto professional software), but it also has current sensing capabilities. In the past, if you wanted to turn on your entire system, you needed to ensure that each of your devices had discrete power-on capabilities. Most displays still come with the annoying power toggle button - press once to turn on and press again to turn it off. That is very problematic with Pronto designs as the Pronto has no idea if your display is on or off and so this can really slow you down and make your Pronto designs overly complex.

The solution is, of course, buy only equipment with discrete power buttons - one button for on and a different one for standby. This solution might work with displays, but not necessarily with more complex devices.

The power sense solution allows you to add a special connector to the RFX9600, which in turn can be a conditional command inside your Pronto professional design. When that device is turned on, it requires much more power than when it is turned off. The sensor is able to recognize the difference and so only turn on the device if it is turned off and vice versa (send the power toggle command to turn off the device only if it senses that it is really turned on).

In addition, you can control relays or even send RS232 commands in HEX or text format. That lets you control devices like A/V receivers, home automation systems, computers, A/C systems, lighting systems, and pretty much anything else you can think of.

The TSU9600 has a long-lasting battery. You cannot access the battery itself, so I can't tell what kind it is, but after a full charge, it was able to last almost two days in our household before I had to put it back in its charging station. That is more than enough for anyone. The main problem is that if you ever require the battery to be replaced, you would need to have the unit serviced, as there is no access to the battery without taking the remote apart (which voids the warranty).

The front of the unit has a smooth plastic/glass feel to it. Unfortunately, it tended to collect finger prints. Still, it was much easier to clean than other LCD remotes, due to the flat concept. After a week of heavy use, it was much cleaner than any other Pronto remote I have tested.

The 9600 has a nice pickup sensor that immediately notices when you touch it. It is very sensitive, which means you don't have to shake the remote to turn it on. It's as if it is reading your mind: it simply turns on when you start using it. The light button on the top left part of the remote is essentially useless, and the pickup sensor is a much more elegant solution.

Conclusions

The Philips Pronto TSU9600 is a tremendous step forward in terms of functionality and design. It is a really cool product. I hope that Philips brings out similar devices with smaller form factors, and also that they develop wizard-based software to ensure that the first step in making the remote usable for home users will be simpler to learn and easier to use right out of the box.