The Intel NUC: Remote Control Options

An important consideration for any NUC owner is what to use as an input device. This is especially true when the NUC is to be used as a home theater PC. There are many options available and some work better than others for different tasks.  After setting my NUC up as an HTPC I tested several devices/methods for input, and I discuss my various levels of success below.  Enjoy!

Solution: Standard USB keyboard & mouse

Cost: Free to almost free

Best used for: Initial setup

This is the obvious choice when first setting up the NUC.  It's great because you have immediate access to input user names, passwords, commands, etc. Also the mouse is great for navigation.  You most likely already have these somewhere around the house.  If not they're cheap. There are two issues with this, however.  First, you're using up 2 of your 3 USB ports. If you use a USB hub, great but it's still a bit of a wiring mess and it isn't pretty.  Second, you're tethered to the NUC.  You have to be positioned within a couple of feet.  If you're setting the NUC up while it's connected to your tv you can expect to be sitting on the floor in front of the tv.

Solution: Wireless RF keyboard & mouse

Cost: $20-$50 (more for higher end models)

Best used for: Initial setup, PC games

Going wireless with the keyboard & mouse solves a couple of the issues with a wired option. For one you're no longer tethered to the NUC. You can be several feet away so sitting comfortably on your couch is now an option. Also, most wireless combos use a single USB receiver so you're saving on ports. Still, if you've ever tried to use a keyboard and mouse while sitting on your couch you know it's not an ideal solution for an HTPC.  It's cumbersome and there are far too many keys to make it a viable option. Also, both the keyboard and mouse run on batteries, so you’ll occasionally need to replace them.

Solution: Compact Bluetooth keyboard (no mouse)

Cost: $15-$20

Best used for: Nothing…not a good solution

Taking things a step further down the road of portability, you can opt for a small Bluetooth keyboard like the one pictured. Using the Bluetooth capability of the Intel wifi adapter (or a cheap USB Bluetooth dongle) you can avoid filling up any of your USB ports, and the keyboard is small enough to be used comfortably from the couch. On the surface it seems like a good idea, but just trying getting anything done during setup without a mouse. Once you’re at the HTPC stage it’s still not much use because there are still all those keys to deal with. Plus it uses a rechargeable internal battery so you’ll need to plug it in via USB every few days to keep it working.

Solution: Mini Bluetooth keyboard with built-in touchpad

Cost: $25-$35

Best used for: HTPC when you need to type as well

Now we’re talking. This keyboard solves a lot of problems. First, it’s small, about the size of a remote control. Next, it has a trackpad so mouse movement is covered. It links up with your built-in Bluetooth, so no messy USB cables. No Bluetooth? No problem. An included Bluetooth USB dongle is tucked neatly away in a hidden compartment! It even has navigation buttons under the trackpad, so now moving around menus is easier. Yes this is a better option than the ones before. Sure you still have to plug it into USB to charge it every few days, but we’re getting closer to a great end-user experience.

Solution: RF HTPC remote

Cost: $10-20

Best used for: HTPC

Ok, forget that mini keyboard, THIS is the one we’re looking for! It’s nice looking, only takes up one USB port, and works exactly like a regular remote. The model I have is “Designed for Windows Media Center” so the buttons work as they should in media center. Even in XBMC I have excellent control. When you need a mouse there’s the little slidey-buttony circle…thing…. in the middle that gives you mouse control. You couldn’t ask for a more seamless solution for an HTPC. No keyboard function, but once you’ve got everything set up you shouldn’t need one anyway, right? Like any other remote it's line-of-sight, but that shouldn't be an issue.

Solution: Phone/Tablet remote control app

Cost: Free for the basic version, $2-$5 for the more custom versions.

Best used for: Anything you want

Finally we come to what I think of as THE PERFECT SOLUTION so far. This is not only a very functional and versatile solution; it is REALLY cool to play around with. The way it works is that you install a small application on your HTPC that acts as a server for the remote. Then you install an app on your tablet or phone that talks to the server app. There are several of these remote apps to choose from, but the best one I’ve seen so far is called Unified Remote. It can use Bluetooth or your network connection to connect, and includes a customized remote for Windows Media Center. When you want a mouse, you click the button and your tablet or phone becomes a touchpad. When you need a keyboard, you click the keyboard button and use the tablet/phone keyboard to type. When you want a plain old remote control you just pick that option and you have a remote specific to the application you’re using. The Windows Media Center remote comes with the free version. Other remotes, like XBMC, come with the paid version. Additionally cool is that you can install the app on multiple tablets/phones, so no more hunting for a remote!

You can check out the awesomeness here: http://www.unifiedremote.com/

Currently you’re limited to Windows for the computer and Android for the tablet/phone. However they have versions for Linux and ios in the works.

Those are the solutions I've tested with the NUC.  Of course there are other options out there, but these are the ones I had available to me.  At some point I would like to test out gestural input using something like Leap Motion, but those devices aren't available yet. They essentially give a Microsoft  Kinect-like control to the PC.  No keyboard, no mouse, no nothing.  Nothing to come between you and your PC. If I'm lucky enough to get my hands on one I will test it out and post my findings.