Tuesday, July 13, 2010

HTPC remote control review: Lenovo N5901 multimedia remote with keyboard


A couple of months ago, to use as a remote control for my Windows 7 HTPC, I purchased a Lenovo N5901 multimedia remote with keyboard (part no. 57Y6336).  The remote control easily fits in one hand, yet it combines a QWERTY keyboard, a trackball and two mouse buttons, and volume / playback buttons.  Following are my comments on the different aspects of the device, based on my experience with it so far.

Setup: The trackball and keyboard both worked fine “out of the box” for me with Windows 7 upon plugging in the (tiny!) USB wireless receiver to the PC, both in Windows Media Center and on the normal Windows 7 desktop – no software install was needed.

Keyboard: The keyboard is a “mostly-full” keyboard.  It isn’t suitable for touch-typing; I’m a pretty good typist on a standard QWERTY keyboard, but I can’t use the keyboard on the N5901 without looking down at it as I type.  The keyboard also has no function keys (F1, F2, … F12). 

The N5901 keyboard isn’t really suitable for use for any heavy-duty typing (e.g. composing emails) but it works well enough for keying in a Windows password at boot time, or for entering a few characters of the name of a show to search for in Windows Media Center.

Trackball: The included trackball and two mouse buttons work just fine.  One-handed use is possible, but I’ve found that it works best to use it with two hands; using the controller with only my left hand, I occasionally accidentally nudge the trackball with my thumb as I reach around the trackball to left-click.  It works better for me to hold the remote with both hands and use right thumb for the trackball, and left thumb to left-click.

Battery Life: The battery life is at the very least “okay,” as I’m on my 3rd month of using the remote, and it’s still on its original set of two AAA batteries.

Wireless Connectivity: The wireless connectivity for me was slightly suspect – when I first used the remote, it would usually work fine, but it would occasionally “drop” a split second of my trackball use, or a single key press using the keyboard.  (The latter was particularly frustrating when entering my password logging in to Windows following a reboot.)  My couch where I would typically sit and use the remote is located around 15 feet from the HTPC – well within the device’s specified operational range of 10 meters.

In my living room configuration, the couch is “L” shaped, with one side of the “L” extending along a wall toward the TV and the HTPC.  I was therefore able to work around the occasional wireless connectivity issues by purchasing a 10-foot USB extension cable (for less than $5 shipped off eBay), running that cable from the PC under my couch to underneath the place I usually sit in the middle of the couch, and plugging the N5901’s USB wireless receiver into the extension cable under the couch.  Having done this, the wireless connectivity now works with no problems.

Playback Controls: The N5901 features “play”, “stop”, “fast forward”, “rewind”, “previous”, and “next” multimedia playback control buttons.  All work just fine and as expected out of the box with Windows Media Center on Windows 7.

Volume Controls: The N5901 also features “volume up” and “volume down” buttons.  For some reason, at least for TV playback, although when I press these buttons Windows Media Center reports the volume level going up and down (minimum 0, maximum 50), the actual sound output level from my TV speakers doesn’t change, unless I turn the volume all the way down to 0, at which point the sound does cut out entirely (mute). 

Since the volume button presses on the remote are being received successfully by Windows Media Center, the problem apparently is with some other aspect of my hardware configuration, not the N5901 itself.  I’ve just been using the TV’s own remote instead to control the volume, which works fine.

Orange Button: The N5901 features a prominent, but unlabeled “orange button” in the top-left corner of the control (visible in the above image).  On my Windows 7 machine, pressing this button results in the somewhat odd behavior of bringing up a Windows Explorer window with the location set to “My Computer.”  Neither Windows 7 nor the N5901 itself provides any way (that I could figure out) to change this behavior.

What I really wanted this button to do was to act similarly to the “TiVo” button on a TiVo remote – that is, in the case of my setup, as a “Go to Windows Media Center Home screen” button.  Specifically, I wanted this behavior:

    1. If Windows Media Center (WMC) is not currently running, run it.
    2. If WMC is already running, but is not the active window, make it the active window.
    3. If WMC is the active window, navigate to the WMC front page / main menu.
    4. Suppress the default behavior of bringing up "My Computer."

The “green button” on “designed for Windows Media Center” remote controls might have this behavior as well; however, I’m not sure, never having had the chance to use one.

After some research, I was able to come up with a script for the free AutoHotKey utility to accomplish this behavior.  This is the script:

VKB6::  ;On a press of the Lenovo N5901 orange button:
  if WinActive("Windows Media Center")  ;Is WMC the current active window? 
    Send #!{Enter}  ;Act like a "green button" press (go to WMC main menu) 
    run c:\windows\ehome\ehshell.exe  ;Run/activate WMC 

The complete details of how I created this script are available in a superuser.com post.

Backlight: Probably the biggest drawback of the N5901 is that the buttons are not backlit.  In a completely dark room, the QWERTY keyboard is pretty much unusable, and the playback control buttons are pretty difficult to use.  The trackball and mouse buttons are no problem to use in the dark, though.


Based on my positive experience with the device over the past couple of months, I would recommend the N5901 as a reasonably inexpensive “all-in-one” (mouse + keyboard + playback buttons) HTPC remote control.