Has the universal remote had its day?

Last updated 14:00 17/07/2014
ENGAGING: ThinkGeek's Star Trek Phaser looks like the universe's greatest universal remote.

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With the rise of smart TVs and clever gadgets, do you still need that one remote to rule them all?

OPINION: A few years ago I would have said that a decent universal remote control was an essential addition to any tech-savvy lounge room, to help you escape the mountain of remotes piled up on your coffee table. Even if you know exactly how your lounge room is wired up, your loved ones shouldn't need a degree in electrical engineering just so they can turn on the television at the end of the day.

A universal remote can certainly help ease tensions, plus something like the Star Trek phaser universal remote from Think Geek would make a classy addition to any lounge room – it even makes the sound effects.

I've long been a fan of Logitech's Harmony universal remote controls, because they're highly flexible. Logitech maintains a database of thousands of AV devices, and if you get stuck the Logitech remote can actually learn the commands from your existing remotes. You can program complicated macros to configure every device in your lounge room with a single button press.

My old trusty old Logitech Harmony 785 universal remote finally gave up the ghost this week, having been knocked off the coffee table and dropped on the floor more times than I care to remember over the last seven years. It got to the point where even my kids weren't overly apologetic when the remote control hit the deck.

After all the rough and tumble it was actually a worn-out button which finally brought about my Harmony's demise. To tell the truth, I pulled it apart in an effort to mend the button and managed to "fix" it beyond repair – but it was already living on borrowed time and the charge cradle was flaky. Its time had come. Unfortunately newer model Harmony remotes tend to offer fewer features than the old ones so, rather than buy a new one, I've dug up an old Harmony 525 to take the 785's place.

I wouldn't dream of living without a universal remote, because my television only has two HDMI inputs. One is hooked up to an HDMI amplifier with four HDMI sockets, and the other TV input is connected to a four-way HDMI switch.

To watch most of the devices in my lounge room you need to turn on the television and set it to the right input, then turn on the amp or switch and change it to the correct input. Next you need to find the remote for the device you actually want to watch, such as the TiVo, Blu-ray player, media centre or Apple TV. The thought of doing all this manually every time I flop down on the couch doesn't thrill me.

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While a universal remote is mandatory for my lounge room, they're becoming less important in lounge rooms with all-in-one devices like smart TVs and Blu-ray players with internet access. When your devices handle more tasks, you switch between them far less often. At this point you might find the basic universal features built into the supplied remote controls are up to the job. More so if you're abandoning optical disc players and Personal Video Recorders in favour of internet video.

You can program the Apple TV streaming media player to recognise other remotes. You might use one of the spare universal options on your TV remote, such as VCR. You can also control the Apple TV from an iPhone, plus many smart TVs and Blu-ray players now offer mobile apps for driving everything across your wi-fi network.

A growing number of Android devices feature built-in infrared blasters, or else you can find Bluetooth-enabled IR blasters which let you drive everything from a handheld device. Meanwhile Google's Chromecast doesn't even come with a remote control, because you drive it from your computer, smartphone or tablet.

Pulling my phone out of my pocket and launching an app to control my lounge room would be a lot more troublesome than reaching for a universal remote. It would also require surrendering a handheld device to my kids every time they want to watch something. But if one AV device is meeting all your needs, and you're the only one who is dependent on it, then a universal remote might seem like overkill.

Has your lounge room become more complicated or less in the internet age? Do you need one remote to rule them all?

Read more posts from Adam Turner's Gadgets on the Go blog.


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