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.
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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.