What You Need to Know about Universal Remotes
The prospect of having one remote to control all your devices sounds alluring, but not all universal remotes are equal. Learn how to pick the right remote for your home theater.
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September 01, 2005 by EH Staff

Remember the days when you had to get up to change a television channel or adjust the volume? If you do, you probably appreciate the convenience provided by remote controls. These days, we can sit back, relax and channel surf among hundreds of options. We can grab another remote and power the speakers to amplify the TV sound. We can record a program to a digital video recorder (DVR) with another remote or start a movie in the DVD player with yet another.

The only problem with having all these convenient remotes is ... well ... having ALL of these remotes. They can easily be misplaced, and it can be a multistep process to switch your home entertainment system from a TV program to a movie. Many remotes are also hopelessly complicated, intimidating and confusing. It can make a person almost yearn for the days of getting up and switching the channel.

But there is a solution: You can combine several remotes into one, easy-to-use universal remote control. A universal remote can control your TV, cable or satellite box, surround-sound processor, DVD player, DVR, VCR and any other components.

There are a couple of types of universal remotes: preprogrammed remotes and programmable (or learning) remotes. Some units just have rubber buttons like the ones that normally come with TVs and other components, some have LCD touchscreens and some have a combination of both. Following are some of the most important things to look for.

1. Preprogrammed remotes contain hundreds, if not thousands, of infrared codes that allow them to communicate with many popular makes and models of audio/video equipment.

2. Programmable remotes can “learn” the infrared (IR) command codes of any audio/video component and with a little tweaking might even be capable of operating a light switch. Programming a universal remote with the proper codes for controlling all of your equipment often involves transmitting information from your old remotes to the new one. The most reliable way to do this is either by using computer software or by downloading the codes from a web site.

3. Touchscreen-based remotes present control buttons on a touch-sensitive LCD panel. These screens can be customized to look a certain way and to contain layers of menus, so that only a few buttons are displayed at a time. Some prefer the feel of a traditional remote control with buttons to a touchscreen. Many remotes today offer a combination of both “hard” buttons and a touchscreen.

4. It’s important to shop carefully and look at several different remotes. Often, the simpler one is better. But make sure it can perform all the functions you want.

5. Don’t go by looks alone. You should feel comfortable with a good remote control in your hand. If it’s too heavy or bulky or too thin and tiny for your hands, then it may not be for you. Many remotes today are designed with ergonomics in mind.

6. If possible, use the remote before you buy, especially if you’re in a home theater showroom that has working models available. “Customers need to touch the remotes and work the demos,” says Jeff Hoover of custom electronics company Audio Advisors of West Palm Beach, FL. “It’s not important that the dealer can do it. It’s important that you can do it.”

7. Check the layout of the buttons on a remote. Are they laid out in an organized, intuitive fashion? Hold the remote in your hand, and see where your thumb rests. It should be within easy reach of the most-used buttons. See if you can press the buttons with your thumb without accidentally pressing others. Big hands tend not to work tiny buttons well.

8. “Consider function first,” says remote control designer and consultant Eric Johnson of HomeTheaterPro of Sebastopol, CA. “It has to be so easy that you want to use it over and over again.”

9. If you like watching movies or programs in the dark, button backlighting on a remote is essential. It will prevent you from having to turn on a light to operate your remote control.

10. Definitely get a remote that can be programmed to transmit at least one macro command, in which one button makes a number of things happen. A popular macro, such as movie time, might turn on the TV, DVD player and audio/video receiver. More sophisticated controllers trigger several actions at once, such as dimming the lights, closing the shades and starting the entertainment system. According to remote control guru Johnson, an acceptable amount of time for a controller to transmit a sequence of commands and have them executed is 10 seconds. Something like 20 seconds is too long.

11. The more a remote control can do, the more difficult it is to program. That’s why some remotes are best configured by an audio/video specialist.

12. If your audio/video equipment isn’t within a direct line of sight from your seating area, you may want to look for a remote that uses radio frequency (RF) technology to broadcast your command signal to a broad area. If you’d rather use an infrared (IR) remote, you can install IR repeaters, which pick up the signal and transfer it by wire to the appropriate equipment.

13. A few universal remotes have a feature called 12-volt sensing. This can tell whether a component, say your audio/video receiver, is already switched on so that the remote won’t mistakenly switch it off when you activate your system. (In many older and inexpensive components, the on/off functions are on the same toggle switch, so when a remote tries to turn on a component that’s already on, it switches it off instead.) Many newer components have dedicated on/off switches that preclude the need for this, but it’s a good idea to check your equipment to see if you need it. Some more expensive control systems come with this convenient function built in.

14. “Plan for 10 percent to 25 percent of your budget to be spent on making the system easy to operate,” says Steve Hayes of Custom Electronics of Falmouth, ME. “Cut back on the performance enough to afford a good integrated control unit, and you’ll be much happier with your system in the long run.”

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