Albeit overpriced with plenty of room for improvements, the Belkin MediaPilot provides an all-in-one solution to controlling every aspect of your HTPC setup that is unmatched.
With the PC quickly becoming a part of many people's entertainment center, the universal remote is suddenly not so universal. Enter Belkin's MediaPilot, a wireless keyboard with a built in mouse that also incorporates a universal remote control for controling the TV, DVD player, and the rest of your electronics. To add more luster, unlike other mini keyboards there is a docking station that adds a 10-key and serves as a way to recharge the keyboard's batteries over USB. But as a totally new product, how well does it hold up? Find out in my full review below.
The Belkin MediaPilot wireless keyboard is split into three separate parts - the actual keyboard, docking station, and a wrist rest. The keyboard itself is much like a combination of a laptop's condensed keyboard and a standard desktop keyboard in the sense that the keys are fully tactile and not flat, and on the right side are the home, page up, insert, delete, etc keys in addition to arrow keys in the standard inverted T arrangement. The keyboard's height steps up above the function keys, where all the hotkeys and multimedia controls reside.
On the extreme sides of the keyboard are the components that make up the mouse. To the left is are two buttons separated by a clickable scroll wheel, while on the right is a joystick for moving the mouse on the screen that operates similar to the pointer found in the center of some laptop keyboards. Together they work strikingly well, although we'd like to point out that it might be better if Belkin would have the mouse buttons and joystick switch places to make zooming in (ctrl-scroll wheel) more accessible, especially for those who surf the internet from the couch.
The MediaPilot docking station extends the functionality of the keyboard by providing a 10-key number pad, a second set of arrow keys, along with six extra keys above the arrows. However, unlike most keyboards that rely on a third row of keys for Scroll Lock, Break, and Print Screen, Belkin decided to simply place these in the six-key group along with a Sleep key, keeping the cursor positioning keys on the main portion of the keyboard. While this does cut down the footprint of the keyboard, the computer has accidentally been put to sleep quite often whenever I reach for the Home key. Above these are five indicator lights for Charging, Num Lock, Caps Lock, Connect (used during the sync process), and P Mode for the enhanced function keys.
While indeed functional, once put together the design of the keyboard looks like a hack job with several crevices, varying heights, and more than three shades of blue. And to be honest, when the MediaPilot is docked, it certainly feels like a hack job too, with the keyboard bending inwards to pressure and the base slipping about on the desk thanks to small, poorly glued rubber feet. Thankfully, the keyboard feels much sturdier when used wirelessly on the couch.
For the PC
Belkin made installation of their MediaPilot extremely easy thanks to a well written, printed manual that documents every feature of the keyboard for handy reference. (Nothing peeves us more than a badly translated manual or PDF-only documentation). Unfortunately, their packing department made a slight error with our unit and included two manuals and no driver CD, but we were readily able to download the latest drivers from Belkin's website. Within the MediaPilot Control Center for the PC are two tabs for programming the MediaPilot.
The PC Programmer tab uses application based profiles to program the function and hotkeys for various applications, which is really handy for having one profile dedicated to Photoshop and another for Firefox. Each F-key or Hotkey can launch a program, perform a predefined function, or activate a keyboard macro. While perfect for workflow, the drivers could use a bit of tweaking. For example, it is not possible to skip to the next track without calling the MP3 player to the front, and using the volume control does not show a visual indicator for the volume level unlike Microsoft or Logitech's drivers.
Because the wireless keyboard operates on the 2.4GHz frequency, we were afraid it might interfere with our WiFi network (ch. 9), but this was not the case. Not only did our throughput and signal remain the same after implementing the keyboard, but the wireless range of the MediaPilot seemed to be unaffected as well - able to type sentences from different rooms and even outside without any dropped letters. The fact it could successfully type from outside says a lot for the wireless integrity, as the apartment complex has so much interference you can't even maintain a cell phone call from inside.
For the Couch
In order to use the MediaPilot with your Television and DVD player, you must first program it in the Control Center's AV Programmer tab. Using drop-down menus, you select the device's make, and are then presented with a drop-down list of 4 digit codes that might work. Select the code, and save the changes. Sounds simple enough, but the code listing is somewhat incomplete, which can lead to some strenuous work.
For example, the only code listed for Motorola cable boxes didn't work with our Motorola-branded Digital Cable receiver. After some research, we determined that the four digit codes used for the MediaPilot are the exact same as those used for the One For All remotes and Radio Shack 8-in-1 remotes. A much better code listing can be found at http://www.rcinfo.com/152117.htm. Once a code is found, you can add it to the database for future use by editing the INI file located at C:Program FilesBelkinMediaPilot ControlCenterodeocodes.ini, then relaunching the Control Center.
Another problem you may encounter is that you have a device whose manufacturer doesn't publish ANY codes, such as Apex Digital who promised to post codes for their televisions back in 2004. In this case, it would have been nice if Belkin implemented a "Code Search" function that many universal remotes include that have you keep pressing the power button until the TV turns off when the right code is found. Instead the only options are to either search Google for other users who found the code (Toshiba 0156 in our case), or go through the "Learning Process" we're about to detail.
The Belkin MediaPilot can learn codes with its IR receiver, as long as you have the original remote control to teach it with. Through this method, you can map individual keys on the remote to the f-keys (read: no multimedia keys) for each device. The possibilities for this are endless, ranging from mapping Subtitle and Audio buttons for the DVD player, to controlling a PS2 or X-Box with the MediaPilot. One might even go as far as to control a camcorder with the keyboard, or use the keyboard as the weapon of choice for a good game of Lazer Tag. Not that we can envision running through the woods with a keyboard, but hey, it's possible.
Long wireless range
Universal remote with learning capability
Built in mouse; macro capabilities
No feedback for multimedia controls
No code search function
The Belkin MediaPilot is a great hybrid concept that delivers, and a HTPC enthusiast's best friend. What's more, it's Mac compatible! However with the imperfections in the drivers and docking station that need to be worked out, the MediaPilot has an inflated price that may be out of reach for some, with prices on the web ranging from $85 to $125. Still, we managed to get through these imperfections and the MediaPilot has found a nice place in our setup, and is recommended.