Gadgets

Why an IR Blaster Is Still Useful on Phones in 2020

An infrared remote pointed at a TV screen showing planet Earth.
klss/Shutterstock

There’s a chance (albeit, an ever-decreasing one) that your phone comes with an IR blaster. These allow your phone to communicate with everyday devices in your home, like TVs and DVRs, using invisible bursts of electromagnetic radiation.

If you’re perennially losing your remote control, phones with IR blasters are extremely handy. But how do they work, and where can you get one?

When Infrared Was King

Readers of a certain age might remember using infrared to share files and internet connections between their phone, PDA, or computer. This feature (dubbed “IrDA“) was common in the 1990s and early ’00s before Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

A PDA displaying the time of day in Tokyo, Los Angeles, London, and Paris.
Milos Markovic/Shutterstock

At the time, IrDA was revolutionary, but it’s long since ceased to be mainstream. Modern data transfer technologies are simply better. With Bluetooth and IrDA, both infrared ports don’t have to be in close proximity or have a line of sight.

They’re also significantly faster. The IrDA port on my Apple PowerBook G3 tops out at a sluggish 230.4 kbps. Compare that to Bluetooth 5.0, which supports speeds of up to 2 Mbps, or Wi-Fi 6, which has a base speed of 1.2 Gbps, and can even go up to 10 Gbps.

It’s worth emphasizing that IR blasters aren’t the same as the old IrDA ports of yesteryear. They use an entirely different protocol called Consumer Infrared (cIR), and operate at much slower speeds.

That means you’ll have to forget about using your shiny new phone to connect to your late-’90’s laptop.

What Is IR Used for in 2020?

IR blasters are almost exclusively used to control other devices, like TVs, set-top boxes, and air conditioning units. By downloading an app, you can effectively turn your phone into a universal remote and control your entire world.

Because IR blasters for TVs and set-top cable boxes are so prevalent, Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox One incorporated one, as well. That’s how the Kinect hardware lets Xbox One control a TV.

Some phones, like the Unihertz Jelly 2, come with universal remote apps preloaded. If yours doesn’t, there are options on the Google Play store.

Lean Remote is one of the best and offers a wide range of support for household electronics. Your mileage will vary, of course.

Few U.S. Phones Offer IR Blasters

In the early 2010s, Android phones routinely shipped with IR blasters. Manufacturers like Samsung and LG included them on their devices, but this gradually stopped. However, IR blasters are still frequently shipped on phones from Chinese manufacturers, like Huawei and Xiaomi.

Below are a few of the latest phones that offer IR blasters.

TCL 10 Pro

A TCL 10 Pro smartphone.
TCL

It shouldn’t be surprising that TCL ships an infrared blaster on its top-tier phones. After all, the Chinese tech brand is most widely known for its affordable smart TVs, and there are obvious synergies.

Priced at $449, the quad-camera TCL 10 Pro offers a Qualcomm Snapdragon 675, 128 GB of storage, 6 GB of RAM, and a tall, 6.47-inch display. There’s also a 3.5mm headphone jack which is somewhat of a rarity these days.

It’s one of the few phones with an IR blaster sold in the U.S.

Xiaomi Poco F2 Pro

Xiaomi’s Poco F2 Pro combines flagship-level specs, like a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor and 64 MP quad-camera setup, with a sub-$500 price tag.

This is one of the few Xiaomi phones available in the U.S. While the firm hasn’t formally entered the American smartphone market, it’s been widely imported by resellers, and thus, can be found on Amazon.

Huawei P30 Pro New Edition

Announced earlier this year, the Huawei P30 Pro New Edition is a modestly updated version of last year’s flagship from the embattled Chinese tech giant.

Unlike other recent phones from Huawei, this device includes Google’s proprietary Android apps, so it has access to the Google Play store. It comes with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage by default, and, yes, there’s an IR blaster.

The P30 Pro New Edition isn’t readily available in the U.S., although it’s widely sold in Europe for around $800.

Make Your Own

I wasn’t joking when I said IR blasters were getting rarer. While it’s certainly true that they can be found, very few are included on devices sold in the U.S.

Fortunately, the electronics behind an IR blaster are extremely simple. If you’re handy with a soldering iron, it’s possible to create your own and plug it into your phone’s 3.5mm headphone jack. Your mileage will vary, however.