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.
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Stephen Hopkins is chief technology editor for EH Publishing. He writes product reviews, features, and focuses heavily on 3D TV, iPhone and iPad apps, and digital content.