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Caavo review: the future of remotes, a little too soon

There’s a lot going on here

I have been excited to get a Caavo to review since I first saw it demoed last year — it’s a next-generation universal remote system that uses machine vision to operate all your TV devices in a simple, seamless way.

After a lengthy development cycle, a new round of funding, and some limited beta testing, the first 5,000 Caavo units go on sale today for $399. After using a review unit for several days, it’s clear that Caavo has the most interesting idea about the future of remote controls anyone’s had in years. It’s also clear that it’s a very complicated, expensive idea that isn’t quite ready yet.

Here’s the basic difference between Caavo and other universal remotes like the popular Logitech Harmony series: the Caavo can see mostly everything that’s happening on your TV, and figure out what to do next based on what it sees. Other universal remotes are actually quite dumb: they just fire off preprogrammed sequences of commands without being able to confirm if things went well, and if everything works right, you still have to find and play your shows on every device yourself.

The Caavo, in comparison, is like a little TV butler: you say “Watch The Handmaid’s Tale” and it does the work of switching inputs to the device you like to watch Hulu on, opening the right episode, and hitting play. You can actually watch it click around your various TV interfaces as it finds what you want; it’s pretty wild.

Setting up the Caavo is a bit of a process. When you first order a Caavo, you set up a Caavo account and enter in all your service logins: Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, whatever you use. This lets Caavo build watchlists for you, and even login to services on various devices for you if needed.

When the hardware arrives, you’ll notice that it’s rather large, and you’ll need to make room for it. The good news is that you can put it out someplace visible without ruining your decor — it has a number of nice-looking interchangeable wood covers. On the back, you’re looking at 8 HDMI inputs, HDMI out, two USB ports, and IR blaster port, and an Ethernet jack. (Caavo recommends connecting to your network over Ethernet, but it has WiFi as well.) You unplug everything from your TV, plug everything into the Caavo, and plug the Caavo into your TV. If you have a home theater setup with a receiver, you plug the Caavo into that instead and it’ll sort out volume control; that’s what I did. It took about 20 minutes from opening the box to having all the cables plugged in correctly and the Caavo situated in a reasonable place.

Caavo with the lid open

Caavo remote buttons UI
Caavo remote

When you boot up the Caavo after all that, it will auto-detect all your devices and run through some basic steps to confirm that it can control them — and it uses a variety of methods to control everything, from regular old IR to network control to HDMI-CEC. And it can use them all together: it might send a power-on signal over CEC, click through the interface using IR, and then pass a deep link to an app using an API. It’s all very clever.

I set the Caavo up with a TiVo Roamio Pro, an Xbox One, a Chromecast, and an Apple TV, and it figured everything out and was ready to go in about 20 minutes, save a glitch with the Apple TV that resolved itself after a restart.

Actually, it would have been ready to go, but getting it to work properly with my Apple TV and TiVo required a few phone calls and a handful of device resets. My review unit was still wearing a beta software label, so hopefully these early issues get ironed out over time, but it definitely took some effort to get everything going.

If you need an IR extender, the Caavo comes with a neat trick: there’s a custom adapter that sends IR along HDMI, so you just need to run one cable to your device, with a little IR dongle at the end. It’s nice. All of the hardware is nice, in thoughtful ways: the HDMI cable in the box has little LED buttons at both ends, so you can press one and see where the other end is plugged in. It’s all very nice.

Once you’re up and running, you can just use the Caavo remote to control all your devices like normal, you can issue voice commands, and you can install a Caavo Alexa skill to control things that way. You can also use your original remotes at will; because the Caavo knows what’s going on on-screen, it never gets confused. I do wish the actual remote had a slightly better button layout, though; volume buttons should never be at the top, where they require a reach. The “sources” button is labeled with the iOS “share” icon, which is confusing. And the remote isn’t backlit; instead just resting your thumb on a button pops up a button label on your TV. It’s clever, but I’d prefer backlighting.

Caavo on-screen interface

Using the on-screen menus, you can do a broad search across devices and apps, switch devices or apps, or open your watchlist that tracks what you’re watching across services. Just being able to select apps and have them open on your preferred devices is great: you can set Vudu to open on a Roku, Prime Video to open on a Fire TV, and iTunes Movies to open on an Apple TV, and you never have to think about switching — you just pick the app icon from the Caavo menu and off you go. When you send something to a Chromecast, the Caavo just figures it out, switches inputs, and enables you to play and pause video from the remote, which is very nice.

You can just say “watch NBC” and have the Caavo switch inputs and change the channel to NBC. It’s a small thing, but no other universal remote can consistently get this right.

Caavo is also very high on its watchlists, which are exactly what they sound like: the company tracks what you’re watching across every device and service, and you can jump straight into the next episode from the Caavo interface. The machine vision stuff really shines here: the Caavo literally runs a lightweight web browser that logs into all your services and checks what you’ve been watching to update the lists, and if you have a compatible DVR, it clicks through your recordings at night to build a database of shows. And then when you pick a show, it can just launch the right device and drops you right in.

(I asked about privacy and data collection, and Caavo told me it doesn’t keep your viewing history — just enough data to show watchlists and perform the watch command. The company also says Caavo doesn’t read the screen to identify what you’re watching, as many smart TVs do.)

These basics all generally worked, but I ran into various small stumbles. The Caavo could be a little slow sometimes — I can click around my TV apps pretty fast, and sometimes watching the Caavo do it for me slightly slower was maddening. The Caavo software doesn’t yet know how to read a TiVo interface, so it wasn’t able to index my recorded shows the way it can with various cable and satellite DVRs. An HDMI-CEC issue with my Panasonic TV meant that it popped up its HDMI source labels whenever the Caavo displayed its menus or switched inputs. The on-screen interface wasn’t perfectly centered on my TV. And there’s just no way for the Caavo to control smart TV apps the way it can control a set-top box — it can’t see those apps over an HDMI connection, after all.

Caavo box and remote

And in the biggest limitation, the Caavo supports 4K, but not HDR. There just isn’t a chipset that can handle it right now, the company says. I used the Caavo just fine with my 1080p setup at home, but every mainstream TV worth buying has HDR now. If you’re buying a $400 universal remote system, you’re either the sort of person who already has an HDR set, or you’re the sort of person who might buy one in the next couple years. I don’t know about investing in an expensive remote system that can’t grow with your next TV purchase, both in terms of smart TV app control and HDR.

All that said, I found myself wanting to use the Caavo remote more often that not these past few days. It’s obviously smarter and more capable than other universal remotes, and Caavo’s ability to see what’s happening on your screen means that it can connect things like Alexa and an Apple TV in a way no other device can possibly do. But making all that happen requires a lot of complicated systems to work together seamlessly, and there’s still more polish needed to make the Caavo live up to its lofty potential. These first 5,000 buyers are definitely going to live through some growing pains.

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