table-top-covered-with-remote-controls

Weekend Roundtable: Universal Remotes

One of the drawbacks of owning a lot of varied home theater equipment (HDTVs, Blu-ray players, A/V receivers, cable boxes and more) is that you wind up with a clutter of remote controls that manage separate functions on separate devices. In this week’s Roundtable, we’d like to know whether you’ve consolidated the control of your gear onto a universal remote. If not, why not?

If you do use a universal remote, which brand and model? What do you like or not like about it? Do you program all of your devices into it, or do you still keep some separate remotes around for specific tasks?

If you don’t use a universal remote, how many separate remotes do you keep in active service?

Shannon Nutt

I don’t use a universal remote, and I really can’t explain why I don’t. It would certainly make things easier. Of course, these days things aren’t too bad, thanks to my Xbox One, which lets me simply say, “Xbox On,” and my Xbox, TV, receiver and cable box all turn on at once. I can also voice command myself to TV stations, turn up and down the volume, and turn everything back off. However, I generally only use voice commands when I’m just watching TV or playing a game.

I still use my cable remote to set my DVR (and watch shows on it). Since I don’t use my Xbox as my primary Blu-ray player, I also use some of my remotes separately when watching a movie, as my main Blu-ray player runs to the TV on a separate HDMI cable. With all this in mind, I have four remotes that get a moderate amount of use from time to time: the TV remote, the cable/DVR remote, the Blu-ray player remote, and the receiver remote. The good news is that Microsoft will release an Xbox One remote soon, so there’s another remote to add to the list!

Mike Attebery

My best friend gave me a universal remote for Christmas: the Harmony Ultimate with a hub. I always wanted a universal remote, but had some misgivings since, as I’ve mentioned in the past, some of my components are pretty old. After spending several nights trying to get it work with my primary setup downstairs (which gave me time to catch an episode of ‘The Blacklist’ while I sorted out commands – holy hell, is that show bad!) I realized that my fears were well founded, and my old receiver just wasn’t going to work with the fancy remote. I then brought everything upstairs to use with our bedroom setup, which is all new equipment, and it worked perfectly. It’s a pretty impressive gadget!

Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)

I’m a big fan of Logitech’s Harmony line of universal remotes. They were the first to market with the “Activity” based remotes. You use a simple wizard on your PC or Mac to identify all your components and the wizard creates activities that do complex multi-step procedures easily. “Watch a Movie” might power up your projector, receiver and Blu-ray player and set everything to the correct inputs. Then it automatically assigns volume buttons to the receiver, Play and Rewind/Fast Forward to the Blu-ray player, and aspect ratio buttons to the projector.

I have a Harmony 900 in the living room and a Harmony Ultimate in the basement home theater. Both are RF, which is nice so I don’t have to point them at the components for them to work. This is particularly good for guests (like my mom) who inevitably will hit the activity button to start up the system, then promptly point the remote up at the sky or bring it with her into the kitchen. “Christopher, the TV’s not working!”

Overall, I prefer the ergonomics of the 900. It has a color touch screen and really nicely positioned buttons. It’s very intuitive and comfortable in the hand. But the “ecosystem” of the Harmony Ultimate is much better. It communicates via RF to a Hub which is connected to your home network. The Hub can then blast out IR, RF or Bluetooth to communicate with your devices. With the Hub, you can also use your tablet or smart phone as a controller, and it will automatically synchronize the activities across devices. This way if you hit “Watch TV” from your phone, but you already started that activity on the remote, it won’t start powering down all the components you just powered up.

However, I’m not a huge fan of the Ultimate’s button layout. The transport buttons are at the top, not as easy to get to with one hand. They expect that you’ll use the gesture pad in the middle to do things like play/rewind, etc., but these are not always set up by default, which requires some additional customization.

We just got in the Harmony Smart Keyboard for review. It’s compatible with the Hub, and is also activity-based, but it’s a full size QWERTY keyboard. It’s designed to operate a home theater PC or Mac, as well as providing keyboard capabilities for apps like Netflix and YouTube on a set-top box, gaming system or smart TV. It’s great for web surfing, searching for content on streaming services — even doing e-mail on the big screen — but it isn’t great as a remote. Using it in conjunction with a smartphone or an Ultimate makes for a nice combination.

Even with all these great remotes, I admit that I normally have two or three original remotes handy at all times. As a reviewer/writer, I get a constant stream of new gear. Right now, I have the Ultimate set to control a Panasonic projector, but I just replaced that with an Epson and haven’t had a chance to update the remotes yet. Also, when I want to play around with surround settings or Blu-ray player settings, it’s just easier to do that with the factory remotes. But for the rest of the family (read: “normal people”), one Harmony remote is normally all they need.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

I owned and adored a Harmony universal remote for a short while, although it’s been long enough that I can’t remember the specific model. I loved the macros more than anything else about it: the idea that I could mash one button and trigger/manipulate several different devices. Unfortunately, my Pioneer PRO-151FD television takes ages to become responsive after turning on, rendering the macros useless and stomping all over my interest. I wound up giving the remote to my grandfather.

I rejiggered my home theater a few months back so that I don’t need to change inputs on my TV anymore. I also tend to turn on my receiver and television by hand before plopping down on the couch. Thanks to all that, I only use two remotes in my living room right now: one for my receiver and the other for my DVR. I alternate between the Xbox One and PS4 for Blu-ray viewing downstairs, and since those consoles are remote-less as I write this, I’m stuck using videogame controllers instead. I’m strange enough to love using lots of remotes, though. Arrays of buttons and stuff make me feel like an astronaut.

Junie Ray

We have a Logitech Harmony 880 universal remote and it’s pretty awesome. I did not program it so I can’t say if it was easy or not to get the devices set up, but they’re all in there, and it’s the only remote we use. It’s easy to use, the buttons are straightforward, and with the screen that shows your options, even guests can figure out how to get things going. I’m most impressed with the Help function. It has an onscreen troubleshooter that walks you through a series of yes/no questions, and it actually works. It can resolves issues like when the cable box accidentally gets turned off and needs to be turned back on, or when the receiver is on the wrong input, without you having to drill down through sub-menus or odd button/combos. Just answer yes/no and it figures it out.

The one crappy thing about the remote is the charging station. You’re supposed to place the remote flat on the dock to charge, but the contacts are very poor and it doesn’t actually charge half the time. We manage to work around this design flaw by placing a weight on top of the remote as it charges. Hopefully, this has been straightened out in newer models because everything else about it is great.

Luke Hickman

I’ve never used a universal remote, but I ought to. I currently have four remotes: an LG for the TV, an Onkyo for the receiver, a Sony for the PlayStation, and Comcast’s generic silver DVR box remote. The Onkyo remote and the Comcast remote can control the TV, so it’s nice if I’m using one of those combinations. But I have to use two remotes if I’m doing anything else. I look forward to reading this Roundtable for suggestions!

Josh Zyber

Like Junie, I use a Harmony 880. It’s a few years old by this point, but as far as I’m concerned, is the last Harmony model I care for. I really like the ergonomics of its physical button layout. Newer models have streamlined away most of the buttons in favor of a touch-screen display, and I don’t understand the appeal of that at all. If I’m in the middle of watching a movie and need to pause or chapter skip, I want to be able to do that by touch in the dark. I don’t want to look down at a brightly lit screen and navigate through several submenus to get to the command I need. (For this same reason, I’m mystified by people who insist on using their iPhones as remote controls.)

The problem with the 880 (which also affects other Harmony models) is that the buttons themselves are kind of flimsy and prone to breaking. I’m currently on my second 880. I replaced the first one when the volume and channel buttons stopped working. After about a year, the volume buttons on the second one stopped working as well. Rather than replace it again, I just reprogrammed it to map those controls to the Up and Down arrow buttons (which I wasn’t using for anything important) instead. Problem solved.

(Incidentally, I had the same problem Junie does with the charging dock on my first 880, but the second one works much better. Logitech must have made a running change to that at some point.)

The Harmony database is very expansive. I’ve had no problems programming even some of my oldest equipment into the remote. And if something isn’t already in the database, the 880 can learn the signals from the old manufacturer remote.

Even so, I haven’t programmed all of my home theater equipment into the Harmony. I still like to keep my projector remotes separate – mainly because I don’t want someone else in the house to accidentally sit on the Harmony and turn on one or both of my projectors when I’m not around. I also keep the remote for my Lumagen Radiance video processor handy, because that has a lot of esoteric functions that are easier for me to access on the original remote than to navigate through submenus on the 880’s small LCD screen to find them.

Overall, though, I love the Harmony 880 and couldn’t live without it.

Tell us what you use for a universal remote in the Comments. I notice that none of our staff have used a URC remote. I once had a home theater installer try to sell me on that line. He insisted they were way better and more customizable than Harmony, but I just didn’t dig the ergonomics of the models I played around with.

17 comments

  1. I have a Harmony One, which I reviewed for HDD and it works great except a few of the buttons are forever-sticky thanks to my clumsy brother’s ill-fated glass of orange juice. I used to have the Harmony PS3 adaptor too, but it died. The only thing the Harmony can’t do well is a couple of the AVR functions (toggling between the surround sound and post-processing modes), which require an extended hold.

    Thinking about trying the newer ones, but the touch screens are my least favorite part of my One, so I’m not rushing to go button-free. Cheers.

  2. I’m amazed that none of the reviewers own a Harmony One – for me, still the best universal remote ever made; their newer touchscreen models really messed up the physical-button layouts. The 900 is acceptable if you need RF, but even though it looks about the same as the One it’s much more sluggish.

    I have two spare Harmony Ones, new in their boxes, as spares for the future; that’s how much I like ’em. Once I heard they were going out of production, I nailed down two of them for about $110 each – I could eBay them for at least $250 these days but they’re staying put.

    • Forgot to mention above that my H1 replaces NINE remotes for all kinds of things, including a PS3 with an adapter, and it works perfectly to control all of them. Haven’t touched any of the factory remotes in over two years. The touchscreen is very useful, not only for favorite channels, but that’s where I hid all the obscure device-specific commands for the rare occasions I need to go in and manually tweak or change something.

  3. Peter

    I use a Harmony 900 and really love it. I like that it is RF and doesn’t need line of sight for controlling my blu-ray player or cable box as these are in a cabinet under my TV and have hit or miss reception from their IR remotes when the doors are closed. No problem with the Harmony 900. I previously had the Monster remote which used the Harmony database, but it was not as ergonomic as the Harmony 900, and it became harder and harder to make contact in its charging cradle. By the end, it took at least 15 minutes, several swears, several prayers, and a rain dance to get it to charge every time. No problems with the 900 (I changed the battery a few months ago after several years on the old one) charging. It is getting a little old and I worry it will stop working as I don’t like the design of the new Harmonies at all. What on earth is Logitech doing – first they announce they are going to stop making the Harmony remotes, then change their mind and come out with some of the least ergonomically designed remotes since the early 1990s.

  4. John Burton

    Love my harmony one. It is partnered with my cable DVR remote, only because my wife doesn’t like to use the H1 for DVR operations. I don’t know why.

  5. Matt Patrick

    I sell and program Pro Control which has a lot more in depth programming then harmony. I highly recommend Pro Control.

  6. Bill

    Harmony 1100. I have no trouble finding the right button on that touchscreen. When I set up my activities I put the buttons most likely to be used on the first screen. It is rare for me to have to flip between more than the first two screens and even if do this unit changes screens very quickly.

  7. Kyle

    I dont use a universal remote, though Im not sure why. For he most part i have 3 on the go. Toshiba for my tv, Philips for surround, Sony for ps3. If i use my xbox for video, which i rarely do, i have the Microsoft remote laying around for that as well.

  8. William Henley

    I am going to go with a kinda/sorta approach. The Harmony 650 I picked up to replace three remotes that I don’t have, but was actually only able to work with two of the devices. I think the third one is RF, and I don’t think the 650 does RF. Before I got the harmony (in the last week(), I had a Dish remote I had picked up from a used electronics store, but it was missing many of the features.

    I REALLY dislike the 650 (and I’ve used Harmony remotes before, so it has to be just this remote). If you drop the remote, it always goes back into tutorial mode, and you cannot do anything until you “Press this button” and “Press that button”. Also, as the components I have it for are so old, it just sends a standard power command, instead of On and Off. The issue with this is that a lot of times, I turn the television on and off by hand. I FINALLY figured out that I can go into the Activities of the device and do a standard power command instead of using the macros. It’s a strange remote, it might be fine if I was using it on newer equipment.

    I am not using universal remotes at all in the living room. All devices in there support CEC, which I liked at first, until you find out that if I use, oh let’s say the television remote to adjust the volume when the television is on a Component input, the television will switch inputs on me to AV Amp or it will change the input on the amp to televison. I would disable CEC all together, but I have to have it enabled to get the Audio Return Channel.

    In the end, I just find it easier to have seperate remotes. Having remotes lined up on the coffee table is also a great conversation starter when people come to visit.

    • Hey, William,

      I think the reset-on-drop “feature” of some of the Harmony remotes is a known problem – the batteries are slightly loose in the battery compartment which causes them to lose contact temporarily when jarred or dropped. And this doesn’t just bring you back into the tutorial; it can forget which activity you’re in which puts the power and device control out of sync with reality. Apparently you can stick some tissue paper or cardboard back there (in the battery compartment) to make it more snug. Then it can survive a fall without the batteries losing contact. Try that and see if it helps.

      • William Henley

        I’ll look into this. The remote is on my bedside table, so I am constantly knocking the thing off. Thanks for the tip.

  9. Jason

    Ever since I installed my projector and moved the rest of my equipment into an adjacent room I have been doing the remote juggle. With my previous setup I was using an Acoustic Research ARRX15G remote. It was great. But now that I have everything going through a repeater to pass the ir signals into the other room it is too finicky to use that remote. I could probably adjust the timing and what not but it just isn’t very high on my to do list. I’m only having to juggle two remotes at any given time and at most have five sitting out in a basket in my media room. It’d probably be much more impressive for my guests if I set up the macros remote again but they should just be happy I’m not charging them admission. 😉

  10. yamato7210

    5-device Logitech Harmony. Very interested in trying out the Universal Remote feature on the Galaxy Note, though. I have to laugh a my friends that are still juggling remotes in 2014.

  11. I bought a Harmony 885 (no longer manufactured) several years ago and loved it. Eventually the Volume buttons stopped working and then several others failed so I looked at the latest Harmony Remotes a few months ago. Unfortunately the new layouts were just dreadful with transport buttons at the top of the remote which I simply hated so after some searching I managed to buy another brand new 885 a store had in stock. I love it. Its easy to use, the buttons are in sensible places and I am so familiar with the layout I can operate it without looking. I have a quiet chuckle to myself when I see my mate reaching from his array of remotes laid out on his Coffee table. Talk about hard work!

  12. I have been using Harmony One since last 6 years & 3 months without any problems & am extremely satisfied with it. I use it every day 3 hours & once charged( about an hour) it works for 8 to 10 days.

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