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From many to one: a review of the Universal R50 remote control

James Ralston is Crutchfield's Web Editor for Home Audio/Video. He joined the company in 1994 as a member of the sales department and began writing about A/V gear in 1999. James attended the University of Virginia, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. Since arriving in the Charlottesville area, he has been active in the local music scene, playing drums in a variety of musical projects ranging from world beat, to blues, to instrumental improv.

Universal R50 remoteI recently brought home Universal's R50, hoping I could replace the five remotes cluttering my home theater room with a single, smarter remote. All those remotes were a pain to manage — to literally keep from disappearing between the sofa cushions. And they also represented the unfortunate fact that guests, visitors, and even some family members found my system daunting and complicated to operate.

Learning new tricks
A system like mine, consisting of components from many different brands, can be a test of a universal remote's mettle. The R50 is well equipped to handle such challenges: it not only comes preprogrammed with the IR (infrared) codes for a host of components, but can also learn any specific commands on your existing remotes that you find useful.

Built-in setup guide
It didn't take me long to get the basics programmed; the R50 guides you through the main points using instructions that appear right on its 2" color LCD screen. All the programming is done right on the remote itself — this isn't the kind of remote you connect to your computer in order to download codes and settings.

A helpful color screen
One feature that instantly set this model apart from all the other remotes I've ever owned is the bright, colorful LCD. A list of all your programmed components shows up on that display, which is easy to see in a darkened home theater room. You can customize the labels and graphical icons that represent each component, so you can identify them at a glance. (Just for clarification: the R50's display isn't a touchscreen. Instead, you push the "hard" buttons located next to the on-screen icons.)

Turbo-charged surfing using "Favorites"
The feature I probably use the most on this remote is the "Favorites" button, which makes your frequently watched TV channels scannable on the LCD screen for quick access. You can enter up to 48 channels, each with its own name and visual icon. Channel logos come built in, including icons for all the major broadcast networks, as well as many cable-only networks too. You can also set up custom icons for any channel that might not be included with the package of pre-loaded graphics.

Programming macros for one-button fun
When I brought home the R50, one of my goals was to make my system easy enough for anyone to operate, whether they knew anything about electronics or not. My results were slightly mixed on this score, though I blame the limitations of my gear, rather than the remote itself.

As I mentioned earlier, this remote isn't the type you connect to your computer or the Internet when setting it up. That means if you want to be able to push a single button on the R50 for a given activity (like "Watch TV" or "Play a Blu-ray Movie"), you've got to program the proper series of commands (known as a "macro") yourself. I found this to be a trial-and-error process, and the extent to which you succeed might be dependent on how you have your system hooked up, which components do the switching, etc.

One nice touch (no pun intended): you can marry macro commands logically to the buttons on the remote's main menu. For example, if I want the remote to control my TV, I hit the TV button. If I want to turn on my whole system and get it set up for watching TV, I press and hold the TV button.

Summing up
Overall, the Universal R50 cleaned up my remote-strewn home theater room, made my system easier to use, and gave me a cool "Favorites" function for channel-surfing in overdrive. Several of my one-touch macro commands work reliably well. Some still need some tweaking. I could probably program all the macros I wanted if I owned a receiver with HDMI switching — but that's another blog post entirely.

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