The Zmart Remote promises to turn your phone into a universal remote control. It’s an efficient and tempting prospect, and one that we’ve heard before. How well does it work, and what makes it different from the competition?

Smartphones are a lot like remote controls. They’re both handheld technological marvels that communicate over distances.  They both tend to get lost in the couch cushions from time to time. So why has it been so hard to get your phone to take the place of your remote?

Most of the problem has been the simple fact that most phones don’t come with the right kind of hardware. Specifically, most phones aren’t equipped with infrared (IR), the standard wireless specification used by TVs, cable boxes, stereos, game consoles, coffee makers, etc. For some reason, phone manufacturers are happy to load up on 3G, 4G, LTE, Wi-Fi, CDMA, and Bluetooth radios, but not IR. There are a handful of converters, such as the Griffin Beacon, but these tend to be expensive and not exactly portable.

Zmart’s solution is simple: add the missing IR functionality by way of a small (and inexpensive) dongle that plugs into your headphone jack. Unlike “base station” converters, this means that you can travel with the Zmart remote from room to room (or house to house, or home to office) and use the app to remember every IR device in your life. You can even swap the same dongle between two phones or tablets, which is especially handy if you carry a Droid by day and cuddle with your iPad at night.

The dongle sticks out a little bit, but it’s neither heavy nor awkward, and it even comes in Android black or iOS white to fit right in (for the most part — there’s no Samsung silver or LG purple). The design of the app itself is more functional than futuristic. There are several generic remote control screens that resemble the physical remotes that they’re replacing and a handful of menu and setup screens that will be intuitive and self-explanatory even for the less tech-savvy users (Grandpa shouldn’t have any trouble here).

With a capacity of 200,000+ devices, there’s not a lot that the Zmart Remote can’t handle. Promising compatibility with 95% of the devices on the market, the app comes with a huge database of codes built-in, and an easy and effective learning function for devices that aren’t listed. Zmart’s usefulness is not limited to home theater and multimedia equipment. The app also supports Zmart’s “Smart Switch” unit, so you could control lights, ceiling fans, and other switched appliances from your remote app.

The Zmart Remote isn’t perfect, and there are indeed some compatibility and customization issues that keep it from getting a completely glowing evaluation. Like all universal remotes, there will be some specialized functions that the Zmart just can’t emulate — menu searches and DVR functions are a typical obstacle, as are (strangely enough) non-standard power and volume controls. Not every combination of hardware is guaranteed, either; Zmart’s 95% promise is impressive, but still has the potential to leave out a lot of devices. And unlike the Dijit Universal Remote, you can’t call Zmart truly customizable; there’s no real option to put the individual buttons right where you want them, and there doesn’t seem to be much use made of multitouch for swiping gestures or macros.

However, at least a third of the price of the competition, Zmart can be forgiven for a few omissions. The dongle is an elegantly simple fix for the IR conversion issue, and the app is reliable, powerful, and easy to use. And the company does update the app regularly, so perhaps future versions will add a little bit more sophisticated functionality — although this may add to the potential of confusing Grandpa a little more.

Check out the app for Android and Apple.