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Practical Mac

An iPhone has as many roles as the apps you can install for it. But what’s most improbable for me is how my phone has gradually taken the place of most of my home-entertainment remote controls and is poised to take over even more.

On my iPhone at the moment, I have software that can control a stereo receiver, Apple TV, iTunes software located around my network, a Blu-ray player, a software alarm system on a desktop, and a Mac connected to an HDTV as if I’m using a mouse and keyboard. That’s so far.

It happened so subtly that I noticed how much I’d moved to remote-control apps in iOS only when I started to get aggravated that they didn’t exist for other things in my house. I recently updated my receiver, one so old that it still had dedicated phonograph inputs and plugs for not just one, but two VCRs.

Prices on receivers with several HDMI inputs, the digital video standard for HDTVs that’s now used more widely, have dropped substantially in the past couple of years. I figured I could have three or four now or more in the future: a Mac mini, a new Blu-ray player, an older region-free DVD player, and an Apple TV.

I settled on the Yamaha RX-V473 ($400), one of many, many Yamaha and other models that had features close to what we needed. But what settled it were two features:

First, it works as an AirPlay receiver, letting you pass audio through from iOS devices running iOS 4.2 or later or Mountain Lion (Mac OS X 10.8). (Video doesn’t work as the receiver passes through video signals; it doesn’t have video display circuitry built in.)

Second, Yamaha has free iOS (and Android) apps that can control the receiver over a network. Both features require a wired Ethernet connection.

Now, with any of the Apple TV, Mac mini, or Blu-ray player as inputs, I can switch among apps on my iPhone to select the source (the Yamaha app), then start playing.

Apple has long offered the free Remote app to control both copies of iTunes on computers on a network, and to handle an Apple TV. For the Mac mini, I use iTeleport ($25) for seeing its screen while moving a virtual mouse and keyboard.

Mobile Mouse ($2) works for just mouse/keyboard manipulation when I have the Mac’s video output on our TV set.

I use Orbicule’s Witness app as a motion-detecting system (in conjunction with a webcam), and it has a remote app to arm and disarm. But in a few days, my family is having a home-alarm system upgrade.

Instead of using a wired telephone line, the system taps into broadband, allowing us to cut out phone cord at last. For a few dollars a month, we’ll be able to use an iOS app to monitor our alarm system, and turn it on or off anywhere we have Internet access.

Those are a handful of uses, but a small subset of what’s already available. Co-columnist Jeff Carlson has Sonos audio components, which can have playback controlled through an expensive device ($350) Sonos has sold since it launched, well before the iPhone and iPod touch, as well as through a free app. You can guess which one Jeff uses.

Where we should really see traction, however, is if Bluetooth 4.0 finds its way into home electronics, like TVs, receivers, disc players, and other gear. That short-range, low-power standard is built into the iPhone 4S and 5, the fifth-generation (2012) iPod touch, the Retina iPads (both 2012 models), as well as the iPad mini.

Instead of every maker producing an app, developers could make software that competes on features to control every bit of home-entertainment gear using standard signals to talk to each.

In years past, many of us bought all manner of universal remote controls that we could program with various codes for the different TVs and VCRs and such we owned, and the universal control used infrared to communicate.

The remote controls, like the Harmony, became increasingly complex computers in their own right. Now the lingua franca is Internet protocol or wireless (via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi). The best remote control is the one we already have.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to