“Universal Remote” Is An Oxymoron

One of the more frustrating aspects of getting older and wiser is that I am having to give up some of my most cherished beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This week’s top five disappointments are:

  • Congress-critters really did steal all of the money from the Social Security Trust Fund to get themselves re-elected, and the whole pyramid scheme will collapse in the next few years. That’s why so many of them are retiring now rather than face the music.
  • Despite the hysterical rants of survivalists and others, there is no real shortage of ammunition, and the government is not buying it all up to keep it out of the hands of honest gun owners. Our local Walmart has plenty.
  • My editors have glommed onto the fact that I always turn in my articles two days late, and have simply adjusted their calendars to demand them two days earlier than they are really needed.
  • The new Twinkies don’t taste as good as the old ones. And let’s not even discuss Moon Pies.
  • There is no such thing as a “universal” remote for your television system.

Of these five, the last is the most vexing for an old geek like myself.

I’ve spent 40 years and untold hundreds of dollars buying “universal” remote controls that promise to run everything in my modest TV system (a television, Blu Ray player, DirecTV and a sound bar). I’ve fiddled, and tweaked, and made myself look like a complete idiot to friends and loved ones by insisting that there is, there must be, a programmable learning remote control that will actually enable me to get rid of the four remotes I have to use every time I want to turn my television on and watch anything. But there is not.

And the first person who suggests I buy yet another Logitech Harmony remote because it will do these things…well, remember that I have plenty of ammo from my local Walmart!

There are four major things going on here, all of which are worth noting before you make your next major technology investment for the living room.

  • Home entertainment companies are in a complete and panicked meltdown over the current recession, because consumers are not buying new stuff. Consumers are making do with the old, and when they do buy their decisions are based more on price than anything else. This means that manufacturers who want to keep their assembly lines running have to cut corners wherever they can. And one big way to do this is to use non-standard, throw-away codes to control their equipment with their own remotes. They don’t use an easily-duplicated set of control codes to save a buck on the cost of the unit.
  • Makers of the primary systems (Comcast for cable, for example, or DirecTV for satellite) could care less if you can use their remotes to control anything else. They make their units do a good job with their own set-top boxes…but making it easy for you to use a DVD player or Blu Ray device just reduces the revenue they can nail you for in pay-per-view movies.
  • Creating a true “universal” remote is a waste of time, since most consumers won’t shell out the additional $25 for one, and even if they did would find programming the darned thing to be about two geek levels above their abilities.
  • No matter what you do or wish for, your basic “universal” remote will only do about half of the things that the dedicated remote for a given device can do.

This presents some challenges for geeks and ordinary homeowners alike, because it likely means that there are a few things that you simply won’t be able to do without using multiple remotes. But there are some things worth trying:

  • Go basic. Buy a smart TV with many of the applications built in. If you buy a TV with SRS Tru-sound and Tru-volume or other similar capabilities, you can ditch your subwoofer and surround sound system, including the sound bar.
  • If you buy a basic PC and hook it into the second HDMI port on the TV, you can use it as a media center, dvd player and burner, blu ray player and burner, and Internet browser.
  • A different option is to buy a game station – PS3 and Xbox both do well for this. They will play blu-ray and dvd files, not to mention NetFlix and YouTube. They can be had used for as little as $150…and you can play games.

The point is that we keep looking for universal remote controls to manage all of the peripheral stuff we attach to our basic television system…when we should in fact be turn the proposition on its head by buying a device that multi-tasks and then working the remote into the mix to handle both.

I doubt that I will give up my search for a true universal remote. I am, after all, a geek on a mission. But there is no reason why everyone else should suffer, waiting on my results. Or trying to figure out why pushing “menu” on the remote requires a trip to the emergency room in a full-blown anxiety attack.

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