How not to ship hardware: the Thinkflood Redeye

Time to abuse this space for ranting purposes!

I like programmable universal remote controls, as a rule. We used a Harmony 880 here at AdamW Towers for a long time. It didn’t quite have clean line-of-sight to all my devices, though, so sometimes it wouldn’t be able to hit the A/V receiver or the cable box, and it’d get ‘out of sync’, and that’s annoying. So recently I got a Harmony 890 off eBay, which is pretty much the 880 but with RF capability – the remote sends a signal to an RF receiver doohickey, and you plug a bunch of IR blasters into the RF receiver doohickey, and the doohickey transmits IR signals over the blasters. Stick a blaster to the receiver of each of your pieces of equipment, and things get nearly 100% reliable.

So that worked, more or less, for the next month or two (though the way you set up the doohickey in Logitech’s world is a trifle bizarre), until the screen on the 890 died. This is apparently a very common problem with no obvious solutions. It just sits there, being blue at me. The remote actually still works, but it’s a bit tricky to use an 890 with a non-visible display, as quite a lot of the function of the remote runs through the display.

So since the 890 is apparently a bad idea, and there are various other issues with all the other Harmonys available, I thought I’d take a look around for other alternatives. I stumbled across the Thinkflood Redeye, and it sounded pretty intriguing. It’s basically the RF-to-IR bridge doohickey without a remote control: the doohickey is actually a Linux box, and you interface with it via wifi. In fact it uses all HTTP over wifi; they sell it to consumers as for use with an iOS app as the front end, but on the back end it’s a deal geekier and more flexible than that, and they seem pretty friendly to hacker users. It has a direct web interface and you can do neat stuff like control it via special URLs, which makes it trivial for people with the appropriate skills to write their own ‘apps’ for just about anything. It’s a neat, geeky design. I had some Amazon gift certificates lying around and it’s available from Amazon, so I ordered one.

Well, it arrived today, and my first impression has been, ahem, not good. They obviously have some sensible and smart engineers on staff, given the overall design of the thing, but they equally obviously have some complete morons on staff as well, as you will see shortly.

I got it out of its box, and opened up the extremely extensive user manual. Because I am that person who actually reads the instructions. So, following the instructions in the manual, I plugged the thing in. Then I read that the design for initial configuration is that the box runs an unsecured ad-hoc wifi network out of the box, and you connect to that ad-hoc wifi network with something that is capable of both ad-hoc wifi networking and zeroconf, and connect to the box to configure it. When the Redeye first came out, the ‘something’ was expected to be an iDevice and an iDevice only, but now they have a web interface and an Android app and stuff, they provide instructions for people – like me – who don’t have any iOS devices, and are expecting to use it via the web interface or an Android device.

These instructions tell me to connect to the ad-hoc network with a PC (Android devices can’t do ad-hoc networking) and then connect to the zeroconf hostname for the box with a web browser in order to complete initial setup.

Well, first I tried to do this from F18, but it seems extremely disinclined to connect to a zeroconf-only ad-hoc wifi AP – it kept thinking the connection wasn’t really up and going back to my regular AP. Then I tried to tell it that it didn’t need proper IP addressing over IPv4 or IPv6, but it then started whining about ‘link not ready’ and not even connecting at all. I could probably have figured that out, but life’s too short, so I booted to the Win7 install I keep around on my network for such situations.

Win7 manages the connection, so okay, let’s fire up the browser and connect to the hostname. Ooops – Windows doesn’t have zeroconf out of the box. I could install iTunes, but ew. Well, okay, I dive into the Redeye site and find they provide a little app which finds the IP address for you. That’s easy enough. Download the app, run it, I finally have an IP address to connect to. I’ve already jumped through quite a lot of hoops just to make this silly little box connect to my own AP so I can configure it from any of my boxes (the ultimate goal here), which seem like they aren’t really strictly necessary if Thinkflood would just provide some kind of backup to the clever-clever ad-hoc wifi/zeroconf config mechanism – hell, just a telnet or ssh server would be useful – but no, they don’t do that. But I feel like I’m finally getting there.

Here the real fun begins! I finally open up Firefox, enter the IP address the app found for me, and – timeout. Hum. Try again, and – after some time – a black screen. Oh dear.

Try it in Internet Explorer, same thing. Try the buttons in the app (which are supposed to link to specific areas within the web front end) and I get 404s.

I’m now getting worried that the box is just completely defective. Still, I try several things – power cycling it, rebooting Windows, dancing naked on a Wednesday, you know, the usual Windows stuff. Same results.

I call tech support and describe my symptoms: the guy on the other end first tells me to try Chrome, but when I mention the black screen, tells me to find this page on the support site. It’s an ‘installer application’ for Windows, which like the ‘finder’ app finds Redeyes on the network, but can also (allegedly) update their firmware and configure their network settings. So, well, I guess that’s nice? And more or less what I actually want? But it seems strange that this tool isn’t described at all in the documentation, and isn’t very prominent on the site at all (I didn’t spot it until directed to it by the tech support guy, and I look for this kind of stuff).

Anyway. So I try the app. It finds my box, I click it and click the Update button to update its firmware, and the app crashes.

Huh.

I try again, it happens again.

I’m already getting rather annoyed, but fine, I’ll just see if I can put the box on my regular AP so I can fiddle with it from my desktop, at least. So I skip the firmware update step and go to the next step, where I can allegedly tell the box to join my local AP instead of running its own ad-hoc network.

It scans for wifi networks. It never finds any.

I leave it five minutes, reboot, and try again. Finally! It finds the list of networks. I pick mine, tell it to connect, enter the passphrases, and…crash.

Try again, crash.

Try updating the firmware again, crash.

As of writing this I’ve tried to update the firmware on the box six times, and the ‘installer’ application has crashed six times. Why am I so insistent about updating the firmware? Well, because it turns out to be rather important. At some point in this process I registered for the official forums. You need to be logged in to read them, so I can’t link you to the topic, but there is a post there which explains the slightly mysterious existence of this apparently superfluous – and very definitely buggy – ‘Windows installer’ app. I quote from it:

“With our last production line we found that some customers were unable to access the browser application for their units, getting 404 errors for the maintenance and setup pages, and a blank screen for the main page.”

Hey! That’s exactly what’s happening to me! I read further:

“It seemed that with these units the firmware flash was truncated to not include the proper pages. We’ve added a simple installation application to our website that you can use on a Mac or Windows PC to help you update the unit and resolve the browser issue, and even move the unit to your home network if you’d like.”

*blink blink*

So wait. You found out that you were shipping out units with borked firmware flashes, and instead of alerting your customers and contacting your resellers to have the boxes returned and flashed correctly, you decided to push out an app for users to fix your manufacturing error, and then make almost no effort to tell anyone about it?

I mean, there was no slip in the box alerting me to the problem. I didn’t get an email after purchasing (which would be entirely logistically possible). There is no mention of it in the user guide. There is no mention of it in the ‘Frequently Asked Questions’. It’s just a single support question in a typical support question database, with no special prominence, and a forum thread in a forum you have to register to join (the forum thread is a sticky. Woo freaking hoo. They use the world’s most awful forum software though – no idea what it is, but it’s hideous). Gold medal stuff, guys. Just solid freaking gold.

Still, I could work with all of that if your freaking application actually worked. But it doesn’t. It seems entirely incapable of actually completing a firmware flash without crashing. I’m only amazed it hasn’t bricked the box yet; I think it’s crashing too early for that to happen, fortunately. I’m running this on an updated OEM install of Windows 7, nothing weird about it (I almost never use it), with the Windows firewall disabled, everything up to date, all other processes killed, nothing I can think of it could possibly object to. But no. Crashy, crashy, freaking crashy.

Since I’m an idiot and I really want to play with this thing, I’m off to buy a cheap iPod Touch off Craigslist soon. If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, it sounds like iDevices should be able to connect to and update the badly-flashed boxes. If I liked the Redeye I was planning to acquire an old iDevice to use as a dedicated remote anyway (so we don’t have to run the software on our personal phones if we’re using them for something else). But still, it’d be hard to produce a worse first impression in me, Thinkflood. Not a good job. I strongly recommend no-one else buy one of these at least until they fix this crazy mess.

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