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Universal remote buying guide

Why one remote control is better than six

Have you got five or six remote controls crowding the coffee off your coffee table? Even if the clutter doesn't drive you crazy, the logistics just might. A simple task such as changing the volume may require you to remember whether the sound is coming from your TV or from your home theater receiver — then finding and using the appropriate remote. Or maybe you've got it all figured out, but how about the rest of the household, or your house guests?

The solution could be a "universal" remote. With a universal remote, you can easily control all your components with a single device. And while they're all designed to replace multiple controllers, universal remotes come with different features to meet different needs. Considering all the options before purchasing can ensure you get the right universal remote for your system.

[Shop our selection of universal remotes.]

"Multibrand" remotes — getting control of your system

Multibrand remotes, which are a type of universal remote, are often free with certain gear, like TVs, receivers, and disc players. They generally come pre-programmed with infrared codes for many popular brands of gear, so you can control more than just one component in your system. Normally, these remotes can give you basic control over an assortment of standard audio/video components, such as receivers, Blu-ray players, HDTVs, and cable boxes.

Although a multibrand remote can typically operate the basic functions of most components, it may not be able to control every function of every piece you own. For example, a remote pre-programmed with the operating code for your Blu-ray player can normally turn on the player's power, adjust its volume, select the menu item you want, and play your disc. It may not, however, have control over more specialized features, like turning the director's commentary on or off or accessing behind-the-scenes footage.

Remote diagram Some multibrand and learning remotes require you to place your new remote head-to-head with your old remote, so you can transfer commands from your old remote to your new one.

Learning remotes — going beyond basic functions

You can set up a learning (or "programmable") remote to operate just about any brand of equipment and to accommodate just about any function you want to clone. There are a number of features that universal learning remotes use to simplify operation. Below a just a few to look for.

Rechargeable batteries to keep you going. With some learning remotes, you can avoid changing batteries altogether, and instead plug the remote into your AC power outlet using an included cable to recharge it. A few remotes go one step further and offer a charging cradle. In addition to ensuring that the remote's batteries remain charged, the cradle provides a designated spot for the controller to reside when not in use. If you've ever hunted high and low for the remote, you'll appreciate how useful a cradle can become.

PC programming for easier setup. Some learning remotes can be programmed by computer. For certain models, you simply go to the manufacturer's website, and enter some basic information about your A/V components and how they're connected. All the necessary programming is then downloaded to your remote from your computer via a USB cable. It's a lot simpler than entering in the codes yourself on the remote, or placing the new remote head-to-head with your old remote to "learn" the remote's functions.

Macros — assign multiple commands to a single button. Many learning remotes also feature "macros" — a series of commands that you can program onto a single activity. If, for example, you have to turn on your TV, DVD player, and receiver to watch a movie, you can combine all of those separate steps into one macro or activity. This lets you turn on all three components with a single button push.

Flash memory — only program your remote once. With simple, inexpensive remote controls, a dead battery can be a nuisance. Once you replace the battery, you usually have to reprogram the remote all over again. Many universal remotes avoid this problem by using flash memory to store their programmed commands.

LCD screens to show more options. Many advanced universal remotes feature LCD screens — in addition to traditional buttons — that display system information and put even greater control at your fingertips. They generally let you access your components more specialized controls, like turning the director's commentary on or off while you're watching a Blu-ray movie. Most of these LCD screens are also backlit for easy operation when the lights are low.

Touchscreens for greater flexibility. Some of the most sophisticated remotes use a touchscreen LCD to offer the ultimate flexibility in system control from your sofa. The touchscreen is typically spacious, which enables it to display a set of control "buttons" specific to whatever component you select to operate. Some touchscreen remotes even offer button layouts that are fully customizable — get rid of the buttons you never use and arrange ones you need in any order you like.

However, despite the high level of customizable control they offer, not everyone likes the feel of a touchscreen's "virtual buttons." If you're looking for an ultra-sophisticated remote, but prefer the feel of actual buttons, then you may just want to go with an LCD remote.

RF capability for control beyond line-of-sight. Most remotes send commands to components via an infrared (IR) beam. In order for the command to be received, there must be an unbroken line of sight between the remote and component, which is why sometimes your remote doesn't change the channel when someone passes between you and the TV. Some remotes also use radio frequency (RF) waves to extend control beyond line-of-sight. Just like AM and FM radio waves, the RF signals can pass through walls and ceilings — making it a great option if your audio/video system is stored in a closet, or if most of it is in another room.

Remote diagram An RF remote sends commands via radio waves, which can travel through walls and cabinets to be be picked up by a base station. The station sends the received command to an IR flasher covering the component's sensor.

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