Remote Controls for Less Than $500
After opening the wallet for your home theater, don't skimp on the remote. Here are some "affordable" options.
Best Remote Controls for Less Than $500
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September 12, 2008 by Phil Lozen

You can have all the latest gear, the most up-to-date display and the biggest, baddest speakers known to man but there’s still one thing that can ruin an enjoyable romp through an action-filled blockbuster, and it’s likely the smallest piece of equipment in your theater.

I’m talking about the remote – an extension of everyone’s hand, the one thing that lets you have total control over your world. A universal remote done right can make even the most complicated A/V setup easy enough for grandma to watch “Murder She Wrote” reruns without help.

There are endless options from a number of manufacturers for both custom installers and general consumers. While you could certainly walk into the local discount retailer and spend $15 on a “universal” remote, we’re guessing that you’re looking for a bit more control than that. With that in mind, we’ll examine some features to look for in a remote and look at a few offerings from some of the top brands in the consumer space.

What to Look For
Before shopping for a remote, make a list of all your components. Add any items you may buy in the near future. Think beyond your electronics gear for such items as lighting, HVAC or curtains.

Any universal remote should have the ability to “learn” from other remotes, allowing your new remote to copy buttons from your old remote without having to program it. Similarly it should have the ability to combine multiple button pushes into one button, also known as macro commands.

Finally, look at how the remote sends it commands. Those that come with most A/V gear use infrared (IR) signals that send an invisible beam of light to the unit. This means there needs to be a line of sight from the remote to the unit. Radio-frequency (RF) signals, however, do not need line of sight and can control equipment in various rooms around the house. Keep in mind that you will likely need a RF receiver (many times included with RF remotes) to go along with the remote if your equipment doesn’t accept RF signals out of the box.

Other things to keep in mind include:

  • Backlighting – A remote with buttons that aren’t backlit can be very hard to see with the lights down during a movie.
  • Batteries – More and more remotes are coming with docks and rechargeable batteries, ensuring you’ll never find yourself rummaging through a junk drawer looking for a pair of AA batteries with a room full of movie-hungry guests.
  • Button type – Touch-screen remotes are becoming more common, but are generally more expensive than those with hard buttons. If the remote has a touch-screen, or even a LCD window, be sure you can label the commands in those areas.
  • Size – Remotes that exclusively use touch-screens are likely to be larger than a typical remote. Make sure whatever you settle on is comfortable and intuitive.

When it comes to setup, there are generally two methods: using codes pre-programmed into the remote or by hooking it up to a computer. Logitech’s Harmony brand pretty much owns the PC setup space, utilizing a web-based program that updates itself with new equipment regularly. Lately, however, the pre-programmed method is making a bit of a comeback. Some manufacturers are tweaking this tried-and-true method with pre-loaded wizards that walk you through setting up your remote without needing a book full of three-digit codes.

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