Monday, March 15, 2010

March 2010 Tech

Happy Zappin’ – (Part I of II)

by Radames Pera – Tech Editor

So you’ve got a TV, a DVD/Blu-ray player, a satellite/cable box, a surround sound receiver, and maybe a VCR or CD changer still hanging around – that means you’ve also got a motley crew of remote controls scattered about to run each one. Maybe you’ve gotten one of those felt-lined “remote corrals” in the middle of your coffee table ‘cause somewhere Momma taught you to put things back wherethey “live.” That’s all very nice, but you still have to reach for different remotes all the time – and how cool is that really?

Regardless, it’s never been fun exactly to turn the whole system on and off, particularly if you don’t happen to be “the techie” in the household. And when that person’s not around, there’s a high probability the system doesn’t get much use at all, right?

Well, this article is intended to help – both the techies and the technically-challenged among us.

Consolidating remotes, that is getting one remote to do the job of two or more would certainly simplify things a bit, wouldn’t it? How about one that works them all – wouldn’t that be awesome?!

What about a remote that can turn the whole system on and off with the push of a single button? “Is that even possible?” Yes, it is. “It probably costs a fortune.” Actually, it’s less than you might think. Ask yourself how important is real ease-of-use (enjoyment) and peace of mind (no tension around the remotes) to you? If you happen to be the technically-inclined one, think of how nice would it be to stop getting those phone calls every time someone at home wants to use the system.

Let’s start with “free” and go from there. “Free? Nothing’s free,” you say. Well, if you’re a Time-Warner customer, you might be one of many who don’t realize that your cable box came with a remote that can control basic functions on about five different AV components, even raise & lower the volume on the AV receiver! Though the techie in your life could easily program this remote, you can call Time-Warner’s customer service yourself, get a live person on the phone and have them walk you through the fairly simple process: pressing two buttons on the remote at the same then time and entering a 4-digit number… something you do every day already. Before making the call, be sure to have the brand names of each component written down first. Remember that you’ll only get the most basic controls over those components; you’ll still need to access the other remotes for more involved functions.

If doing away with remote wrangling completely is appealing to you, paying something to achieve that end starts to make sense, doesn’t it? (Particularly if the idea of turning everything on and off with one button gives you and your significant other tingles.) You’re both beginning to realize that the cable remote isn’t going to cut it…not by a long shot.

Let’s address the “power user” now – one who changes source inputs on the TV and AV receiver a lot, regularly switches between different surround modes, and occasionally fiddles with the black-level output on the DVD player – for them it’s a different game entirely: only a robust programmable remote will do. And for the person who lives with the “power user”, the right remote can empower you, too.

Line-of-sight (IR – infra-red) remotes can be divided into three categories:

“Dedicated” are the ones that came with the equipment. Some, like the TV remote for example, may have a few extra buttons on it to control a same-brand DVD player. Occasionally, a remote will come with one of the better AV receivers that can be programmed to control limited functions on other-brand devices – though they all do it rather awkwardly at best.

“Programmable” are ones you can buy at an electronics store for anywhere between $8 and $300. The cheaper ones will work like the cable remote, while some of the expensive ones require you to go online, register, and then go through a tedious series of questions before you hook up a USB cable between your computer and the remote to download your equipment configuration into it. When properly set up, these can work pretty well, and even do some trouble-shooting with you, but they’re limited to the way the remote designers think you should interact with your equipment, leaving little room for real customization – and it is only with such customization that a remote can truly serve your needs, rather than the manufacturer’s.

“Custom Programmable” – terms like “bees knees”, “badass”, and “why didn’t we do this in the first place?” come to mind. Unless you’re a talented enthusiast, you will need a professional AV expert to program this kind of remote – but the result will be so worth it. Remotes like these fall into the $175-and-up category, plus an hour or two of the programmer’s time. Think of your friends, relatives, or even the baby-sitter for a moment – imagine handing them a remote and saying, “Just push this button to turn everything on, and this one to turn it all off.” Then ask how much that convenience is worth.

So far, we’ve only looked at IR remotes that must be pointed at the equipment to do anything. But what if you don’t like seeing a hodgepodge of electronics in front of you all the time? Or if the system is in a nice cabinet but you hate that the door always has to be open to run it? There’s also the spectre of Carpal Tunnel from always angling your wrist just so each time to change a channel. Furthering the cause of health, décor and convenience are remotes that use radio frequency (RF, like your wireless phone) to talk to equipment that is completely out of sight! Only higher end remotes have this capability. And while the RF accessory adds about $100 to the equation, being able to look at the remote at eye level and not having to point it in any particular direction is pretty sweet, indeed.

So this has been the primer. In Part II next month, we’ll break it all down into a few specific brands and models, the pros and cons of each, and home in on the remote that’s exactly right for you. Remember, happy zappin’ is the goal here!


Over the past 22 years, Radames has professionally designed and installed hundreds of fine home theaters and multi-room audio systems across America. Please address questions and comments to:

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