Firefly remote does multimedia on PC, TV

If your coffee table doesn't have enough remotes already, SnapStream Media is now offering the Firefly, a handheld remote device that helps you navigate from afar your PC's music, photo, and video content -- and, with a new version of its software, also access premium entertainment channels.

The Firefly has been available in limited numbers since May. With the new software upgrade, SnapStream has added support for several entertainment services. Movie rental sites CinemaNow and MovieLink, music outlets Live 365 and Napster, and RSS provider Newsgator are all available immediately. ESPN Motion, a selection of video sports news, was included in the beta; a SnapStream spokesperson, though, says this service is "not yet an official business partner."

Spotlight specs

Some of the sites included in what SnapStream calls its Spotlight service require a subscription or rental fees, and buying the Firefly (priced at US$50 / AU$71.65) from SnapStream doesn't change that.

However, Spotlight adds a full-screen, large-font interface designed to make the sites accessible from as far as 10 feet away. Because the remote transmits signals using radio frequencies, instead of the infrared that most consumer electronics remotes use, you don't need an unobstructed view of the PC to control it. Current Firefly owners can download the Spotlight software free of charge.

For now, the market for the Firefly is fairly limited. The device is designed for people who use a PC, often connected to their television and stereo, to play music, look at photos, and record TV shows.

Many people who have configurations like that use a Windows Media Center PC, which ships with its own remote. The Firefly is for those hardy souls who are trying to create an entertainment PC from an ordinary system by cobbling together different software products, including, not coincidentally, SnapStream's own Beyond TV, which transforms a PC into a video recorder similar to a TiVo.

Hands on

The Firefly ships with an RF receiver that you connect to your PC through a USB port, as well as software that provides the visible-from-10-feet interface to navigate through music, photos, videos, TV, and the Spotlight channels. Press the music button on the remote, for instance, and the Firefly will automatically take you to a large-font version of the My Music folder. From there, you can choose tracks to play.

The remote includes buttons for standard entertainment commands like play, pause, next track, and fast forward. If you don't keep your music in the My Music folder, you can navigate to it; but there's no obvious way to change the default folder the Firefly accesses.

You can also set the Firefly to control a variety of other music and video players, including Musicmatch Jukebox, ITunes, Windows Media Player, and RealPlayer. Its command buttons will control those applications, but navigating and choosing files to play can be difficult. Because those applications are still designed for users sitting 2 feet from a monitor, reading file names from across the room is a challenge. And choosing content to play can be tedious: You have to switch the remote to mouse mode and use directional keys to move your cursor around the screen.

The beta version of the Spotlight features I tried was occasionally balky. Whenever I attempted to view a movie trailer at CinemaNow, my system would stall with a blank screen. But other services, such as Live 365 and MovieLink, worked fairly well.

If you've often thought that you needed a remote for your PC, the Firefly will probably please you despite its faults, and the product will no doubt continue to mature.

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Edward N. Albro

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