About Universal Remote Controls

What your couch may look like
What your couch may look like

One of the common issues many of my customers used to face was coming to terms with all the different remote controls for their Blu-rays, DVD recorders and TVs. I was often asked if a universal remote control would help. My answer may surprise you!

A universal remote control is a remote control that is able to control more than one device. They range from as simple as a generic looking control with buttons to select which device you’re controlling, to as complex as LCD screen macro enabled digital remote controls that can have programmable functions available at a press of a button. These days most TV remotes also have some universal functions for controlling a Blu-ray player. But do they really make it easier?

Simple Universal Controls

All universal remote controls require some sort of set up or programming. Basic universal remote controls use predefined device control codes or copying of remote functions. This means there are two ways to set them up, you can key in a numbered code for your device and hope it works, or manually program each button. Usually these controls come with a manual that contains hundreds of thousands of code numbers, labeled for each manufacturer. Typically though it’s just a list of numbers beside a brand. It doesn’t tell you which number is for your particular model of device. You simply have to go through them all, entering a code, testing it, then if it doesn’t work doing it all again. If there is no code that works for your device, you have to manually program it. This involves pressing a button on the universal, pressing the corresponding button on the real remote control, and repeating for all the buttons you need to use. Either way it’s a lot of work.

Once you have completed setting up the control for one device then you need to move on to the next. The buttons on your generic control may not be exact matches for all of your real ones, so you may have to just find a substitute for some or just leave them off all together.

Digital Programmable Controls

Logitech Harmony Remote Control
Logitech Harmony 670 Remote Control(CC-BY-SA 2.0 from WikiMedia Commons)

A type of Universal Remote Control becoming popular is the digital programmable remote control. An example of this type is the Logitech Harmony series. These remote controls typically have a colour screen and only a few push buttons. You program them by connecting them to your computer via USB. Software supplied with the remote allows you to select the devices you have from a library of known devices and it will program the control. In most cases the devices will be available from the library so you won’t have to start from scratch, but for some newer or more unusual devices you may have to.

A big benefit of these controls is one “button” on the universal control can replace pressing a whole list of buttons using macros. For instance you could program a button to turn on your Blu-ray player, switch the TV to the Blu-ray input and switch your home theatre to the Blu-Ray audio. All with one button press.

Does all of this really make it easier?

No. In my opinion, if you have trouble figuring out your remote controls now, it will be much worse with a universal remote control. This is an opinion born out of many hours assisting customers to use all types of remote controls.

The key issue is this: If I pick up my DVD player remote control, I know for certain it will control the DVD player. If I pick up my Surround Sound remote control, I know it is controlling my surround sound. But if I pick up my universal remote control, I need to remember which device it’s currently set to control and press a button to change it if I need to. On some it’s not that obvious which device it is controlling at any one time.

The digital programmable macro enabled universal remote controls are even worse. The remote control as advanced as it is, doesn’t know what state the device it’s controlling is in. For instance it doesn’t know if the TV has been powered off overnight and is now in DTV mode not Blu-ray mode like it was last night. When you press a button on the control, it will assume it is in the mode it was before and the buttons it presses won’t do what they’re supposed to. This loss of sync with the device can also occur if a remote control signal is “missed” by the device it’s controlling, such as if there is an obstacle in the way of the remote beam. These controls have a routine to get back into sync, but it’s not simple.

So my conclusion is this: If you are savvy about using your audio-visual and media devices, then by all means a fancy universal remote control will suit you. If you struggle to remember how to use all your devices, just stick to the original remote controls and attach some labels like “Blu-ray” and “DVD recorder” to help you.