Total Control: The 9 Best Universal Remotes

Aug 11, 2015

Category: Tech

Odds are good that your family has tried a universal remote at one point or another – probably in the 90’s – and found the experience rather underwhelming. They might let you control the volume or turn a device on and off, but you often have to lay it on your table right next to the standard remotes. Well, hold on to your knickers, because those days are long gone.

Odds are good that if you have a DVR, you already have a pretty serviceable universal remote. If you’re happy with the basic operations it can do, read no further, we cannot help you, stone-age remote user. On the other hand, if you want a remote that works with your entire home, read on. They work with more than your TV and stereo, but everything that can take a signal. The new universal remotes are Swiss Army knives for the control freak who wants to change the world from the comfort of his couch. If that isn’t enough to convince you, we’ve also included apps that work on your smartphone and often eliminate the need for a separate device altogether. ‘Tis time for the 9 best universal remotes. Be warned: This area is largely dominated by Logitech’s Harmony line. It isn’t that we are fanboys, they are often quite literally the only game in town.

Sony RMVLZ620

Sony RMVLZ620

Pro: Affordable
Con: Unlit

Budget Basic: Sony was once the gold standard for universal remotes. Now the same thing that once dazzled is sitting in the bargain bin. That isn’t to say this is a bad remote, just a little dated. It can control up to 8 video or audio devices and has an assortment of 12 macro buttons that can be imprinted with commands to perform whatever esoteric function you desire. It can learn from existing remotes, which is a handy feature if you’re trying to use a strange and foreign object like a phonograph or a Betamax. It learns quickly and simply without extra steps or complicated procedures, which is helpful. It works with newer and older products, a handy tool if you have the latest 4K television sitting in your living room, space-age wireless speakers hidden around the room, or just an old Trinitron. It doesn’t have nearly the broad function of a touchscreen, and could stand at least some back-lit buttons, but for the money, still a solid choice for those who like to stay classic. [Purchase: $22]

URC-WR7

URC-WR7

Pro: Many step macro buttons
Con: Extremely unattractive

Best Bargain: If You’re willing to pay just a few dollars more than you would for the Sony option above, you’ll find the WR7 succeeds in many of the simple areas where the Sony doesn’t quite stand up. For starters, it has a back-lit screen so that you can actually see the buttons even when you’ve turned out the lights for a Nightmare on Elm Street marathon. It fits very well in your hand with a smoother back that isn’t quite as clunky as the Sony but the buttons are stiff and you have to bear down a little to get them to work. You’ll only be able to get 7 devices to function with the WR7 but it comes loaded with pre-programmed codes for everything from cable receivers to iPod docks. It has 13 macro buttons that can go through as many as 20 steps apiece for accomplishing complicated tasks. Also works with the most popular IR lights so no more clapping on and off. The learning capabilities include 4 favorite buttons to quickly switch to the channel you want. It acquires programming quickly and easily, and is very friendly to the technologically challenged. Just don’t leave it out when you have company over. [Purchase: $30]

Logitech Harmony 650

Logitech Harmony 650

Pro: Simple activation commands
Con: Only controls 5 devices

Easy Operation: The Harmony 650 is probably the easiest universal remote that has ever been clicked. The bright screen is easy to read with features that make it simple for Luddites and children to get the hang of with simple commands offered in plain English. The layout feels good in your hand and the most common buttons are directly in thumb range with other items placed at the perimeter. Setup is handled through a website dedicated to the product and allows you to plug it in to your computer and show it which make and model you have for every component in your system. It automatically locks in the code, so you’ll never have to hunt again. Standard operations like “Listen to Music” or “Watch TV” give it a programmed set of instructions for which devices to activate so you don’t need to think about it. Sadly, it only works for 5 devices so those with larger systems are out of luck, but standard and light users will be thrilled. [Purchase: $70]

URC RFS200 PowerPak with PowerBlaster

URC RFS200 PowerPak with PowerBlaster

Pro: Uses RF and IR
Con: RF frequency can’t be changed

Mid-Range RF: This is the least amount you can spend on a remote that has any kind of reliable RF (Radio Frequency) control. It has the option of turning on each of your devices separately, but also bears a master control switch for integrated homes that will kick on your television, stereo, DVD player, and your slow cooker all at the same time. The volume can also reach every device making it easy to control a surround sound home theater without any switching or swapping. It works with nearly any DVR, stereo, mp3 dock, satellite radios, lights, and 8-track tape deck. The IR PowerBlaster is one of the nicest features since it boosts your RF range, but also converts the RF signal from your remote into IR to then push it to older devices so they will function without aiming the remote. The sole major issue is the lack of frequency change on the unit. If you have a neighbor using RF, they might accidentally gain control of your equipment. If you don’t want the PowerBlaster, the RF20 remote is a solid mid-range RF option. [Purchase: $76]

Logitech Harmony Smart Control 1

Logitech Harmony Smart Control

Pro: Works with remote or smartphone
Con: Insufficient pre-programmed buttons

Hybrid: This uses the concept of the universal remote in a very unusual way. It actually uses three components to function: The remote, the node, and your smartphone or tablet. The hub handles translating the RF signals to IR so that older components can use them. PS3, Wii, Amazon Fire TV, and Wii U users will find this control especially nice since it works on those devices, who are reliant on Bluetooth technology (no PS4 yet). If you prefer not to use the remote at all, you can sync your smartphone to the base and use that with a free app from Logitech that works with your home Wi-Fi. The Smart uses the same elegant system as the 650 in that pressing commands like “Watch DVD” or “Turn on Radio” executes your desires without added effort. Amusingly the worst part of this system is the remote itself. It is ergonomic and comfortable, but looks like an old RCA with clunky rubber buttons and a basic black veneer. There are only three activity buttons that also have hidden functions, which is fine if you only use your multimedia for a couple of things. [Purchase: $119]

Logitech Harmony Home

Logitech Harmony Home

Pro: Has two IR signal boosters
Con: Requires mobile device for setup

Most for the Money: This takes the drive that the Smart Contols system started and runs it straight into the end zone. Everything about the Home is improved, starting with the remote. It has more programmable buttons, fits better in your hand, and offers greater control, though it still looks cheap and doesn’t have a light. The Home has a very smart central hub that you can connect to using either the remote or a smartphone. It is the mastermind behind how the Home system works since it stores all your settings and data to be accessed and turns instructions from the remote or your phone into signals that all of your theater equipment can understand. It also hooks into your network and the cloud via Wi-Fi. Unlike the Smart system, you have to have an iOS or Android tablet or smartphone for setup, since this doesn’t work with computers. The hub can be placed anywhere since it bounces powerful IR signals all around a room. The system comes with a secondary blaster which can be placed close to stubborn devices to ensure they get the signal. [Purchase: $150]

Logitech Harmony Ultimate

Logitech Harmony Ultimate

Pro: Can interface with 15 devices
Con: Setup is complicated for large systems

All In: The beautiful and fully customizable touchscreen controls are the first thing you’ll notice, but a big part of what makes the Ultimate so good is under the hood. It uses both Bluetooth and RF (Radio Frequency) controls that pass through walls and cabinet doors so your devices don’t even need line of sight to work. This is a serious upgrade from the standard IR (Infrared) model used by most remotes. It also has it’s own Wi-Fi card that will pick up the signal from your wireless router without being slaved to a computer. It can also work through apps for Android and Apple devices, giving you the possibility to add or change features without needing to directly interface with the remote. The Ultimate can interface with as many as 15 devices, though it will take a dog’s age to get all that gear to work with the remote since setup can be a bit tiresome. The DVR buttons are placed awkwardly away from your thumb to allow for the touchscreen, but the device does have some gesture recognition so it might help more if you wave your arms like a buffoon. 50 favorite channels can be added for easy surfing. Just make sure you keep it charged. [Purchase: $350]

Roomie Remote

Roomie Remote

Pro: Works with Apple devices
Con: Very simplistic

iOS Controller: Unlike the insightful people who make Android phones with built-in IR blasters, Apple hasn’t gotten the memo that people like them. Even the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6+ don’t have IR transmitters on them, which is why you need an item like the Roomie Remote. What it does is translate commands on your phone into IR signals that most devices can understand. The Remote then relays the messages to whichever device you are trying to control. There was once a whole heap of these products, including the now defunct Griffin Beacon and the Newkinetix Rē, but now it is mostly down to the Roomie. It works with your Wi-Fi and connects to as many as 10 devices with the proper package and can then be reached using the Roomie app on your iPhone to act as a remote control. Among the device/app options left for Apple fans, this is the best, though it’s lack of features and remedial controls make it a less than stunning choice. [Purchase: $110]

Smart IR Remote

Smart IR Remote

Pro: Automatic mute feature
Con: Only works with certain phones

Android IR Remote: If you’ve got one of the newer Android smartphones or tablets that include an IR blaster, and a television or stereo system that is IR compatible, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on a new universal remote, you just need to download this app and you are good to go. Smart IR Remote only works with compatible Android devices, so iPhone users are out of luck, as are some Sony smartphone owners, but everyone else will find this to be a gift from the heavens. The design is very attractive and easy to use for everyone from children on up. It isn’t limited to working with multimedia equipment, thereby allowing heaters, lights, projectors, or anything else to be handled through your mobile device. It includes the option of setting up and mapping an entirely foreign remote, so if you’re packing strange or imported equipment, this will be able to parse out a usable signal. The icing on the cake is that if you get a call, it automatically mutes everything. [Purchase: $7]

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