Setting Up Programmable Remote Controls

First of all this is not intended to be a tutorial on any given remote, but rather a discussion on the different types of programmable remotes and the capabilities available to help you know what to look for in choosing a remote.  This first installment is going to cover the handheld conventional style programmable remotes that primarily use buttons, some combined with small LCD displays, and the touch screen type will be covered at a later date as I wanted to concentrate on the more affordable and popular types first.

There are several makers of fully programmable remotes and to go through in detail how to exactly program each would be a truly lengthy document, so this essay will concentrate on a single remote, the Home Theater Master by Universal Remote Controls, Inc. model MX-850.

I prefer the MX-850 or the Logitech Harmony 880 style remotes because they are a very nice blend of LCD display technology with a full function programmable remote.  I prefer this style over the touch screen type remotes, like the Philips Pronto or the Home Theater Master 3000 series, because they have the necessary basic groups of buttons that is needed to operate most every piece of equipment you will have in your system.  The MX-850 has the basic VOLume up/down, MUTE, CHannel up/down and PREV CH as well as the numeric buttons in the Device Basic Control Group, complete transport buttons and menu navigation buttons.  Buttons for these basic functions being present on the remote as opposed to buried on some touch screen I have found to be the primary strength of the MX-850 over the touch screen types.

Now don't get me wrong, the touch screen style remotes have their place, but all in all the MX-850 style overall is a better application for most people.  First of all they are less costly than the touch screen and also the presence of the buttons not only make the remote easier to use, (hard to operate a lot of touch screens without a stylus due to fat fingers) but also better mimic the remotes people are used to using.  

I have found that many people, especially women, have memorized their channel numbers for the particular programming service they use and would really rather just punch in a channel number to switch channels rather than having to find the channel icon in a series of touch screen displays, or having to switch to a numeric keypad screen to enter a channel number.  I have yet found a person that prefers a touch screen's tactile feel to a real button as well.

MX-850 Description

The MX-850 is shown to the right.  It features a pair of power buttons - one for ON and one for OFF along with the display group of buttons in the top portion of the remote.

The display group of buttons feature 10 buttons arraigned 5 on each side of the display and the idea behind these buttons is the display serves as the label for the button.  In the example to the right, the button to the right of the display labeled TV would switch the system to the TV page when pressed.  Same for the other buttons.  This is a critical feature required to have a truly universal programmable remote.  Without the ability to both change the function and the label of some buttons will restrict a remote to only being able to perform the operations furnished by the remote manufacturer, so bear this in mind when choosing a remote.

What is great about the MX-850 is it features enough buttons to be able to perform most of the operations each device requires for the basic control, volume, channel change, mute, play, fast forward, rewind, pause, etc, just like the non programmable universal remotes.

MX-850 Programmable Remote

Now we will go into the design thought process that should be gone through when designing your system.  Issues that should be paramount are those that relate to how you will use the system rather than the individual components within the system.  Too many times a MX-850 remote is set up with the components only in mind and not much thought as to how the system will be used.  What you end up with often is a remote that requires unnecessary switching from one device to another to control your system and not much better in operation than a good non-programmable universal remote control would provide.

At this point it should be explained the difference between a device oriented remote and an activity oriented remote.  The device oriented remotes only perform the necessary functions for the device selected whereas the activity oriented remotes control the system for the activity selected.  The difference being when a given activity is selected the various groups of buttons will actually control different components.  For example, if we choose to watch a DVD as an activity, the transport keys would operate the DVD, but the volume controls would operate the TV or surround amplifier.  Many non-programmable universal remotes will have a certain degree of this capability in their setup, but they don't have the flexibility to cover all of the bases as will be covered as we go along.

The MX-850 style remotes can be either, but are much more powerful if programmed to do both.  The following is a sample programming session for a MX-850.  The software for using a personal computer to program a MX-850 can be downloaded from the site or using these links:

Owner's Manual - PDF Format - 304K

Editor Software - Version 1.12.255 - 7.18MB
Programming Manual - PDF Format - 691k
MX Editor Tutorial Video - 10.7MB

After you have installed MX Editor, please use the "Live Update" feature to ensure you have the latest version.

You can download the software and make a configuration without having to buy a MX-850 to see if  it is something you feel comfortable with.  The software will operate as an emulator as far as changing from page to page.  Also if you want to download the sample configuration used in this essay click: Sample Configuration

Basic Philosophy
The philosophy of the MX-850 style remotes is to use the display group buttons to select either a device to be controlled, or to select an activity that the system is to perform, like the display group shown to the right. When the DVD button is selected, the remote could be transformed into a clone of the remote that came with the DVD, or the remote buttons can be programmed to operate all of the devices required to watch DVDs.

Basic Setup
The starting point for the MX-850 is the MAIN page.  Anytime the MAIN PAGE 1 can be called up by pressing the MAIN button located just below the LCD display.  There can be up to 2 MAIN pages and the MAIN PAGE 2 is accessed by pressing the PAGE button just to the left of the MAIN button.  I like to put all of the devices on MAIN PAGE 2  rather than having any devices on MAIN PAGE 1.  This allows the MAIN PAGE 1 of  to be used for the selection of the activities of your system.  Following this method will allow up to a total of up to10 activities on MAIN PAGE 1 and up to 10 devices (components) on page 2.  In order to accommodate this setup, an empty (no devices) configuration is started with rather than starting with any devices because if you select any devices they will be placed on MAIN PAGE 1 by default.  It is easy enough to configure the remote from scratch, so there is nothing particularly to be gained by selecting to add the devices during setup anyway.

The empty configuration will have only a single page on the MAIN PAGE, so we want to go ahead and add the second page for adding our devices.  Next go to MAIN PAGE 1 and enter the activities you want your system to be able to perform.  For this sample configuration I have chosen these 10 activities:

  • HDTV - Watch OTA HDTV

  • SAT - Watch satellite TV

  • DVD - Watch a DVD

  • VCR - Watch A video tape

  • XM - Listen to XM satellite radio

  • AM - Listen to AM radio

  • FM - Listen to FM radio

  • CD - Listen to CDs

  • DVR - Watch from DVR

  • CAM - Watch camcorder

As you add the button labels you will notice there is a page created for that button also.  Every active button on the main pages will have a page that the remote will jump to when the button is pressed.

Then go to MAIN PAGE 2 and enter the components in your system. For the devices I have chosen these:

  • AUDIO - Bose Lifestyle 18
  • CD - Pioneer 5 CD changer
  • DVD - Zenith XBV-343
  • VCR - Zenith XBV-343
  • SAT - Zenith HD-SAT-520
  • DVR - Cyberhome DVD burner
  • TV - Zenith Plasma
  • ATSC - LG tuner
  • <empty button>
  • SAT2 - Hughes GAEB0 for XM

To select the devices once entered in the button name box, go to the Program>2 IR Database menu selection and find/select your manufacturer and model in the menu for each device.

Now when you choose the IR database for your devices you will notice there are one or more pages added to the configuration.  These pages will contain all of the buttons required to correspond to every button on the remote for that device.  Any buttons that are not a dedicated purpose button, those being the dedicated buttons on the MX-850, will be placed on the LCD display.  For example, since the MX-850 does not have a set of disc select buttons, the disc select buttons for the CD changer in the sample configuration we are discussing would be added as display buttons in this case on page 2 of the CD device pages:

Notice the only buttons that are located on the LCD display button area are those that are not already on the remote.  For the stop, play, pause functions you would use the dedicated buttons on the MX-850 in the transport area for those purposes.

I have created the terms activity pages and device pages to denote a difference between pages that will hold the device button IR codes and pages that will be used to control an activity.  These terms are not used in the MX-850 documentation.

Now it is possible to place the device buttons on the MAIN PAGE 1 but if you do so you will jump to the device pages rather than an activity page.  I prefer to create activity pages where I can put activity related functions on the display buttons.  Also it allows the activity pages to be less complicated than the device pages usually are.  It also allows the buttons that may be wanted from the devices to be more easily arraigned to where you would like them.  Using the CD changer device screens shown above as an example, we may wish to have only the DISC1 through DISC5 buttons on our activity display and on PAGE 1 rather than PAGE 2.  Now it is true that the buttons could be rearranged on the device screens to accomplish this, but it is a complicated process to move buttons around between pages.  Sort of like working a Rubiks Cube.  Besides I like to shield the wife from buttons she may never need when I know I can get to them through MAIN PAGE 2

Now we have the activity and device pages configured we need to allow control of the selected devices on the activity pages.  The limits, by the way, are 2 pages for the MAIN and up to 4 pages for page groups accessed from the MAIN pages.  Then there are 5 pages available by pressing the FAV button that is located to the right of the MAIN button.  Here is a block diagram - flow chart of our sample configuration.

Notice each device will have a different number of pages as they have as many as needed to cover all of the buttons required by the device. 

Macro Programming
In order to be able to fully control your system, the MX-850 has the ability for most buttons to be programmed with a macro.  Macros are a series of IR commands and/or other operations required to make the button perform as needed.  An example of a macro program for a button would be the buttons on the MAIN PAGE 1 or activities page.  Each button when pushed will output a series of commands in order to set up your system to operate for that activity.  Picking the button that is labeled DVD.  When that button is pushed the remote is programmed to perform the following steps:

  1. Switch the TV input to the DVD

  2. Turn the DVD player is on. (if it is on, it will stay on)

  3. Switch the DVD/VCR player to output DVD

  4. Switch the surround system to the DVD input

  5. Set the aspect ratio to 16:9 on the TV

  6. Jump to the DVD activity page.

Once on an activity page, that page's buttons should be mapped to operate the devices as needed.  For the DVD activity the following would be mapped:

  • The volume group would be mapped to control the surround system.

  • The transport group would be mapped to control the DVD player.

  • Any special buttons you use frequently are mapped into the display buttons.  This might be buttons such as ZOOM, ANGLE, SEARCH, etc.

Other buttons that may be used on the activity pages might be for favorite channels.  Quite often I will use the PAGE 2 through PAGE 4 for favorite channels associated with this particular source.

Obviously the other activity page buttons would be programmed with the appropriate steps required to place the system into the required state to view that particular activity in a similar manner.

Hopefully this essay was helpful in conveying the basic approaches to setting up a programmable remote and will give you some things to look for both in buying a remote and programming a remote. 

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Home Theater Master Remotes    Logitech Harmony Remotes

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