PERSONAL JOURNAL

A New Generation of Clickers
Operates 10 Separate Devices

By KATY MCLAUGHLIN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Rahul Mukhi, a student at Harvard Law School, has been through five remote controls this year. What does he spend his weekends shopping for? Another one.

Mr. Mukhi is in search of the ultimate in couch-potato bliss: a single clicker that controls everything from a DVD player to a surround-sound home entertainment system. But many current versions of these universal remotes fall short. Mr. Mukhi has one that can control his TiVo, TV set, and cable -- but not his VCR and DVD. Another one that came with the cable TV can't control his stereo.

For years, manufacturers have tried -- and generally failed -- to come up with a remote that would control everything in the room and be easy to use. Most were either too difficult to use, or too expensive to really catch on. Now, however, manufacturers are rolling out a new generation of remotes that they claim fix the problems that have plagued the devices in the past.

They're also cheaper. Some features that once cost as much as $500 -- like touch screens -- now can be had for well under $100. Makers are also beginning to make the devices compatible with additional types of machines, including personal video recorders and DVD players. Universal Electronics Inc., the company that makes the technology inside a number of remotes, has expanded the number of devices its remotes can handle by 15% this year.

The race to produce the perfect remote has accelerated this year, as the number of gadgets in American living rooms has increased, especially with the rise of the DVD player, now in 30% of American homes. This year, the average U.S. home has an estimated five to seven remotes piled on the coffee table, up from fewer than three in 2000.

Behind these advances is a battle for control of your living room. Cable-TV and satellite services are eager for you to stick with the clicker they provide, because to them it's not just a remote: It's a thumb-activated cash register. Their goal is to make it easy for you to buy extra services from them. As a result, cable companies are continually upgrading the remotes that they provide with cable services.

TRICKS FOR FINDING THAT LOST CLICKER
Of course, the main headache with remotes isn't technical at all -- it's when you lose the thing. Here are three tricks for keeping track of it:


The KeyRinger: Attach one unit to a key ring and another one to the remote. When you press one, the other emits a loud sound and flashing light. $29.95 for two at keyringer.com.

The Big Remote from Tek Partner: This remote is too hulking to slip between the sofa cushions. $39.95 at smarthome.com.

Inflatable Remote Duck: On eBay, search for "remote control holders." There were 30 when we checked -- from a $30 wooden box with a clock to a $5 blow-up duck that sits on the armchair.

PICKING THE RIGHT REMOTE
With a wide range of devices on the market, buyers should figure out how much complexity they really want.

Pay-per-view, for instance, now generates $925 million in annual revenue, according to Carmel Group, up 42% in the past six years. That's why cable-TV remotes often have special, brightly colored buttons for purchasing things like video on demand. All digital cable subscribers today receive multi-device remotes upon installation.

In all, there are now dozens of universal remotes -- and some have made significant progress over past models. Radio Shack's 6-in-1 Remote, powered by "Kameleon" technology, has a touch screen that illuminates only the buttons for the devices currently in use. This feature makes it easy to use the device, which costs about $60, and should make programming simpler.

Even so, the device isn't free of complications. When a product manager from the device's inventor, Universal Electronics Inc., demonstrated the product recently, she was not able to make it work with a Sharp VCR. A call to the customer help line -- with a 25-minute hold time -- didn't solve the problem. The company said this experience was atypical. But users of many different brands of universal remotes say experiences like this are the rule rather than the exception.

Another moderately priced new device, One for All's URC9910 Universal Remote, at around $60, offers a feature once reserved for the most expensive remotes: radio frequency. The unit comes with a radio receiver that allows users to stash it and some of their equipment in the closet and still control their equipment.

Ken Schoenberg, an attorney in Delray Beach, Fla., recently bought the One for All device and realized it was nearly as useful as a remote he paid $2,000 for two years ago. If he'd waited, he says, he'd have "saved tons of money." A self-proclaimed "gadget guy," he said programming the device was easy. However, some users may find its 60 buttons and dense instruction book daunting.

NOT SO REMOTE ANYMORE
Remotes have made big advances recently. These days, for under $100, you can get universal remotes that control:

TV
VCR
DVD
Cable Box
Audio Receiver
CD Player
TiVo
Home Theater
Laser Disk Player
Satellite Receiver
Curtains
Lights

The newly released Home Theatre Master MX-700 is a 20-device machine that comes with a smaller, easier sidekick, for "family members who aren't techno-weenies," says product manager Hank Eisengrein of manufacturer Universal Remote Control Inc. The downside to the unit is its price tag: $500 plus custom installation.

One of the most important remote-control advances is that many new units can now be programmed in two different ways. In the past, they were generally one or the other. "Programmable" remotes come with a booklet of codes that correspond to the devices in a consumer's living room. If a user wants to make the remote work with a Sony television, for example, he or she simply has to punch in the device code. This feature is a boon for users who lose their universal remote, because all they have to do when they buy a replacement is punch in the code. Consumers who want to keep it simple should make sure the remote they're buying is programmable.

"Learning" remotes can acquire functions from other remotes. For example, even though a universal remote may not possess the thumbs-up/thumbs-down feature needed to use TiVo, the user can program that function onto a button on the universal remote. Consumers who have the time and energy to customize their remotes will find the feature useful. However, for those who aren't so technically inclined, learning functions can be time-consuming.

For free pointers on how to work remotes -- or just a place to vent remote rage -- there is the Internet. Some sites let people consult with hobbyists who actually love figuring out how to make universal remotes work. The largest site, remotecentral.com, answers questions about every aspect of remote controls and provides reviews of medium to high-end models that extol their virtues (the MX-700 is "like a hand-held Ferrari") and critique their faults (the same model's "buttons have a tendency to collect finger oils").

But while these multidevice remotes are supposed to be making people's lives easier, that is not always the case. Remotecentral.com says it received 3.3 million page views last month, up from 2.3 million in the year-earlier month.


Picking the Right Remote

With a wide range of devices on the market, buyers should figure out how much complexity they really want.

REMOTE STRENGTH WEAKNESS WHO NEEDS IT
6-in-1 Remote Control, powered by "Kameleon." $59.99 at Radio Shack Touch-screen buttons light up only for the device being used. Works with only six devices. (If you want to add TiVo, you'll have to sacrifice something.) People with relatively simple systems who want a relatively simple remote. Controls 6 devices.
Home Theatre Master MX-700 from Universal Remote Control Inc., about $500 from custom installers This remote comes with a second smaller and simpler remote -- a kind of "Mini-Me" -- for baffled family members. At about $500 plus the price of custom installation, it better not disappear into the couch. Families with home theaters and divergent emotions about high-tech toys. Controls 20 devices.
Sony RM-VL1000, $79.99 at sonystyle.com Joystick works well with on-screen menus and for digital video recorders. Awkward shape; some important buttons placed thumb-crampingly low on the device. People with multiple devices, including a digital video recorder. Controls 12 devices.
One for All URC9910 Universal Remote, $69.88 at jandr.com Has radio frequency technology, which means you can stash some of your ugliest components in the closet and the remote will still work on them. A whopping 60 buttons makes this device look as intimidating as an airplane cockpit. Users who want radio frequency without paying top dollar for a high-end remote. Controls 8 devices.
Niles Intellicontrol Home Theatre Automation System, Available through Niles dealers; see nilesaudio.com Big buttons make navigation easy. It also knows when your equipment is on or off, which eliminates snafus when you activate a series of commands. At $1299, plus the price of custom installation, it costs more than many people's entire home-theater setups. People with high-end home-theater setups who don't want to spend any time or energy figuring out how the remote works. Controls 64 devices.

Write to Katy McLaughlin at katy.mclaughlin@wsj.com


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