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A Discussion On 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 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 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 types of remote controls that you may come across while setting up your home theater system.  The early equipment came with a remote control that would only operate the device it came with.  Eventually equipment manufacturers began to furnish the type remote control that could be programmed to operate more than one device.  For example, many TV remotes can be programmed to also operate your VCR, DVD player, amplifier and perhaps your cable box or satellite receiver.  Then there is the programmable remote that can be used to fully integrate the control of your devices within your system.  We will discuss each type as we work through this essay.

Device Specific Remotes
These are the remotes that are furnished with equipment and will only operate the device it was furnished with.  These remotes are not very user friendly and are the source for having the need of several remotes laying around.  They do serve a couple of purposes though.  They will have buttons for every operation of the controlled device (something a universal remote may not have) and they point out the need of a better way.  

To the right is a remote for a GE DVD player.  That is all it will control and thus would be considered a device specific remote. 

Button Groups
Before going into the other types of remotes it is necessary to go over the various button groups that are associated with remotes.  These groups are generally a collection of buttons that serve associated purposes.  Also these groups may have different names depending on the remote control.

Remote Control Group
This group of buttons are those that would control functions of the remote control itself.  This may be only a button or switch that is used to select the different devices that the remote is to control.  There may be a light button that will cause the buttons to be illuminated.  There may be a program button used for programming the remote.  To the right/top is a remote that uses a mode button to select which device the remote will control.  To the right/bottom is a remote that uses a slide switch to select which device the remote will control. 

Device Basic Control Group
This group of buttons are those used for the basic control a device.  Operations such as volume, channel up/down, the numeric keypad are examples of buttons in this group.


Transport Group
This group would be buttons that would be associated with a VCR or DVD player, such as, but not limited to, play, stop, FF, REW and pause.


Display Group
This group is normally associated with a LCD screen such that what the button does is labeled on the LCD display adjacent to the button.  Normally this group of buttons will only be present on the fully programmable remotes, like the UCC MX-850.


Power Group
This is usually a pair of buttons one power on and the other power off.  These are normally only found on the fully programmable remotes, although a single power toggle will be present on all of the other remote types.


Navigation Group
This is a group of buttons used to navigate device on screen menus.


Universal Remotes
So named because they can be programmed to operate a number of devices with the idea that a single remote would be able to operate all of the equipment in your system.  Generally these remotes will have a switch to select a device and once selected the remote buttons will operate that device's and not the other devices.  These remotes are generally programmed by selecting the device and then after pressing the key combinations to put the remote into the programming mode, a three or four digit code for the manufacturer of the device is entered.  To terminate and save the programming, another button or button combination is used.

The basic method of operation of this type of remote is to select the device then press the buttons required to do what is required.  For example, to turn up the TV volume, the TV device is selected (button or switch) followed by the use of the volume up/down buttons.  Next if it is desired to change the channel on a cable box, the cable box is selected and then the channel up/down button or numbers can be used to change the channel.  Forget to select the cable box device would cause the TV to change channels rather than the cable box and this is generally the problem with these type universal remotes.

Some of the universal remotes will have the ability to force the volume control to be always the TV volume regardless of  which device is selected on the remote.  In this case the TV volume will be controlled even though the remote has the cable box selected.  A good step forward, but still not as good as it should be, because you still need to switch between devices for complete control of your system.


Zenith Universal Remote furnished with their HDTVs

Programmable Remotes
These remotes are the best answer for a home theater system that incorporates many video sources and a surround system.  They can be programmed to accommodate just about any system configuration to provide control as though your system was fully integrated.  to fully appreciate the differences of a programmable remote it is necessary to understand the basic philosophy difference between the prior types discussed and the programmable remotes.  The programmable remotes are task orientated as opposed to device orientated. In other words the selection is made to watch TV via satellite, for example, rather than set the remote to control the TV or satellite receiver. With the programmable remote every button on the remote will be geared to watching the TV via the satellite receiver.  Not only will the volume up/down buttons control the TV volume (or surround amplifier if so programmed) the channel up/down and numeric buttons will control the satellite receiver rather than the TV.  

Not only that, but the button used to select the task of  watch TV via satellite will be programmed with a macro that will automatically send out the appropriate codes to the TV to select the satellite input as well as to cause the surround amplifier to select the satellite receiver.  The idea here is to push a single button and have the entire system end up set up to do the viewing task desired. 

By extension then if we select the task of view a DVD, we would expect the TV to switch to the DVD input, turn the DVD player on and switch the surround amplifier to the DVD input.  Additionally, the transport group would operate the DVD player, the volume would control the TV or surround amp and the channel up/down buttons would control nothing.  Programmable remotes will give you the flexibility to set up your system in just about any way you can think up.

MX-850 Programmable Remote

Macro Programming
In the last topic I mentioned a macro being programmed to send out multiple codes.  That is one of the largest differences with a programmable remote over a universal remote.  The ability not only to assign many different device codes to buttons as needed, but to be able to program a single button press to perform multiple operations.  This is the key to being able to set up a completely integrated system.

This capability of the programmable remote is what separates them from all others.  The ability to aim your current remote to the programmable remote and have the programmable remote record the IR signals button by button is essential to insure the true universality.  Where universal remotes will have a group of keys for the most often required operations, they will never have every key that may be required.  For example, the Zenith universal remote shown above does not have many of the device specific buttons on the GE DVD remote, also shown above.  Buttons such as the zoom, slow, setup, guide being some examples.  With the MX-850 programmable remote shown above, these buttons can be added to the display group buttons on a secondary control page for the DVD and labeled on the LCD display.  The IR control can be learned into the buttons and viola! we have every button we may need.

When choosing a remote to allow getting rid of the need for multiple remotes, you want to do your homework and be sure the one you choose will do all you want it to do.

This series continues here: A Discussion On Programmable Remote Controls

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