Your TV Tech Fix: You vs. Home Theater… Who’s Actually in Control?

A long time ago, in a living room not so far away… the home theater experience consisted of a rooftop antenna screwed into ye ‘ol black and white TV with some 300 ohm antenna wire, and the choice of 3 different TV channels on the dial. There were no colored cables to figure out, no on-screen guides, and certainly no set-top boxes. Heck, TV’s didn’t even come with remote controls back then, but you could breed your own if you really wanted to change channels from the couch.

It’s amazing how things have changed since then. Using my own home theater for example, I’ve got no less than a dozen devices integrated into my home theater system: 1 TV, 2 DVRs, 2 digital media receivers, 1 DVD-Player, 1 VCR (for no real reason), 1 CD changer, 4 game consoles… do I really need to go on? How many do you have?  Five? Six? Twenty? Whatever the number, the complexity of the modern day home theater system nearly requires a certified installer live on site just to turn the thing on.

What does all this complexity mean for you? Frustration? Confusion? An insatiable desire to hunt down the pimply-faced Best Buy employee who swore up and down that setting up and controlling all this stuff would be easy? Well, Depending on your level of “techspertise” maybe, but what all this stuff really equates to are more remote controls than you could possibly be expected to use at once.

Remember that certified installer I mentioned above? What if I were to tell you there is a way to have that installer live in your home, without them ACTUALLY having to live in your home? That magical device I’m talking about is a universal remote control. That’s right, the best way to manage those dozen remote controls is… wait for it… buy another one!

I hear what you’re saying, “C’mon Matt. I’ve heard this before. I even went down to Radio Shack and bought one, but I stopped using it because…” Then you list out things like, “it didn’t control everything,” or “I couldn’t figure it out.”

My only reply is, that’s not the kind of remote I’m talking about. Those aren’t universal remotes [See “Tech Myth: Universal Remote Controls”]. In fact, I’d almost call them “scams.” What I’m actually talking about is an honest to goodness custom programmable universal remote control. Really, it’s a whole different animal.

The absolute minimum feature set you’ll find in a REAL universal remote are:

1. Complete IR learning capabilities
2. A combination of LCD screen and programmable buttons.
3. Flexible macro support
4. Ideally, a software suite to aid in programming (at least to be on my list, but this is optional).

With the aforementioned features, these remote controls can be taught or programmed to execute all the functions from your existing remotes. More importantly, they can also be programmed to execute macros, which are strings of commands to perform common actions [See “Using Macros to Simplify the Use of a Home Theater Remote Control”]. For example, you press “Play a DVD” and all your devices turn on, inputs switch, sound parameters are changed, and the disc drawer opens to take your disc.

Provided you don’t muck around with your setup, you can actually have these remote controls programmed by a professional certified installer. They’ll do all the work, and just like they were there all the time, all you have to do is press one button to handle all the complicated parts. However, I HIGHLY recommend you take the time to learn how to program it yourself. Professional installers often do a great job, but if you change how things are plugged in or add a new device, you’ll need them back to reprogram the remote with those changes. If you can do it yourself, you can always keep your remote in sync with your gear.

Naturally, even the best universal remotes aren’t perfect. Some devices use totally custom RF remotes that can’t be programmed into a universal remote. Also, there are some devices out there where it actually makes more sense to use the manufacturer’s remote control, like TiVo, Vudu, the Boxee Box (more on that one in a future installment), etc. That’s okay. You can still program your universal remote control to handle all the steps to actually see and hear the device before you pick up the one that came with it, which, at the very least, narrows down the number of remotes on your table from ten to two or three.

The $29 Wal-Mart special won’t do all these things. So, what does? My personal favorite out there is the Philips Pronto TSU9400, but at roughly $800 it’s certainly not in the price range of the typical TV addict. As an alternative, I’d take a serious look at the Harmony One, which at a street price of less than $200 is flexible and powerful enough to handle just about any setup. The iPhone and iPad are getting very interesting with universal remote kits and applications, but other than Control 4’s solution, I have yet to use one that’s “great.”

What universal remote control are you using or would recommend? Tell me about it in the comments area below.

Satisfy your inner geek while fueling your TV addiction… TV Tech Fix is a column by Matt Whitlock, editor of the Consumer Electronics Community (plus several other gadget-focused community websites), and lover of both technology and TV. In this column, he’ll cover a wide variety of tech topics aimed squarely at the TV addicts of the world – from tips and tricks to help you better your TV experience, to gear recommendations, to the impact technology is having on the TV shows we love.

Want more TV Tech Fix? Click here to see past entries.

For all the latest TV news and reviews

  • Linda B.

    I've been thinking about buying Logitech's Harmony 1100 Universal Remote with Color Touch Screen. Amazon has it for $298.22. Anyone have one or recommend a better one? I'd like to find something easy to use for when I have someone non-technical house/dogsitting for me.

  • mattwhitlock

    The one problem with remotes driven primarily by a screen is that folks like babysitters may not find them ultimately intuitive… depending on how its set up. I won't say the 1100 isn't good way to go (it really depends on how you set it up), but a remote with a screen for macros and push buttons for functions, like the Harmony 700, may be a little easier for babysitters and grandparents to “pick up and use.” Food for thought. Head to a store and try it out for yourself, and look at what it takes to program it. That's the best way to evaluate remotes like these.