Programmable Remotes and the One For All A/V Producer
By Jeff Winston - May 1st, 2000
If you’re like me, the weak part of your home entertainment system is the inconvenience of your remote controls. On one hand, you can work with your complete set of remote controls in close reach (assuring any doubters of your total geek-ness). On the other hand, you can use a cool-looking pre-programmed remote that lacks keys for many of those commands you just can’t live without. Admittedly, some multi-hundred-dollar devices attempt to solve this problem with intensive programmability and touch-screens, but for those of us without the bucks, our choices often appear to be limited. However, there is hope! In this article we look at the state-of-the-art in affordable programmable remotes. For context I’ll provide some background on the history of the genre, and then thoroughly review the a/v producer 8, which is a good example of a currently available “best of breed”.
When the first generation of integrated remotes hit the market several years ago, I was personally a big fan of the old Zenith/Radio Shack four-device programmable remote. This was a small device with labeled keys for normal TV and VCR commands, but every key was programmable. The command of every key was learned from your original remote, allowing you to configure each of the four “devices” as you saw fit. It’s true that when you were done, no one else could use the device (nor could you, if you forgot what was programmed where), but it at least allowed one person to merge all his frequently-used commands from all his remotes into one small, pocket-size device.
Unfortunately, my Zenith/Radio Shack remotes eventually wore out and new ones were no longer sold. It was 1997, and it seemed that every remote was pre-programmed only. These were obviously cheaper to make, and apparently had a market. However, without the Audio or Video adjustment menus or INPUT-SELECT command for my TV, the INDEX command for my VCR, or the A/B speaker selects for my stereo receiver, I was lost. In addition, these new pre-programmed remotes had the annoying feature of being “non-integrated”. The manufacturers hadn’t realized that despite the many volume controls, channel selects, and other overlapping commands on all my devices, when I sit down to my home entertainment system I really control volume, channel, and such on only one source each. What I really wanted was a remote that would simultaneously control volume on my TV, channels on my cable-box, etc. Unfortunately, the ones I tried required me to press “TV” before adjusting volume, “CABLE” before adjusting channel, etc. I didn’t understand how anyone could put up with this inconvenience. (To be fair, some manufacturers added a volume “punch-through” command, tying the volume keys to one device in all modes. However, none that I could find extended this to channel select or any other overlapping commands).
Luckily, I stumbled across the One For All URC4050, made by Universal Electronics. This was a $30 remote with a vision way beyond its time. To the average user, it looked like a normal 6-device pre-programmed remote. However, buried behind its fancifully-named “MAGIC” key was a set of simple yet powerful functions bound to make even the geekiest user ecstatic.
Simply put, the URC4050 allowed you to program any command to any key. You would start by Emailing a list of your equipment to Tech. Support at Universal. For each device, they would Email you back a list of its co-called “advanced codes”. These listings contained all the remote commands to which your device would respond, each associated with a numerical code. Using the “MAGIC” key on my URC4050, I could assign any command on the list to any key on the remote. Since the remote had about a half-dozen extra keys for peripheral commands, I could constructively assign all the commands I needed to reasonably-labeled keys on a single remote. Awesome!
But there’s more…The fascinating thing about these lists from Universal is that they included many commands not available on the original remote. Thus, I could even assign commands to my URC4050 remote that were not on the original remote!
The remote also had volume-punch-through, and cross-device assignment (allowing me to assign the same channel select and input-select commands to all modes). In fact, with my URC4050 fully-programmed, I was in control heaven. And the remote’s design was so intuitive that even the rest of my family was able to make good use of it.
Every device has a weakness, and the URC4050 was no different. After several months of use, the most heavily used keys (power, volume, etc) wore out. I was able to replace it, but after another year they keys again wore out, and Universal was no longer manufacturing the URC4050, or any similarly-designed device. Again, depression set in, as I collected together my original remotes and made extra room on the coffee table. In a way, though, I understood why code-programmable remotes had disappeared from the market. The manuals and packaging did little to promote this powerful feature, and acquiring and programming the codes probably required a little more effort than most users were willing to invest.
Recently, I again combed the market looking for a satisfactory remote. Universal had sold their One For All business to company called the Hudson Access Group, who claimed on their web site (http://www.hudsonag.com) to be dedicated to continuing “the legacy of One For All universal remotes”.
The newest result of this dedication is their a/v producer 8. The a/v producer 8 combines many of the ideas from the URC4050 with some new tricks, resulting in a remote that should make most of us armchair geeks very happy.
Their a/v producer 8 is packaged by itself as the model 8800 a/v producer ($89.99 list), or with an RF infrared repeater as the model 9800 home producer ($99.99 list). They also make a lower-end Cinema-7 unit that has similar functionality but lacks an LCD display ($29.99 list). For this article, I tested the a/v producer 8 with the RF infrared repeater.
The a/v producer 8 starts as an 8-device pre-programmed remote. The supported devices include TVs, VCRs, Tuners, Amplifiers, Cable boxes, Satellite Receivers, Surround Receivers, CD and DVD Players, and even home automation devices. Although the device has one button for each of these devices, you can actually re-assign device buttons if, for example, you have no separate Tuner but an extra VCR.
To setup your remote, you must start by correctly selecting your device code from a furnished list. All pre-programmed remotes require this initial procedure. Here’s why: Every remote-enabled device responds to a specific set of infrared (IR) codes sent from the remote. There is one IR code for each command. Every pre-programmed remote contains a ROM which contains all the IR codes for the basic commands of hundreds of devices. These groups of codes are indexed by device type, and within each device type by an arbitrary 3- or 4-digit number assigned by the manufacturer of the remote (called the SETUP code). Most of the instruction manual of any pre-programmed remote is filled with the index of these SETUP codes. When the user specifies a device type and manufacturer-specific SETUP code to the remote, the remote accesses its internal ROM and assigns IR codes to its keys for all the basic commands of the device.
For most remotes, you must try every SETUP code associated with your device’s manufacturer until you find one that works. To their credit, the designers of the a/v producer have provided a clever search procedure that considerably speeds this process. Essentially, the remote “knows” which codes are associated with each manufacturer. Thus, you put in just one SETUP code associated with your manufacturer, and you can scroll through and test all the codes from just that manufacturer without having to enter any codes after the first one.
Immediately after entering or selecting a code, you can then test the device by pressing certain commands. The manufacturer guarantees only that the POWER or PLAY buttons will work, but actually a few additional commands are mapped (like CHANNEL UP for a cable box). Where you can’t use POWER or PLAY (like on a stereo receiver without a soft power button), you can probably find another command that works, but it takes a little tinkering. It can also be confusing. For example, when I found that CHANNEL UP worked for my cable box, but not CHANNEL DOWN, I thought I had the wrong code. I actually had the right one, but the CHANNEL DOWN command was not mapped in the testing mode.
After you have setup all the pre-programmed codes for your devices, the fun begins. There are many different ways to customize your remote. The first is via the 6 Learning keys. These keys can be programmed to learn commands from your original remote just like the old Zenith/Radio Shack device. You hold the two remotes head-to-head and press the key on your original remote that you want the a/v producer to learn. The programming steps on the a/v producer are designed to let you program several keys in succession. The six keys can be programmed differently for all 8 devices, giving you a total of 48 programmable locations. Also, I discovered that the keys store any code you give them. In other words,the remote that you use to program the Learning keys does not have to be the remote a the device you specified using a SETUP code.
The next few customization features are all carried over from the URC-4050. These include a Macro capability, Key-Mover, and advanced codes. The Macro capability allows you to assign any sequence of keystrokes to one of two macro keys. Thereafter pressing the macro key causes the remote to send the pre-programmed sequence. The Power button also has limited macro capability, allowing you to store a series of power-key presses onto a single key (more about this later). Unfortunately, the Learning keys cannot be used in a Macro.
The Key-Mover allows you to modify the pre-programmed assignment of commands to keys in any manner you like. As it sounds, it allows you to copy any pre-programmed command to any other key. Unfortunately, it also does not allow the movement of commands originally programmed to Learning keys.
Although undocumented, the a/v producer also carried over the incredibly powerful advanced codes feature of the URC4050. As noted earlier, all pre-programmed remotes map keys to the dozen or so basic commands of a device. However, many modern devices are laden with features, and are designed to respond to 20, 30, or even 50 different IR codes. This is more than could be stored (or assigned to keys) on any remote. To give users access to all the commands associated with these codes, the designers of the a/v producer carried over the concept of advanced codes. You start by contacting the manufacturer to get advanced codes for all your devices. After you receive them, you can manually assign the commands of your choice to the keys of the a/v producer (see sidebar for instructions and manufacturer contact info). These commands could include ones not found on your original remote. Note that the advanced codes allow you to work around the limitations of the Learning keys as you can directly program commands from your original remote to any non-Learning key on the a/v producer.
Yet another powerful and welcome customization feature of the a/v producer is its Home Theater mode. A large button below the 8 device buttons places you in Home Theater mode. You can program this mode to bring together the most commonly used commands of all of your devices. For this mode, you can separately specify which device responds to commands related to Audio, channel select, playback, PIP, and Menu commands. Properly programmed, this mode should allow you to control your most common TV/VCR/Cable-or-Satellite setup without ever pressing a specific device key (i.e., the “TV”, or “CABLE” key). In addition, in this mode you can program a macro onto the Power key that will power-on (or off) a group of devices with a single press.
I have used the a/v producer for several weeks now, and have to report that it is generally a satisfying unit. The Home Theater mode gives a “does the right thing” feel that makes it pleasant to use, not only by myself, but by the rest of my family. An especially cool feature is the fluorescent blue back-light which can be enabled to light up whenever a key is pressed. I even hooked up the RF infrared repeater and found it works quite well.
Basically, the RF infrared repeater works as follows: Whenever you press a key on the a/v producer, it sends a RF (radio-frequency) signal at the same time it sends the normal infrared signal. This RF signal is received by the repeater box, which converts it to infrared and sends the signal out the front of the box. The overall effect is that your remote now has a much greater, non-directional range (the manual claims a range of up to 100 ft.). I set the repeater box up on a small shelf across from my home entertainment devices. Since it doesn’t have a remote power adapter, the power cable is a little thick, and some thought was required to find a place for it where the wire wouldn’t be obvious (it ended up in a corner).
I tested the unit up to about 75 feet away and it worked flawlessly. In addition, it worked fine when the a/v producer was in the same room (i.e., there was no unpleasant interference between the two infrared senders). An additional sender was also provided. This tiny accessory plugs into the repeater box and allows the repeater to control an additional device which may be out of its front-panel’s line-of-sight.
The a/v producer also has a good sense of time. First, it allows you to schedule ten macros, each of up to 15 keystrokes each, to be played back at any specific time up to a week later. The macros can also be scheduled to repeat on a daily or weekly basis. Since you can never guarantee that your remote will be aimed correctly at the scheduled times, this may sound like it has limited use. But if you set up the RF infrared repeater, all you have to do is insure that your a/v producer is within RF range (nominally 100 ft.)of the repeater, and your scheduled commands should always have the desired control effect (even if the remote is buried in the couch).
Second, the a/v producer has a two-pronged sleep-timer function. Not only can it activate sleep timers on your various devices, but it also has a “sleep lock” mode that will shut off any device after a programmed time.
Although I have learned to love my a/v producer, I have to report that I was disappointed with the unit’s general keypad layout. The numerical keypad and VCR buttons are clearly grouped and laid out nicely. There’s also a nice set of surround balance keys (which double as menu keys) high up next to the well-placed power button. The Volume and Channel buttons are also easy to find, but are so similar that you have to remember which is which. The remaining keys are grouped into two sets of six keys, and one set of five. One of these groups is the Learning keys, and the others are used for miscellaneous commands. It is with these three sets of keys that the friendliness of the design breaks down.
In each group, all the buttons of the group look the same, and are arranged in what is roughly a straight vertical line. There are no visual cues to help you associate keys with commands (other than tiny labels which may not be descriptive if the keys have been re-mapped). It would have been a lot more helpful if they had arranged each group of keys in some sort of distinctive arrangement, allowing the user to have some chance of associating a key with its command by location. In addition, within both of the miscellaneous groups, a few keys used for setup and control of the remote unit itself are randomly intermixed with keys that are used to control devices. This makes it even harder to attain any intuitive feel of what each key does. Finally, although the unit provides access to more device commands via a SHIFT key, the SHIFT key is hard to find, there is no real pattern to which keys can be SHIFTed, SHIFTed commands are labeled in very small type, and no SHIFTed command can be used in a macro.
The sad part of all this is that the a/v producer has a wonderfully easy-to-read LCD display. Although the designers fully leveraged this display to ease setup and programming, they made no use of it for visual feedback of key presses during normal operation. In a future model, I would hope that they would use the display to allow the user to label some of the keys. At a minimum, it would be helpful to have some way to use the display to identify the functions of the Learning keys.
Another annoyance of the a/v producer is that many frequently accessed keys (for example, all the VCR control keys) are both very small and located near the bottom of the remote. Because of the above-average size and weight of the remote, properly pressing the lower keys becomes a two-handed task. I would have preferred that the VCR keys (which are also used for CD or DVD playback) be located near the top of the remote, and that the harder-to-reach lower area be used for the infrequently used keys associated with setup.
Finally, in addition to being isolated from the macro and key-mover features, the Learning keys have another anomaly. As noted before, the commands mapped to the Learning keys change whenever you select a different device. But when you select Home Theater mode, the Learning keys retain their prior mapping. Thus, in Home Theater mode, you don’t know which device the Learning keys control, and to assign it you have to press a device key and then press the Home Theater key again. I would have preferred to program a default device for the Learning keys as part of the setup of Home Theater mode. (Or perhaps they could have used the display to indicate the current mode of the Learning keys).
One more thing: Though not a fault of the a/v producer, I think it’s time that someone took a public position against the non-standardization of IR codes. Every device manufacturer keeps their IR codes “proprietary” as they want you to buy only their remotes. As a result, except for the few of us who buy the a/v producer and it’s ilk, people with even small home entertainment systems (TV, VCR, & Cable box) must fill their coffee table with a pile of remote controls. Though some manufacturers consider their proprietary designs to be a “competitive edge”, I doubt that any consumer really want to learn a different set of commands whenever they buy a new TV or receiver. Imagine if manufacturers agreed on the basic two-dozen or so commands (and associated IR codes) for each device, and (though I’m probably dreaming) a standard method of adding “advanced” codes to a remote. Then that “universal” remote that came with your TV or VCR would really live up to its description, allowing you to clear your table of remote “debris”.
As you can probably tell, I’m a stickler when it comes to remotes. When I sit down to my home entertainment system, I want to focus on what I’m watching, and not on choosing between and wrestling with my remotes. Though there’s certainly room for improvement, the a/v producer series is a does a respectable job providing the transparency I desire, and does so at a very reasonable price.
However, given the amount of “smarts” One For All was able to pack into this series of remotes at such a reasonable price (remember, the Cinema-7 lists for only $30), one must ask why a flexible unit like this is still so rare. I understand the manufacturer’s view that most people want a simple remote, and that no one wants to spend time programming or cracking a manual. Nevertheless, when someone makes the effort to buy a separate integrated remote, he or she should be rewarded with more than the simplistic pre-programmed devices that fill the market. With a little more interest and healthy competition, I’m hopeful that soon someone will design an integrated multi-device remote so intuitive that even my mom can easily use it, and so powerful that mom can throw her other remotes away.
A/V producer programming secrets: To get the advanced codes for your devices, you can contact the Hudson Access Group at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use the request form found at http://www.oneforall.com. Make sure you supply the complete device type, make, and model number of each unit.
To assign an “advanced code” to a key of your a/v producer, press the device key for the device that you want to control with the command code and then follow the instructions to Key Mover mode. However, when you are prompted to press the “From” key, instead press SETUP followed by the three-digit command code. Unfortunately, if you want to program several keys in the fashion you must go through the entire sequence to reach Key Mover mode for each key.