Manufacturers Sell Convenience
With Universal Remote Control

By Lee Gomes

IN THE BEGINNING, there was TV. Then came stereos, VCRs, satellite boxes and DVDs. And with each of them came a remote control. Pretty soon there was no room left on the coffee table for those big picture books about autumn in Tuscany.

Now, technology has come to the rescue with the "universal remote control." These not only can replace all your other remote controls with a single unit, but many of them can be programmed to fire up an entire shelf full of consumer electronics with just the touch of a button.

These universal remotes aren't for everyone, and not just because they are often expensive. I invited over a group of computer engineers -- who I imagined to be the gadgets' natural constituency -- and let them play with the half dozen or so universal remotes I had gathered for this article.

I was surprised by the extent to which they were put off by the complexities of the devices. They also were quick to spot various design flaws. One of my guests, Yaroslav Faybishenko, 23 years old and regarded as one of Silicon Valley's top programmers in the Java computing language, used words like "awkward" to describe the handling of one of them, the Marantz RC-1200.

AT FIRST, I WAS of a similar mindset, believing that remote controls more powerful than my first Apple II computer were a little too clever for their own good. But in the course of testing three units -- at the low, medium and high ends of the price spectrum -- it didn't take long to get me hooked. Advanced electronics in the service of unbridled convenience -- who could resist? I ended up spending much of a Sunday learning about one particular remote just to spare myself the utter drudgery of lifting two separate remotes to watch TV.

You'll find a large crowd of the similarly afflicted at www.remotecentral.com, where you can check out reviews, read FAQs, pick up cool remote slang like "punch through" and join in community debates, such as whether macro pause buttons should be activated after a one-second or a two-second delay.

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You can also meet people like Rob Crowe, an Englishman now working as a computer programmer in Illinois, who has made it his life's work to popularize the 15-1994 remote control from Radio Shack. This is a proletarian $39 unit that Mr. Crowe maintains does as much as remotes costing five or 10 times as much. Such is his dedication that he has written his own manual, available on his Web site, www.hifi-remote.com, that describes many of the advanced features that Radio Shack inexplicably left out of its own instruction book.

I couldn't get the 15-1994 to work with my Rotel receiver, but the various Radio Shack devices apparently work fine for many people. Mr. Crowe, however, says to avoid the $79 model 15-1995, as it doesn't do as much as the cheaper one.

At the opposite end of the product spectrum is the Pronto from Philips ($399 list; and if that's not enough, a $999 color-screen model is on the way). The Pronto is shaped like a Palm Pilot and is so advanced that hard-core remote buffs use it to gather diagnostic information about other remote controls.

Despite the Pronto's elegant engineering, I can't imagine making it my regular remote. Most of its controls aren't physical buttons, but are instead displayed on the unit's screen. You thus have to look closely at the Pronto to use it, rather than keep your eyes on the road, where they belong, and operate with your thumb.

IN THE END, I developed a fondness for the Home Theater Master MX-500, a $189 device that has quickly achieved This Year's Model status on remotecentral.com. Without dispensing with the familiar feel of a traditional remote, the MX-500 has an enormous amount of smarts built in and lets you program just about any button to do just about anything you want it to.

In 15 minutes, for example, I was able to duplicate all of the functions of my TiVo remote control on my MX-500, which I now prefer to the TiVo original. I even was able to program a button to fast forward my TiVo by about 30 seconds to skip over commercials, a feature TiVo omitted from its remote control in order to placate advertisers.

Since choosing the MX-500, I have been on a remote-control programming binge. Besides mapping my TiVo and my various other living-room gadgets, I also use it to control my Bose alarm clock, which no longer needs its own credit-card-size remote control. And I am scheming about ways to use the MX-500 to play MP3s on my PC. Stay tuned.

In the course of exploring these remote worlds, I came across another remarkable invention: remote control "extenders." These allow remotes to work through walls so that you can, say, sit in your bedroom and turn the volume down on the stereo in your living room.

Radio Shack sells these for $50. Each set is a pair of 4.5-inch-high black pyramids, giving them more of a techno-kitchy look than I would have preferred. But they really work -- and with any remote control. The first pyramid converts the light pulses from your remote to a radio signal that is broadcast to the second unit, which converts it back to light and beams it at the appliance you are controlling.

I already have two pairs of them. Coupled with my MX-500, I am beginning to think I should probably get outside more.

Send e-mail to lee.gomes@wsj.com. Walt Mossberg is on vacation and will return next week.


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