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Universal Remotes Buyer's Guide

By SmartHouse Team | Wednesday | 01/11/2006

Forget using an array of different remotes to get what you want. You can operate your entire home theatre with just a few well-placed buttons. We show you what to look for.

Just about any new component of significance you purchase these days comes with a remote. Trouble is, it soon becomes an almost self-defeating exercise to use them all. They can easily be misplaced, and it can be a multi-step process to switch your home entertainment system from a TV program to a movie, and back. Many remotes are also hopelessly complicated, intimidating and confusing. It's almost enough to want to make you get up off the couch (the human remote). But on second thought…

A remote control is supposed to be about convenience. The less you have to do to achieve a result, the better. A perfect 'tech upgrade' for the home with too many remotes is a universal remote control. This one unit replaces any number of other control devices, such as TV, digital free to air and Foxtel, amplifier, DVD player/recorder, PVR etc. All these components and functions should be able to be controlled centrally, without much fuss or effort.

There are a couple of types of universal remotes: preprogrammed remotes and programmable remotes. And the interface differs by remote: some units just have rubber buttons like the ones that normally come with TVs; some have LCD touchscreens and some have a combination of both. Following are some of the most important things to look for.

Preprogrammed remotes contain hundreds, if not thousands, of infrared codes that allow them to communicate with many popular makes and models of audiovisual equipment. Programmable, or learning, remotes can "learn" the infrared (IR) command codes of any audiovisual 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. But some, such as the Logitech Harmony 880, use computer software to download the codes from the Logitech web site.

Touchscreen-based remotes present control buttons on a touch-sensitive LCD panel. These screens can be customised 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.

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

Click to enlarge
Logitech 880
functions you want. Don't go by looks alone. The remote should feel comfortable 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. Check the layout of the buttons on a remote. Are they laid out in an organised, 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. Most remotes today, however, are designed with ergonomics in mind.

If possible, use the remote before you buy, especially if you're in a home theatre  showroom that has working models available. You should, in this case, touch the remotes and work the demos. It's important that you, not just the dealer, can do it.

If you like watching movies or programs in the dark, button backlighting on a remote is essential. It will save you from having to turn on a light to operate your remote. 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. An example might be a macro button that once pressed is programmed to turn on the display, receiver, set a pre-selected channel on your digital TV tuner and change the aspect ratio to suit.

nevo SL
More sophisticated controllers trigger actions other than starting the entertainment system, such as dimming lights and/or closing blinds.  The more a remote control can do, the more difficult it is to program. That's why some remotes are best configured by an audiovisual specialist. If your audiovisual 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 in set ups without direct line of sight, you can install IR repeaters, which pick up the signal and transfer it by wire to the appropriate equipment.

A few universal remotes have a feature called 12-volt sensing. This can tell whether a component, say your audiovisual 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. Most 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.

If you can't squeeze a universal remote control into your budget prior to purchasing your new system, don't panic. At least won't be denying yourself essential entertainment until you can afford one.


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