The search for the perfect remote control

By Bruce Schwartz, USA TODAY - 02/28/2001

At last count, there were 28 remote controls in my home. All types of remotes. Remotes that "learn" from other remotes. Universal remotes that promise to control any gadget. Huge home-theater remotes. Tiny camcorder remotes so I can tape myself with my family.

Only one of those remotes had the buttons I cherished the most. The broken one, of course.

Any TV lover with children will appreciate the feature those favorite buttons controlled: two-tuner picture-in-picture (PIP). It lets you spin through channels in a small window in the corner of the TV screen, or watch a show there, while everyone else views another program on the main screen.

PIP is common on today's big-screen sets. Fewer have two tuners, without which you have to depend on a VCR to supply the small window with a second program.

It would seem a simple matter these days to find a spiffy new off-the-shelf replacement. But "learning" remotes can't learn without a teacher — which means that in order to replace a remote, the old remote must still be operational. "Universal" remotes turn out rarely to include PIP controls, and universally lack the buttons that change the channels of tuner No. 2.

On the advice of a service rep, I ordered an exact replacement from the TV set maker before Labor Day. I canceled the order just before Christmas when it still hadn't arrived.

Get me a super-remote, Pronto

Fortunately, at just about that time, a remote control arrived for review. Not just any remote, but the ultra-deluxe Philips Pronto Intelligent Remote Control. The high-concept remote, which substitutes an electronic touch screen for the usual array of buttons, promises to control anything you own, from the TV screen's contrast to your living room curtains (if your house is so equipped).

Indeed. For a retail price of $400, it should not only draw the drapes but also make the popcorn. (Philips recently previewed a version with a full-color screen and more memory for an eye-popping $999.)

Think of the Pronto as a Palm for your TV. It's thicker and larger than the popular Palm PDA, but the Pronto's front plate, like the Palm's, is a constantly changing LCD screen. Separate buttons along the right edge control volume, channel and mute; two buttons at the base are customizable. All else operates from the touch screen, which displays whatever controls you need at the moment.

Out of the box, this is the most flexible, adaptable remote I've seen. The instruction manual is rather dense, but for the basics of setup, the Pronto is pretty much self-explanatory.

You "add" a device — a TV set, DVD player, stereo or whatever — through on-screen buttons. Then you roll through a comprehensive list of manufacturers and choose one of the available infrared code sets for that maker. Alternately, you can type in a name via a tiny but clever on-screen keyboard that zooms into a group of letters when you touch an area, and zooms back after you hit the letter you want.

Unlike many other remotes, the Pronto offers a larger range of choices for a more precise match to your TV model.

The control screens are fully graphical, with "buttons" of varying shapes and sizes. Most devices' controls take up more than one screen; you flip through the "pages" to access the full range of controls. You also can program a single button to initiate a series of actions, called a "macro" — to turn on the TV, switch to DVD, turn it on and open the DVD player's drawer, for example.

Your PC and remote, in sync

But its resemblance to a Palm goes deeper. The Pronto connects to your PC with an included serial cable. You can then "sync" them, using customizing functions included on ProntoEdit software. You can program each screen, button by button, and customize the look and actions of each. You can create personal pages of favorite channels for each member of the family. You can even replace the on-screen buttons with channel logos, so that when your youngster taps Nickelodeon, that's where he or she goes.

You can mimic in great detail any remote control for any home entertainment unit, even draw or scan in your own artwork — making the remote resemble, say, a Star Trek tricorder. And you can then save these settings as files, and share them online.

That's how I came across I never dreamed folks could get so worked up about remotes, but this site — which does an outstanding job with all things remote, from detailed reviews to message boards — draws thousands of visitors and postings.

I created my own Pronto screens, using clip art (in Windows' standard "bitmap" format) downloaded from the site. I installed detailed remotes created by other users. In all, oddly satisfying — in a geeky sort of way.

PIP-PIP, hooray, it works

The key issue, of course, was whether the Pronto could handle my PIP. It did, on page 3 of 5 for my Toshiba TV.

But the Pronto has some significant drawbacks, beyond the stratospheric price. The software and instructions are obviously not designed for casual users; the program is in dire need of a cutesy on-screen "wizard" to guide users through customization. Its bulbous shape, rounded edges and smooth metallic finish feel clumsy and unsteady in the hand; I always felt as if I were about to drop it.

More significant (Pronto owners' obvious passions aside), for most of us, the care and attention Pronto requires flies in the face of what we use remotes for: so we can slump on our sofas, mindlessly channel-surfing. It's not a pretty picture, but it's true. The Pronto is so cutting-edge that it's distracting.

It's annoying to page through screens to find one specific button. Worse, to hit that button you have to look at the remote when you'd rather be looking at the TV. The best remotes operate by touch, not sight. Without physical buttons for most functions, the Pronto offers no tactile feedback. (The buttons do beep when pressed, though.)

Which made the Pronto the finest remote my family and I ever hated to use.

A serendipitous discovery

That's about the time I wandered into a local RadioShack and noticed a handsome remote control. The 6-in-1 Smart A/V Remote, at $30, is one of the most reasonably priced universal models with PIP buttons (though no two-tuner controls).

It has none of the fancy features of the Pronto — no screen, no PC hookup, no files to share. Nonetheless, it's well-balanced and shaped to fit nicely in the hand, with a textured surface that's grippy, not slippery. Buttons are of varying shapes and sizes, easily recognized by touch and grouped by function. Though the labels are somewhat small to my aging eyes, the buttons have helpful backlighting for clarity in darkened rooms.

Best of all, across the top are four "learning" buttons that can be trained by other remotes. I'd train two of them to be my two-tuner buttons. What would I use to teach them? The Pronto, of course.

So once again, my family and I are satisfied, mindless consumers of network programming. The RadioShack remote is our constant companion. The Pronto is headed back to its manufacturer.

And I've found that the fans at enthuse about the RadioShack remote nearly as much as the Pronto. On the message boards, they even post tips and tricks and secret codes to punch in for obscure purposes. Think I'll head to the Web site now and play with the remote for a while. There's nothing on TV anyway.

Bruce Schwartz is the Life Technology editor for USA TODAY.

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