Fall buying guide 2005
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Universal appeal
Spend Tech: Our expert checks out the latest batch of remote controls that can run all your A/V.
September 26, 2005: 4:22 PM EDT
By Wilson Rothman, MONEY Magazine
Photo GallerylaunchSee more photos

NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - So you have a remote to turn on the TV, another to power up the cable box and a third to control the volume on your audio receiver. And don't forget the ones for the DVD, the TiVo and the VCR.

All told, you might have half a dozen remotes cluttering up your coffee table (assuming you can find them all).

There is a solution to this: It's called a universal remote. While they've been around for years, universal remotes were in the past used almost exclusively by home theater fanatics who had the skill of engineers and the patience of "Sopranos" fans.

With older models, you had to punch in one of several three-digit codes for each component, hoping that you'd stumble upon the right combination. And if you wanted to add a single button that could, say, power up the audio receiver and the CD player, you'd have to set aside an afternoon to program a series of timed commands known as macros.

New improvements

Fortunately, the latest remotes are far easier to use. While there are still some code-based models in stores, many new remotes, such as Logitech's Harmony series and Philips' RC9800i, provide setup wizards that ask you questions in plain English about your audio and video gear -- no codes required.

The Harmony handhelds connect to your PC, so programming is done with a few mouse clicks. With the Philips, you input information on its touchscreen.

Both remotes also come preloaded with multiproduct macros ("Watch TV," "Play a DVD"), so all you have to do is tell the remote what models you have and you can fire up your whole home theater setup at the touch of a button.

I'm a tech reporter. My wife Jenn isn't. So I drafted her to try setting up and using five of the latest remote controls, from a $50 unit that you still program using codes to an $800 model that is installed by a professional who will come to your house to program all your audiovisual equipment.

Jenn not only obliged, she miraculously didn't hate the process. "I don't know if my idea of a fun Saturday night is programming a universal remote," she says, "but the whole experience wasn't as painful as I expected."

Our test

Test details My wife Jenn set up each remote to work with our TV, audio receiver, DVD player and cable box/personal video recorder. We also timed how long it took to perform basic functions such as playing DVDs or watching saved TV shows.

Tip Rechargeable batteries are nice until you leave the remote off its docking cradle and it loses its charge. Regular batteries are better.

What to look for

The Harmony 520 has tons of features, but it stands out by including three that are key to any good remote control.

  • Step-by-step setup in plain English via a PC
  • Combination commands that activate several components at once
  • Small, easy-to-grip size, with buttons you can feel in the dark

See the complete test results and photo gallery.  Top of page

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