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By George McKechnie

Almost everything electronic these days comes with a hand-held remote control.  It seems like a nice little convenience—until we misplace it, the dog chews it, or we get confused trying to control multiple components that are interconnected—in a home theater, for example. Then the frustration begins.

A skillfully programmed universal remote can do wonders controlling a wide range of electronic components, especially when they are combined into systems. A single hand-held unit can replace a box full of remotes, communicate with concealed components (in a cabinet or closet), and reduce an otherwise long and exacting sequence of commands to a single click. It can also let you choose from a list of your favorite stations by name (CBS, NBC, ABC) rather than number, and eliminate falling down the “rabbit holes”— where you lose sound, or picture, or both.

The more sophisticated remotes (see Advanced Remote Control Features) can do even more: they can navigate through a playlist for a favorite song, display the alarm status of all the windows and doors in your home, change room lighting and temperature settings to match the mood or the weather, adjust the sprinkler schedule, turn on the sauna, and even surf the net and stream video—assuming, of course, that hardware to support these functions is in place, and the remote has been properly programmed to accomplish these tasks.

Let’s look more closely at these smart home automation workhorses, so you can understand what features are available, and how they can make home life so much more convenient.  This way, you can make more fully informed decisions about which features will meet your needs to support your lifestyle.

6_Universal_remote_basics_r2-02A Handful of Remotes

Everyone seems to complain about too many remotes.  They’re hard to keep track of, create clutter, and cause too much confusion.  Most people prefer a single unit to replace all the remotes that came with the home electronic products they’ve purchased. A number of product lines are available to accomplish this, from companies including Universal Remote Control, Crestron, Control4, Logitech, and RTI.  Most of these systems even can be programmed to a smartphone or tablet—with limitations, of course.

Some remotes supplied with a component (a surround receiver, for example) are pre- programmed to control other devices made by the same manufacturer (say a Blu-ray player).  These remotes are useful—up to the point where you need to control a cable or satellite box, or a product made by another manufacturer. Then you’re stuck.

Also, these remotes may be hard to use.  To command a given box, you first have to select the component you want to control, then click the command you want.  So if you sit down to watch a new Blu-ray disc, you might first have to switch to the surround receiver setting, then turn the component on, and select the Blu-ray input; then select the Blu-ray player setting on the remote to turn it on, and finally push the button that starts the disc. That’s a lot of concentration —tough when you’re sitting down to relax…after a hard day’s golf with your buddies…and a few beers!

Remotes supplied by Cable and Satellite TV companies have similar limitations.  They arrive pre-programmed to the cable or sat receiver. Then you must “set up” the remote for your own component(s) by selecting a code number you’ve looked up in the manual (to tell the remote which TV, for example, you want to control).

Typically not all components are listed—older TVs and other components may not be controllable by these remotes.  For TV models that are listed, you must first switch from the Cable or Sat Box to the TV by hand, then click the command(s) you want for the other component(s).  In general, you click a button or move a slide switch to select the component you want to control, then press the button for the command you want to accomplish.  From a cost standpoint, this approach may make sense for a simple, low-use system—like a TV with just Cable or Sat box (in a bedroom, for example).

But for a system containing more components which is used regularly, manufacturer-supplied remotes are awkward and inconvenient. Universal remotes by comparison simplify the process to a single click of a button that’s custom-labeled to your system and to your preferences. They make life easy, through the magic of Macros.


Reducing the clutter and inconvenience of multiple remotes is what motivates most consumers to buy a universal remote.  But macro capability is the feature they quickly come to appreciate most.  When custom-tailoring a universal remote with macro capacity to your system and to your TV watching preferences, the technician can program a sequence of codes that will perform multiple, specifically defined tasks. With the macro activated, you click a single, dedicated button which then sends out a complete sequence of commands —in the correct order—so you don’t have to remember them.  The remote does all the work. Here’s how.

Let’s say, for example, you’re a golf nut. Every day after work, you come home and collapse on the sofa to enjoy a show on the Golf Channel. The technician who set up your system programmed your universal remote control device with a macro sequence which is triggered when you push a dedicated button labeled “GOLF”. You click GOLF and the remote sends out this sequence of commands: turn on the TV, and adjust the TV to the input that receives an HDMI signal from the Surround Receiver; next turn on the Surround Receiver, and select the Satellite input; then turn on the Satellite box, and tune it the Golf Channel. That’s six commands, all with one click!  If some in the household loves cooking shows, they can have a “COOKING” macro, too—or whatever any member of the household wants.

Favorites List

One of the nicest features available with many universal remotes is a list of your favorite stations to choose from, displayed with the name of the network (NBC, CBS, ESPN, PBS, etc.)  This way, you don’t have to remember the channel number (which varies from cable company, to satellite provider, to off-the-air broadcast station).  Some remotes can display up to 10 or more station names per “page” on the remote window (with multiple pages available).  This makes it very easy to switch from channel to channel, to organize your favorite TV stations by type, and even to separate TV channels from favorite cable or satellite digital music channels.

Defining Pathways

Each component in a home theater system typically provides multiple wiring choices for getting the video signal from the Sat or Cable box to the surround receiver, and from the surround receiver to the TV.  And the same goes for the Blu-ray or DVD player. For the audio pathways, additional choices are available.

A late-model TV, for example, typically offers multiple input choices to receive video signals—from a Blu-ray Player, DVD, VCR, Satellite or Cable box, Computer, or streaming device —using a range of cable types, including an HDMI digital cable, an analog Component cable set, or even an old Composite (audio plus video) feed.  Most of these pathway options (maybe 80%) will not be used to set up in a typical Home Theater installation.  See An Insider’s Guide to Home Theater

The remotes that come with the TV and other components allow you to select from among these options.  And the Surround Receiver remote will offer its own pathway choices.  Depending on how the components are configured in the system, pushing buttons that direct the component to switch to an unused pathway will not accomplish what the user wants, and will  cause confusion and frustration.  For example, the volume button on the TV remote adjusts the sound level of the speakers built into the TV.  But volume on the Surround Receiver remote adjusts the level of the 5.1 speakers which are powered by the Surround Receiver.  So it’s all too easy to get them confused, and end up with no sound!

Universal remotes are designed and programmed to select only the exact pathways intended to route the signal from the correct output to the right input—that is, to accomplish the macro command.  To do this, the technician decides which specific inputs and outputs will optimize the performance of the system—taking into account the wiring options available on the various  components, the in-wall signal wiring available (if not all components are located together), and any other constraints imposed by the layout of your home (such as cable lengths).

He then designs and programs macros which automatically select only those inputs and outputs that define the best available pathways.  In doing this, he essentially locks out all the unused combinations of inputs and outputs, so that only the signal paths that have been wired are implemented in the macros which are available on the custom remote.  For extra protection, he’ll probably ask you to hide the remotes that came with the components, so that no one can inadvertently use them to select a faulty or incomplete pathway—and fall down the rabbit hole.

Concealed Equipment

Many consumers want to conceal the black boxes that make up a home theater or other system—typically in a closet or cabinet.  This makes good sense aesthetically, unless you prefer to show off your equipment.  But concealing the boxes creates a problem: how the remote can communicate with the components.

Manufacturer-supplied remote controls communicate to their dedicated component via Infra-Red (IR) light.  This typically requires unobstructed line-of-sight aiming of the remote at the component so that it will receive the IR command.  In order for the IR signal to be received, the remote needs to be aimed at a little spot on the front panel of the component, behind which the IR sensor is located.  This sensor gathers the light-imbedded code intended for that component.  If the code is received and recognized, the component will act upon it and perform the task requested.  If not, the component won’t perform the task you’ve requested of it.

Until fairly recently, if you wanted to conceal equipment for cosmetic reasons, you’d need an IR Extender or Link to communicate with it.  This is a little system made up of four parts: an IR sensor (typically mounted in the wall or on the lower edge of the TV) that collects the IR code and converts it to an electrical impulse; a control wire to carry the electrical signal from the sensor to the closet or cabinet; a tiny processor that controls the system and re-transmits the electrical signal; and a set of emitters (one attached to each component that has been concealed) that converts the electrical signal back to IR light waves to “flash” the IR sensor inside the component with the desired control code.

Today, in addition to the old school IR transmitters, most programmable remote controls have a built-in Radio Frequency (RF) transmitter as well.  An alternative to the IR Link, the RF transmitter can be used in situations where the system components are concealed. To implement RF communication, the tech adds an RF receiver in the closet (or cabinet) near the concealed components.  This device receives the RF signals from the remote wirelessly (RF doesn’t require line of sight), and converts them to electrical signals which are delivered to IR flashers like those described above.  They in turn deliver the IR signal to the component. The RF method requires a remote with a built-in RF transmitter, plus an RF receiver with the concealed components, plus the IR emitters.  Manufacturer’s remotes don’t have this feature.

In most cases using RF control, the TV itself will still be controlled by IR (not RF), for several reasons: First, people intuitively point the remote at the TV, as they’ve done for decades. So programmers send the TV control codes first, by IR, and then send the remaining codes in the macro by RF.  Second, to control the TV by RF, you’d have to attach an (unsightly) IR flasher and wire to the front of the TV frame where the built-in IR sensor lives, and run a control cable from TV to the equipment location.  Third, the TV is almost always in the line of sight for the person watching it—or should be.

IR vs RF Control

IR and RF are both legitimate control methods, and if all equipment is in the line of sight (or an IR link is already in place), IR control can work reliably—with one caveat. A macro string may contain six or more code packets (as in the example above). For various technical reasons, experienced programmers may elect to transmit some or all of the packets multiple times to optimize transmission reliability.  As a result, the total transmission time for a full macro packet may take three seconds or more.

If all the codes are transmitted in IR format, the user must point the remote steadily at all of the equipment or at the IR sensor for those three seconds, in order for the full macro sequence of codes to be received.  If you picked up the remote, clicked the dedicated macro button while pointing it at the TV for one second, then absent-mindedly scratched your back with the remote, many of the IR signals wouldn’t get through. You wouldn’t accomplish what you wanted, and you’d probably blame the remote. Moral: IR transmission is much more susceptible to human error than is RF. Since an RF receiver typically costs less than an IR link, use RF when possible.

For more on remotes, see Advanced Remote Control Features