A New Generation of Clickers
By KATY MCLAUGHLIN
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.
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.
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.
Write to Katy McLaughlin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated December 17, 2002 12:31 a.m. EST