Review: Universal Remote Control Digital R50 Remote


Universal Remote Control’s Digital R50

Universal Remote Control’s Digital R50 walks the easy-programming tightrope.

Jan. 18, 2010 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Since long before my opinions on home theater electronics mattered to anyone but my close family and friends, I’ve recommended the Logitech Harmony line of remotes for ease of use and setup. And for about as long, I’ve also found myself getting acquainted with local tech support for the inevitable quirks that arise when people start programming advanced universal remotes using a PC. When I first saw the Universal Remote Control R50 universal remote, I thought I had finally found an alternative for those looking to program an advanced remote without needing to use a computer. 

Unboxing and Setup
As soon as you pick up the R50’s box, you’ll notice it touting an easy on-screen setup process. There is no PC programming involved! As you continue to open the box, you’ll see that URC is so confident in this on-screen setup that a foldout quick-start guide is the only documentation included.

You’ll also notice that the R50 has a robust and well-built feel to it, most notably emphasized by the weight and use of quality materials. The face of the R50 is a mix of gloss black and flat silver/gray plastic along with rubber hard buttons. The back has a rubber feel that makes your grip feel steady. 

The R50 feels much more like its custom installation-focused brethren (think MX-880) than anything from URC’s consumer line. The button layout is logical and matches well with the R50’s center of balance. My average-size hands naturally centered my thumb on the directional controls. Volume and channel buttons were an easy reach up, and transport controls an easy reach down. I did, however, hear complaints on the reach distance from a friend with smaller hands. 

The R50’s color screen at the top is flanked by separate power on and off buttons (you’ll see why later) as well as hard buttons corresponding to the six locations on the screen itself. The screen is bright and the interface is sharp with appropriately sized fonts and crisp icons. There’s also a main button that gets you back to the device selection screen and also into the setup menu by holding for 5 seconds. I’m impressed with the hardware aspects of the R50, but the programming process really deserves the bulk of the focus here. 

The lack of documentation in the R50 package is a nudge to dive right into the on-screen programming guide. By doing so, you’ll find that the basic setup of the devices you’ll be controlling is quick and nearly effortless. Programming your devices is handled by selecting the category and brand, at which point the R50 starts trying different code sets from its internal database. Once you’ve found one that works, you can lock it in and move on to the next. I tested the setup process both in my main theater (with seven devices) as well as my living room (three devices). In the basic living room setup, consisting of an HDTV, AVR, and DVD Player, my initial setup was complete in about five minutes. In the more complex theater environment, it took about 30 minutes to complete and included the remote learning the codes of two more obscure devices using their original remotes. 

Basic device setup is just the tip of what the R50’s on-screen programming can accomplish. The next step toward tapping the R50’s potential is adding favorite channels, of which the R50 can store 48. Sixty basic channel icons, including mainstays like ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox, along with major pay services like HBO and Showtime, are included in the internal database, along with a handful of generic icons and the ability to type in names using the numeric keypad. This icon database is a nice start, but doesn’t go nearly far enough in today’s digital cable and satellite multiverse.

Beyond programming your favorite channels, the R50 still has a few more tricks up its sleeve. The first, which URC refers to as Copy & Paste, is more commonly called punch through and allows you to consolidate commands to a single device independent of the device the remote is controlling at the time. In practice, you can assign commands like volume to always control the AVR, even when the remote is controlling the TV or DVD player. This functionality eliminated much of the “device hopping” you have to do with basic consolidator remotes. On the R50, you simply “copy” the command from one device and “paste” it onto the button you want it to control in the other devices. 

Basic setup, favorites, and Copy & Paste do make for a more advanced remote experience, but these features are also available in plenty of less advanced (and less expensive) models. Automation of processes, in the form of macros, is where the R50 sets itself apart from more basic offerings, as well as from the Harmony linewith which it shares a form-factor. When making the Harmony comparison, one key difference must be kept in mind; the R50 operates on the Macro principle, while the Harmony line operates on the Activity principle. The differentiation may be subtle, but it’s important to understand when programming the R50, especially if you’ve programmed Harmony remotes in the past. 

A macro is a string of predefined commands executed with a single key press. Think of a command progression like “power on TV, power on AVR, power on DVD, set AVR input to DVD”—all executed by pressing a single button labeled watch dvd. An activity based solution takes this a step further by remembering the state of the devices, and all future activity commands take that into account and so it knows which commands to execute and which not to if a device is already powered on. Now that you’ve already powered everything on and set the inputs to watch a DVD, pressing the similar “watch TV” command won’t inadvertently power off your TV and AVR. The remote remembers that they’re already powered on and simply changes the inputs for you. The main benefit is that there is now no need for discrete power codes, or separate codes for on and off, to avoid power cycle sync conflicts. Activity based remotes also usually group commands from various devices and map the buttons accordingly. 

The URC R50 works on the more basic macro platform and requires much more thought and planning when constructing strings of commands. Discrete power codes are nearly a necessity; otherwise you’ll be turning devices on and off at unwanted times when you switch from one device to another. This is where the R50’s ease of programming goes out the window. Setting up a group of independent macros that do not interact with one another in a negative fashion requires much more know-how than is present in the non-PC crowd. If your devices don’t all have discrete power codes, or are left on all the time, like a cable-box or DVR, then it’s almost impossible. Also, many devices have discrete power codes available, but not on the OEM remote itself. Instead, they can be found in the form of hexadecimal code sets supplied online by the manufacturer or from resourceful enthusiasts. This is great for PC-connected remotes, but doesn’t do you much good with a non-connected remote like the R50. 

I knew going into the advanced macro setup that things were not going to go smoothly, mainly because my projector’s OEM remote lacked discrete power buttons. My AVR, Blu-ray player, and motorized screen were good to go with native discrete code capabilities—though using the learning mode was required—and my DVR and Network Media Player stay powered on at all times. After digging around online for an hour or so, I did find discrete HEX power codes for my projector, but how was I supposed to actually get them into the R50? I used an old JP1 universal remote, which I programmed the hex codes into using my PC and the taught to the R50 using the learning mode. This is a process that will be alien to the non-PC crowd the R50 seems to be aimed at, and the vast majority of PC-savvy consumers won’t have the extra hardware necessary to make the leap. 

Once I had the discrete codes for my projector on the R50, things became much easier. Using the macro function, along with Copy & Paste, I was able to create independent “activity” buttons and command groupings that did not interfere with each other or require any special sequencing. I should say the physical programming of the macros and command groups were made fairly simple by the on-screen programming guide. The crux is having all of the discrete codes necessary and planning the macros. Knowing what commands to place where will likely be difficult to grasp for folks who already find the PC wizard-based programming of a Harmony remote too intense. 

The URC R50 has tons of potential. The hardware is top-notch in terms of build-quality and key layout.  The basic setup is dead simple, and the same can be said for the advanced setup if you have discrete power codes on-hand and a fundamental understanding of macro planning logic. On the other hand, if you already know a thing or two about programming a universal remote and are looking for a more customizable alternative to the Harmony line, the URC R50 may be exactly what you’re looking for. 

> Controls up to 18 components
> Large, color LCD
> Setup wizard on the LCD screen
> Thousands of built-in control codes
> Learning capable
> 48 favorite channels
> MacroPower buttons
> SimpleSound volume control
> Prices vary

> Extremely well built with solid materials
> Logical button layout that fits comfortably in average-size hands
> Extremely easy setup of basic features, favorites and “Copy & Paste”

> Proper setup of advanced macros is almost completely dependent on discrete power codes
> Volume and channel buttons can be a reach for small hands

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