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Buyers Guides > Universal remote controls

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Introduction

Many home theatre systems, nowadays, incorporate some, or, indeed, all, of a HD (“High Definition”) television set, a digital HDTV receiver, such as Sky, or Freeview, a DVD player, or recorder and an amplifier – all of which were purchased at slightly different times, from different manufacturers, and all equipped with their own, individual remote controls.

A typical scenario, therefore, might be – just to watch a programme, say, on Sky – to power on your TV, using its remote, and set the input source to Sky, power on your Sky box, using its remote, and select the appropriate channel, and, perhaps, power on your amplifier, using its remote, and set the volume level, or set the volume level with the TV remote. Now, that seems to be too many remotes, and too much button pushing, to accomplish what is, in essence, a very simple operation – and wouldn’t it be great if you could have one remote to control all of these operations, with just one, or two, button pushes? Well, you can, with a “Universal Remote Control” (UCR) – a single, programmable unit, capable of wirelessly controlling several (in some cases, up to 15) other electronic devices.

All devices with remote control capability operate via a limited number of control codes and frequencies, and, by incorporating these – either by pre-programming, at the factory, or by “learning” the appropriate codes from the existing, individual remote control units, themselves – a Universal Remote Control can be configured to replicate the functions of each of the original units.

Programming

A Universal Remote Control is not necessarily compatible with every imaginable wireless device, but manufacturers’ specifications will generally list the common makes and models of device – and the list is often not exhaustive – that can be operated with a particular UCR.

Many Universal Remote Controls are pre-programmed with hundreds of codes, for all manner of electronic devices, have the facility to manually input additional codes, and/or have a learning capability. Learning is the process of acquiring, and storing, codes transmitted by another remote control unit – so, if you have, for example, a TV, or DVD player (or any other wireless device, for that matter), the code for which is not pre-programmed, is not in the manual, or cannot be found on the Internet, or you simply want to save some time and effort you can have one remote control communicate the information to the other. This learning process, however, is not always entirely straightforward, and may be affected by, for example, the length of the code, itself, and the frequency, and strength, of the signal between one remote control and the other. It is not uncommon for some “trial and error” to be involved in arranging the remote controls at an appropriate distance to suit the circuitry, and sensitivity of each. The One For All URC7555 5-in-1 Universal Remote Control allows codes to be added for various electronic devices, with, or without, the original remote control.

Many UCR models also incorporate a “macro”, or “activity command” capability – the facility to trigger a string of user-defined, infrared commands, executed in order, with a single button push. So, if we refer to our original example, by configuring a macro, we can switch on our TV, select the correct input source, and switch on our Sky box and amplifier, in the first instance, and change the Sky channel and adjust the volume, with the same remote control unit, thereafter. Some UCRs provide pre-programmed macros, or allow them to be downloaded from the Internet. The One For All 12 High End URC7780 Universal Remote Control, for example includes four, separate, macro keys.

Display

An LCD (“Liquid Crystal Display”) screen – particularly of the “active matrix”, or TFT (“Thin Film Transistor”) form, providing a clear, sharp, colour rich display – usually backlit, is a useful, and popular, addition, to many Universal Remote Controls, allowing mode and programming information to be displayed. Displays screen of this type do tend to be rather “battery hungry”, although, in order to preserve battery life, many models have a “sleep” function, which turns the display off, when not in use. The One For All Kameleon 5 URC8305 Remote Control, for example, features an illuminated, touch screen display.

Batteries

Power to a Universal Remote Control may be supplied by standard, disposable alkaline batteries, or rechargeable batteries – that can be recharged by plugging the control into a mains power outlet, or, perhaps, a USB connection of your PC – either nickel, or lithium based. Lithium ion (Li-Ion), or lithium polymer (Li-Po), batteries are, perhaps, the batteries of choice, nowadays, and although they are more expensive than the alternatives, they are equally more efficient. Be aware that some rechargeable batteries cannot be removed from the remote control, itself, and rechargeable batteries do wear out (that is, they can no longer be recharged), so, if this is the case, the life of the unit will be governed by the life of its batteries. If humanly possible, do try to find a UCR with batteries that can be removed, and, in either case, be aware that extremes of temperature are particularly detrimental to the life span of rechargeable batteries. As a footnote, with regard to batteries, if you are experiencing difficulties with transmitting codes from one remote control to another, or with using a UCR following learning, it may be that the batteries in the original remote control are the source of the problem. Weak, fluctuating signals, the result of insufficient power, may not be picked up correctly, if at all, by a UCR, and even if they are, may be unreliable when reproduced.

Conclusion

Many, or, perhaps, most Universal Remote Controls, involve a compromise, to a greater or lesser extent, between power, flexibility, ergonomics and ease of use – and, indeed, most make a pretty good fist of combining these factors. A Universal Remote Control is likely to become quite a personal item, so it’s important that it suits you – that its straightforward for you to use, it feels comfortable in your hand, and the buttons are positioned where you would like them to be – as well, of course, as being compatible with your electronic devices. Thankfully, the tendency towards activity based control means that most Universal Remote Controls are more user-friendly than ever before.