Over the past few years universal remote controls have evolved into sophisticated devices that some consider as essential to their home theater as subwoofers and Blu-ray. This niche market of super remotes is dominated by the Harmony line from Logitech.
Universal remotes have been around for a long time and the only thing that has been ‘universal’ about them is that they have been universally annoying to setup. Logitech was the first to design a remote that not only addressed these annoyances with innovative solutions, but also created features that were near impossible with other remotes.
The competition has not given up and there are now more alternatives to Logitech that are worth considering. Home automation company URC has an extensive line of remotes that can go head-to-head with Logitech. Acoustic Research offers the Xsight Touch and Phillips, of light bulb fame, offers three models in their Prestigo line.
While Logitech is currently King of the Roost, it may be a good idea to get familiar with all the technology and terms involved in universal remotes so other options can be thoroughly evaluated and compared.
Remote controls talk to components using a few different technologies. The most prevalent technology by far is Infrared (IR) signals. The advantage of IR is that it is cheap, reliable, and with a few notable exceptions, is the basis for all remote controls on the market. The downside is that infrared light is blocked by physical objects, so remotes need to be pointed in the general direction of the components and the front of the components cannot be obscured.
Radio Frequency (RF)
There is a stronger demand than ever for Radio Frequency (abbreviated as RF) capable remotes. Now that HDTVs and speakers can be hung on the wall the black cable boxes are being locked away in closets or closed door cabinets. RF is required to get the command signals to the components. However, there usually needs to be some extra gear inside the closet to turn the RF back to IR.
Bluetooth & Wi-Fi
There are a few dark horses that are gaining steam in the market. People have become familiar with Bluetooth while pairing their cellphones with wireless ear pieces, portable speakers, and some car stereos. Bluetooth is also used by the Sony’s Playstation3 and Nintendo Wii in order to connect accessories. The advantage of using Bluetooth is that it is RF based and could conceivably transfer the remote codes to a device automatically upon pairing.
Wi-Fi is also increasing its presence in home theater, with its potential to connect components to a standard home network, allowing them to be controlled by other devices on the same network via a remote control app on a smartphone or tablet. Already, several manufactures like Sony, Onkyo, Yamaha, Denon, and Pioneer are offering app based control of their of AV Receivers.
Flashers, Eyes, and Repeaters
IR will remain the dominant control type for the foreseeable future. Thus hidden components will require a repeater system to function while locked away. These are usually three piece systems; an eye, one or more flashers, and a repeater box. These systems are inexpensive but a quality installation of them can require punching holes in walls and threading wires to closets and cabinets to connect the three pieces. DIY folks can check out all-in-one kits from companies like Xantech and Smarthome.
Top end remotes like the Harmony 900 or the URC MX-980 have the capability to act as complete RF remotes eliminating the need for both an ‘eye’ and for custom installation.
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