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Buyers Guides > Getting the most from your Universal Remote Control

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The concept of a universal remote control has been around for many years; a single remote control that is capable of controlling multiple consumer electronic devices. The growth in popularity of home entertainment, or home theatre systems meant that a typical domestic coffee table contained at least 4 or 5 individual remote control units; one each for a TV, DVD player, CD player, digital surround sound receiver, etc., and consumers were crying out for a single device to control the basic functions of all these components. Early universal remote controls were difficult to program, and often unreliable, but in recent years manufacturers have fully embraced the concept of a universal remote control (or "URC" for short) that is capable of controlling anything up to 12 individual A/V ("Audio/Video") components, yet is straightforward to configure, and affordable.

Types of Universal Remote Control

Fundamentally, universal remote controls can be divided into those that operate via infrared or "IR" light (which occupies the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum between visible light and microwave radiation), and those that use radio frequency or "RF" waves.

Infrared is the older of the two technologies and works well in most circumstances, but is subject to some limitations imposed by the nature of infrared light itself. Infrared universal remote controls require a direct, straight line (a.k.a. "line of sight") between themselves and the device(s) that they are controlling, so transmitting signals around corners, or through intervening walls, is not possible. Infrared universal remote controls also typically have a maximum range of 30' or so. The efficiency and range of an infrared universal remote control may depend in part, on the size, positioning and strength of the LED (or "Light Emitting Diode") responsible for generating the infrared signals. A universal remote control with a powerful, or several LED transmits a strong, broad signal, such that it may be possible to control devices by pointing the unit in their general direction, rather than straight at them.

A more recent development is the radio frequency universal remote control, which, instead of light signals, transmits radio waves, corresponding to binary commands to a receiver on the device that is being controlled each time a button is pressed. Unlike IR radiation, radio waves can penetrate intervening walls and ceilings, and RF universal remote controls typically have a range of up to 100', so it is easy to see why IR/RF universal remote controls (which use an RF-to-IR converter to extend the range of an IR remote control) are becoming increasingly popular in the context of home entertainment. Radio frequency universal remote controls transmit signals at specific radio frequencies, to avoid interference from mobile phones, cordless phones and other devices, and embed digital address codes in the radio signal.

Aside from their basic method of operation, universal remote controls can be further sub-divided into those which are designated "pre-programmed", and those designated "learning". Both types are in fact programmable, but a pre-programmed universal remote control, as the name suggests, is typically supplied with a library or database of control codes for various common components, whereas a learning universal remote control physically "learns" control codes from existing remote control units. Neither type is necessarily better than the other. Locating control codes for devices that are not already pre-programmed, and entering them manually can however, be somewhat laborious. A learning universal remote control may be a better choice if you upgrade your A/V components on a regular basis.

Many universal remote control manufacturers nowadays make new control codes available for download from the Internet, and (provided, of course, that you have, or are likely to acquire, Internet access) this is something to bear in mind, with regard to "future-proofing" your purchase.

Programming Tips

If you have a pre-programmed universal remote control and you wish to program additional control codes (perhaps for a legacy device, or any other that is not already present) you first need to locate the codes required. These may be in the original manual or other documentation accompanying the device, but failing that, there a number of websites devoted to supplying control codes for many devices, from many different manufacturers. If you still cannot find the control codes for a specific device, you may like to try entering the model number, or the manufacturer, of your universal remote control into an Internet search engine; this may at least provide you with contact information, so that you can ask the manufacturer directly.

In the case of a learning universal remote control, the UCR is placed in "learn" mode, and a second remote control unit (such as that for an existing TV, or DVD player, for example) "teaches" it the control code for a particular command. Conventional wisdom suggests that positioning the UCR and an original remote control unit a short distance, typically between 1" and 5" (although you may need to experiment to find the optimum distance) apart, and holding down a button on the original unit, until the UCR finishes capturing the signal, is the best way of achieving this. There are however, one or two reasons why this may not work, and some external factors which may affect the ability of a UCR to learn effectively. Correct positioning of remote controls units, on a non-reflective surface, or holding a UCR in your hand, if need be, in a dimly lit room, may be provide an answer to all of these problems. Another reason for the failure of a UCR to learn may be that its memory is full. Any UCR can only hold a finite number of individual control codes, and in some cases this may be limited to as low as 15 or 20.

As a final thought on programming, universal remote controls can typically be programmed on a "device" or "activity" basis. Device based programming provides direct control over each of your A/V components individually, but you may also like to think about programming specific activities, such as watching a DVD film, etc. More sophisticated universal remote controls have so-called "macro" functions that can trigger a whole series of commands just by pressing of one or two buttons. By carefully considering the processes need to control the system, as a whole, you can program a single button to switch on your TV and DVD player, select the correct input, digital surround settings, etc., so that you are just left to play the DVD and adjust the volume setting to your liking.

Other Considerations

Bear in mind that some remote control units, such as those supplied with TVs, or other A/V components, may be capable of controlling one or two other devices, but are not "universal", in the strict sense of the word. In other words, if you have a large home entertainment system with many components, a remote control of this type may not be powerful enough, or have enough features to cope.

Look for a reputable, authorised dealer from whom to purchase your universal remote control. Technical support and resources should be part of the purchase price; acquiring a universal remote control is one thing, but it also needs to be configured correctly, and with a minimum fuss. This is much more likely to be the case with an authorised, rather than an unauthorised dealer.

A universal remote control is by its nature, likely to experience a good deal of use, so do not underestimate its ergonomics, and how easy it is to use. Control buttons, for example, should be arranged logically (where you would expect to find them) and spaced such that you can operate them comfortably, without pressing two at once, for example. Bear in mind that the more versatile a universal remote control is the more buttons it is likely to have, and the smaller the buttons are likely to be. The shape and colour coding of buttons may make them easier to identify, and for use in a dimly lit or darkened room typical of a home theatre environment, universal remote controls with luminescent, or backlit buttons may prove advantageous. More sophisticated universal remote controls may also include an LCD or "Liquid Crystal Display", touch screen, complete with backlighting.