Universal Remotes Redux

Programming these universal remotes, says Dawn, gives new meaning to tedium. Each of the remotes Steve and Dawn saw comes with a booklet full of three- or four-digit codes for various devices; you enter those numbers into the remote individually. The problem is that popular brands often have several codes, and you may have to try half a dozen before you find the one that works with the model you have, assuming you can find it at all.

You also have to spend time figuring out whether you've got the best code. Four different codes may turn your TV on and off, perhaps, but only one will let you do picture-in-picture viewing or switch from DVD to VHS inputs properly. And you'll have to go through the same thing for every item in the cabinet.

But wait, there's more! You still may have to put the thing into a "learning" mode, where you hold up the old remote to the new one and punch buttons one by one. That actually can be faster than it sounds, but there's not always a button on the universal model that corresponds with the one to which you've become accustomed. Complicating matters, a lot of people end up buying these universal models when an old remote dies and the manufacturer wants an exorbitant amount for a replacement. But in that case, there's not going to be a whole lot of learning going on.

The Net comes into play on one of the more differentiated models out there. Logitech has a line of remotes called Harmony, and you program those--like the Harmony 880--by installing software on your computer and connecting the remote to the computer with a USB cable. Tell the software what kind of equipment you have and how you want to use it, and it goes out, gets what it needs from the Net, and pumps it right into the remote. If it worked perfectly, it would be great, but Steve ran into trouble. After biffing the initial setup, he knew exactly what he'd done wrong--but the software wouldn't give him the chance to go back and fix that, instead offering him a bunch of useless options that didn't correct the error.

And there's another problem with these things: no über-off switch. There are several ways to operate most devices in a particular sequence: You set up "activities." For instance, it's fairly easy to set up a button called "Watch DVD" that will do something like turn on the TV and the DVD player and the audio system in order and flip the TV to DVD mode. If you're lucky, it works. But it's weird that while there's an activity called "Watch DVD," there's no activity that says "Turn everything off."

The Harmony remote also has the same problem that the Automator did: The commands are hidden in separate screens, so first you have to navigate to the right page. Dawn's TV had about 19 of those pages to contend with. And Steve didn't like the way the volume and channel keys were arranged.

Dawn mentions that the Universal Electronics One For All Kameleon comes with a radio-frequency box that can receive the signals even when all your components are in a closed cabinet. The Automator lets you buy that as an extra-cost option. With these radio systems you have to arrange a so-called IR blaster--a small decoding device--in the cabinet so that all your devices can see it, which can be tricky.

The nouveau Duo will lay the topic aside here, but know that there are actually remotes that are even more complicated and expensive than these--so complicated, in fact, that you'll find it best to pay a home theater installer to program them for you. It's part of their business--and the reason there's a business in the first place is that these things are just too darned complicated.

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