Prime-time: Universal Remotes

Stand-Alone • Computer-Programmable • Touch-Screen

Manufacturers have made tweaks in how universal remote controls use Internet protocol and radio frequency to control devices. Meanwhile, the design and the layout of universal remotes have improved.

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Nothing changes more rapidly than technology does, and that change is evident particularly in home-theater systems. The prices of Blu-ray Disc players, digital video recorders (DVRs) and high-definition TVs have fallen so quickly during the past 4 years that, from what we’ve seen, most homes have more pieces of audio/video equipment. Therefore, home-theater systems are more complex than ever before, and universal remote controls (or universal remotes) are better equipped to help you to sort out the complex operational chore of running your system.

SENDING SIGNALS. The main problem with traditional infrared universal remotes is that infrared signals can’t reach devices that are out of sight, such as in a closet, around a corner or in another room. Radio-frequency (RF) signals, however, can travel through obstacles.

Four years ago, universal remotes that had RF signals cost at least $150 and were prone to interference from other signals. The latest models operate on narrow-band frequencies, and from our evaluations, we discovered that the models aren’t susceptible to interference. What’s better is that prices haven’t gone up. RF models now cost as little as $140.

Most ultrapremium universal remotes, which cost at least $500 and can be programmed to control your audio/video (A/V) equipment, appliances, lighting fixtures and security system, now communicate over a network by using Internet protocol (IP). The benefit is that IP allows for two-way communication, so you can receive information, such as song titles, on your universal remote display screen with the push of a button. And because your system is on a network, you can access it remotely via the Internet. In other words, you can control your entire home-theater system on a browser. The most expensive IP automation systems even can be configured to allow you to program your DVR from the other side of the world.

IP systems obviously won’t work if your Internet service is down, and they require password protection to keep hackers away. We believe that prices will drop slightly during the next 4 years, but because of the complicated nature of an IP system, it will be at least 4 years before you can buy an IP universal remote that costs even as little as $300.

CONTROL BY APP. Most Internet-enabled A/V receivers, Blu-ray players and HDTVs now include free mobile applications that run on smartphones and tablet computers that use Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating system. The apps let you, say, control your HDTV through the smartphone’s touch screen.

These apps work well when you want to control a single device, but if you want to control an entire home theater, you’d have a different app for each device. That means that you’d have to jump in and out of different apps on your smartphone or tablet to control separate devices. Frustrating.

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So it’s no surprise that in the past 4 years, manufacturers introduced receivers and transmitters that cost $70–$150 that turn smartphones and tablets into universal remotes by configuring them to emit infrared signals.

Some transmitters work by plugging a dongle into the headphone jack or the multipin connector port of your smartphone. The dongle then emits infrared signals that allow you to control the home-theater equipment. Other transmitters use a receiver that’s located near your home-theater system that picks up Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signals from your smartphone or tablet and converts them into infrared commands that control your system. You then control your equipment with a universal app.

We found that these receivers and transmitters perform as advertised, but we believe that their programming interface is difficult to use and the programming software isn’t as powerful as is the software that conventional universal remotes have. In other words, it doesn’t allow for as much customization as a traditional universal remote can provide. However, we believe that the interface of these devices will improve rapidly over the next 2 years.

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