Why Do Most Remotes Suck?

The age of the app is taking our remotes away from us.


A few weeks ago I wrote a review of a fairly high-end home theater receiver. The product retailed for about $1,500 and did most of the cool networking and decoding tricks you expect from a good receiver of that price.

It also had one of the lousiest remotes I’ve used from an A-line product. Then I thought about the last few receivers I’ve used and the Blu-ray players and televisions, and came to the conclusion that most manufacturers have just given up on remotes. Almost universally the buttons are too small or too cramped, the backlighting is ineffective (if even present), and button placement and names are confusing. Sure there are some exceptions—the trend to add a “Netflix” direct button (always in Netflix red, of course) is nice.

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LG, Samsung and Panasonic are experimenting with better remotes—voice control, keypads, gesture, touchpads—but those are still experiments and not available on the majority of products they offer. Audio companies are the worst offenders. Yamaha, Denon, Onkyo, Sony, heck all of them… they all ship their products with plain bar-style remotes, cluttered and dysfunctional. Shipping a bad remote with a good product is like putting a chastity belt on it—you’re keeping the product from reaching its potential. If I have to fight with buttons and nonsense to make something work, I’m giving up.

I was chatting with a representative of URC earlier this week and he reminded me that back in the day, URC made the remotes for B&K receivers, and in particularly the AVR507, one of the company’s top models at the time. That was a hot remote—fantastic backlight, LCD screen, large and differentiated buttons that could be taught all kinds of smooth macros.

Around the same time the better Marantz receivers shipped with a Marantz equivalent of the Pronto touchscreen remote. The mid-2000s were a golden age of great included remotes.

Of course you can still get good remotes—from URC, Harmony, RTI and others, but those are aftermarket remotes.

It’s pretty clear why remotes have become so lame lately—the app. Every decent and not decent product now also offers a control app. If you’re lucky, the app is available for both Apple and Android mobiles, but Apple is a guarantee. The economics make sense. Design the app once and let everyone download it rather than manufacture something useable. And if there’s a problem you just update the app. I find myself using apps for my gear about as often as the plastic remotes because 1) I can always find it (the phone never leaves my pocket) and 2) the apps can be used in the dark and have bigger buttons (so I don’t have to put my glasses on just to turn up the volume).

I still think the consumer is being ripped off. There are millions of consumers out there who don’t use smart phones or down want to wake up their phone, find/open the app just to make a simple adjustment. I also feel that the age of the app will overtake the remote soon. Products like Sonos no longer offer a real remote. Other products will follow, so I might as well get used to it.


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