It's not so much the remote-control clutter on my coffee table that bothers me. It's that my houseguests can't figure out the right combination of clickers they need to listen to music, play a movie, or watch TV.
The solution is yet another remote control. This one can be programmed to issue a series of short, invisible bursts of infrared light that turn on each component and configure the system for these common chores with the press of a single button. I tested programmable remotes from Philips (PHG), Sony (SNE), and RCA as well as an interesting new contender from a Canadian startup--all priced from $100 to $200 ($20 to $70 cheaper from online vendors).
That's a lot to pay for something you're accustomed to getting for free. But these are not the universal remotes that come with each new audio component you buy or that you can pick up at Best Buy (BBY) or Home Depot (HD) for $10 or $20. I've tried those. Theoretically at least, they can learn the infrared codes of all your other remotes. But either they don't have enough buttons for every must-have command or they're even more difficult to figure out than those they're intended to replace.
The remotes that I tried have a small array of buttons for the most-used controls, such as volume, and buttons to navigate the menus of most cable and satellite-TV receivers. What distinguishes them from their low-cost brethren is a big, backlit touch screen that changes for each audio or video component. And you can write short programs called macros, then store those commands on virtually any button or key on the screen.
My test for these remotes: Could they enable my system to tape a TV program to my TiVo hard-disk video recorder from a single button? That means turning on all of the necessary components, navigating to TiVo's "now playing" page on the TV screen, rewinding the tape in the VCR, and setting it to recognize TiVo as the source.
All four remotes could handle it, but with varying degrees of ease. On RCA's RCU1000B, the most limited of the batch, macros can be only 20 keystrokes long, so I had to divide my task between two macro keys, and only nine keys can be programmed this way. Also, you can't move keys around the touch screen or make your own labels for them, other than the three or four standard ones RCA provides for each key.
That's not a problem with Sony's RM-AV3000 or Philips' ProntoNeo ($200). Store macros on any key, and one of Sony's screens has a telephone-like keypad that lets you write alphanumeric labels for each key. You can program the Philips remote like the others--having it memorize the keys you punch. You can also hook it to your PC via a serial cable to customize the programs, screens, and keys.
There's a lot to like about the new kid on the block, the Harmony remote ($200) from Intrigue Technologies of Mississauga, Ont. It's about the size and heft of a cell phone, compared with Sony and RCA remotes that are as big as a paperback book. After you register the make and model numbers of all your equipment on the company's Web site, it programs itself for such common activities as "watch TV" and "play a tape" by downloading the codes to your remote over a USB cable. It also downloads a TV program guide so you can see what's playing on your favorite channels by glancing at the remote.
But the Harmony still has kinks. Once you get beyond the custom programs, such as "watch TV," you have to use an awkward thumbwheel to scroll through individual functions such as changing channels, instead of pressing keys.
For now at least, stick with the Philips or Sony units. They may be a bit tedious to set up. But you have to do it only once to get every command you need--in a way that even your houseguests can figure out. By Larry Armstrong