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GROUP TEST

 

LEARNING REMOTE CONTROLS

 

HEAD

REMOTE POSSIBILITIES

 

STANDFIRST

Lost the remote for your TV? Overrun by little black boxes? Loosing the ability to walk? Remote controls were supposed to make out lives easier but according to Rick Maybury they could be having the opposite effect. Here's a dozen possible remedies that could help you regain control of your life and AV system

 

INTRO/COPY

Forget all those scare stories about mobile phones zapping your brains, we want to know why there hasn't been an investigation into the very serious health hazards associated with remote control (RC) handsets! Countless cases of sofa rage have been brought to our attention, over who gets to drive the TV and VCR. Then there's remote wrist, this distressing condition occurs when a remote control slips down the side of the settee. The sufferer squeezes their hand into the narrow gap causing deep skin abrasions, it's compounded when the victim discovers the gap is too small to get their hand out whilst still holding the remote. 'Button-finger' is a painful form of repetitive strain injury, (RCRSI), caused by repeated button prodding, when the device ceases to function, through dead batteries or liquid spillage on the keypad.

 

We are convinced there's a causal link between remote controls and an increased risk of coronary heart disease and obesity – they make you fat and lazy – and they can affect your mental well-being, driving you nuts when they stop working or the dog gets hold of it. The biggest problem, though, is addiction. Its all too easy to OD on RC, especially if you have a TV, hi-fi system, VCR, CD and tape decks, DVD player, AV amplifier, satellite receiver, camcorder, car alarm, electric garage door opener, house alarm…

 

It can quickly get out of control. A pair of button boxes for the TV and VCR seems harmless enough. Just a bit of channel changing and volume control, you still get up to switch the TV off when you go to bed. You think you can handle it but before you know where you are two are not enough and you've got four, four turn into eight and now you use standby mode all the time. Very soon you can't do without it, you are main-lining the heavy stuff and you've hit rock bottom, when there's a remote control dangling from your key chain.

 

We're here for you, help is at hand but first you have got to admit that you have a problem. Start by counting how many handsets you are using every day. If there's more than two you are already halfway down the slippery slope and you have got to do something about it, before it's too late!

 

You need Group Test therapy. We've been looking at a dozen universal remotes. The idea is simple; one of these devices can replace two or more of your existing handsets, putting you back in control of your life again.

 

Universal remotes fall into three fairly distinct categories. The most basic ones are intended as replacements for lost or damaged handsets. This is a big market since manufacturer's own replacements are often ludicrously expensive, we have heard of some companies asking £70 or £80 for simple TV and VCR remotes. The second type is basic multi-function units, which will control the main functions of between two and eight devices. Type three are the advanced multi-function models, with timers and programmable AV system controls and sequencers (macro facility), to switch on and configure two or three devices with a single button press.

 

Two key technologies are used in universal remote controls. First there is the pre-programmed type, where the infrared (IR) commands for a wide range of brands and products are stored in the handset on a microchip 'library' or ROM (read only memory). The second type has a 'learning' facility, where the IR commands are read from the original handset and stored in the remote's rewritable memory. Pre-programmed handsets are generally a little cheaper but they suffer from two fairly obvious drawbacks. There are now so many remotely controllable products on the market it would be impossible to include them all in the command library, moreover it will be quickly out of date as new products come alone. There are ways around this though, and some models can be updated via telephone. The main disadvantage of learning remote controls is that they depend on having the original handset available to teach the commands, which might be a bit tricky if it is faulty, or inside the dog. A growing number of universal remote controls are hybrids and use a combination of both systems.

 

When buying a universal remote control there are several points to bear in mind. It's always a good idea to invest in extra capacity and prepare for the future. You might only have two or three AV components now but you can bet your boots you'll have added to your system in a year or two's time. Second, carefully check the functionality of the handset before you buy. Most of them cover the basics (on/standby, volume, channel change, transport functions etc.), but some models cannot cope with other equally important facilities like teletext/fastext operation, Video Plus+ timer programming, on-screen displays or picture adjustments (brightness, contrast etc.). You may still end up having to keep your original remote control close by, which defeats the object of the exercise. Third, more isn't necessarily better and some sophisticated models can be really difficult to set up and use. You might be able to work it, but what about the other members of your family? (Though some may consider than an advantage…). Finally don't skimp on the batteries. Most universal remotes have higher power consumption than their standard-issue cousins. You must replace them regularly, and well before they expire as the programming information can be lost. Most learning models have a short-term memory backup that will give you time to swap the batteries, but this may only last for a few minutes, so always have a fresh set on standby – preferably high capacity alkaline types.  

 

HOW THE TESTS WERE DONE

The three areas that concern us most is how easy are these devices to set up and use, how many brands/models do they cover, and how many frequently-used functions are available? The testing side is relatively straightforward. We have assembled a group of products, some going back a few years like a ancient (and always troublesome) Goldstar TV, a Mitsubishi VCR and a Pioneer AV amplifier, plus some more up to date devices, including a widescreen TV, DVD player and a satellite receiver. We didn't think it was fair to include digital TV receivers at this stage since they are so new, though we have tried one or two of the more up-market learning units, just to see if they can do simple things like on/standby switching and channel change. We're also looking at battery life and build quality with particular reference to control labelling – it's really annoying if they rub off – and the likelihood of surviving a fall onto a hard wooden floor from the height of a sofa armrest. 

 

Range is another consideration, and general ergonomics. Extra points are awarded for large easy to find keys, comfy shapes and, where applicable, the legibility of any displays and indicators.

 

THE TESTS

 

ARCAM CR9000, £120

VERDICT ****

The CR9000 is an advanced multi-function model for controlling up to eight AV components using a combination of stored commands and a learning facility. It also has a macro option this stores a maximum of 5 sequences containing up to  15 commands. There's a very good assortment of secondary functions covering home cinema equipment including buttons for surround sound modes, TV features (PIP etc.), on-screen displays plus VCR timer programming. It's a reasonable size -- barely larger than a conventional TV/VCR remote -- the buttons and LCD display are backlit. The display can be customised with user defined function labels and TV/AV volume controls can 'punch through', whilst it is set to operate other devices.

 

The built-in library is quite extensive. It covers a wide range of video and audio products but not our awkward Goldstar TV, though this could be controlled using the learning function. Programming is reasonably straightforward and the backup memory is good for one year. Neat and effective but a touch pricey

 

Arcam telephone  (01223) 203203

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Learning & pre-programmed, 8 devices, 5 macros, backlit LCD and buttons, Arcam products default

 

Batteries            4 x AAA

 

Features            *****

Ease of use            ****

 

Caption

·        Stylish, easy to use and very comprehensive coverage with learning and programmed commands

 

 

CAMBRIDGE EXPLORER M1, £80

VERDICT *****

Remote controls don't come much classier than this one; it looks more like a pocket organiser. It's a learning type that can be configured to operate up to 8 AV components. There are no buttons because it has a touch-sensitive LCD screen, the layout and labelling change according to the function selected. The panel is backlit and it's smart too, switching off when there's sufficient ambient light, and when you put it down. It can store up to ten macro sequences and this most recent version has been updated to include extra TV functions (fastext) and the recent technologies (DVD, digital TV, satellite and MiniDisc). However, some functions might not be possible on some VCRs and TVs. Cursor control for things like on-screen displays and Video Plus+ timers is not very flexible check before you buy – otherwise it was able to control everything we tried it with. It's big, it's expensive but its good, worth considering!     

 

Richer Sounds telephone  0171-940 2240

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Learning, 8 devices, 10 macros, touch-control backlit LCD panel,

 

Batteries 4 x AA

 

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

Caption

·        Very sleek, very smart and very easy to use, a bit of a handful though…

 

 

MARANTZ RC2000 MK II, £150

VERDICT ****

Forget that it looks like a Star Trek Tricorder or it is plastered with tiny buttons, this is the one to go for if your AV system is getting out of hand. It can learn the main functions of up to 10 products, plus it can store a further 32 commands per device using the 'Direct' buttons either side of the screen. There are also 4 macro memories and it has the ability to 'clone' itself, by downloading all stored commands on to another RC2000. The display is a bit of a disappointment though, it's backlit but the contrast isn't' very good, plus the characters are small and spidery. It's an industrial-strength design, reasonably easy to use, once it has been set up but with so many functions on tap it's a full time job.

 

 

Marantz telephone  (01753) 680868

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Learning, 10 devices, 4 macros, 320 'Direct' functions, backlit LCD & buttons, Philips & Marantz defaults

 

Batteries 4 x AA

 

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

Caption

·        Expensive but there's not much it can't do, maybe not for the faint-hearted or buttonophobes

 

 

MAXVIEW UNIVERSAL 3 IN 1, £18

VERDICT ****

Maxview telephone  (01553) 81100

In the trade this is known as a 'distress purchase' and you would indeed need to be fairly desperate to shell out eighteen quid for this rather basic replacement handset. It's a three-device design, pre-programmed with a several hundred codes; it has a built-in sleep timer and volume punch through. Programming is simple though it can be a bit laborious as Sod's law says that if there's a dozen codes, the one you want will be the last one you try. It was unable to control our Goldstar TV from the listed codes, but a command set of sorts, was found using the Autosearch function. The only trouble was it wouldn't select channel 1, and it did strange things to the picture settings, but it would get you out of a hole... The main problems, though, are too many functions sharing too few buttons, a lack of any fastext keys and no memory backup. OK for emergencies but there are much better alternatives.

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Pre-programmed, 3 devices, sleep timer, volume punch through

 

Batteries            4 x AAA

 

Features            ***

Ease of use            ***

 

Caption

·        No frills replacement handset

 

 

ONE FOR ALL 4, £20

VERDICT ****

Although it only controls 4 devices and it's in the budget price category it covers a lot of ground and it has useful extras, like volume 'punch-through' and a built-in sleep timer (switches off nominated devices after preset period). It's a pre-programmed type and the library is enormous, covering thousands of products. It had no trouble whatsoever with the main controls any of our AV components. The only significant drawback is the limited number of functions; it couldn't control brightness, colour or contrast on our test TVs, for example. It may not be able to cope with more specialised features like trick play or Video Plus+ and some on-screen displays, but it does have a set of fastext buttons. It is quite comfy to hold and the large shaped buttons are easy to distinguish. Programming is very simple indeed, just select the device (TV, VCR, Sat, Aux), press the 'magic' button and enter a four-digit code. Fine for small, basic systems, but watch out for those missing functions.

 

One For All telephone  (31) 53-488 8000

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Pre-programmed, 4 devices, sleep timer

 

Batteries            2 x AA

 

Features            ***

Ease of use            *****

 

Caption

·        Neat, sweet and easy to use, a bargain

 

 

ONE FOR ALL TOPLINE 5, £50

VERDICT *****

Topline 5 is the latest and arguably one of the most interesting additions to the extensive One For All range. It's a very smart-looking five-device controller with a pre-programmed command library, but it can be updated via telephone, using a clever built-in magnetic coupler. An internal timer can be programmed to switch devices on and off, and make recordings at specified times. A sleep timer is also included, to switch the TV or any other device off after 15, 30, 45 or 60 minutes. It can also store up to 10 macro sequences replicating up to 15 keystrokes. Functions not covered by the buttons can be assigned to other keys using the Key Magic facility, though this involves a call to One For All's helpline, for the necessary codes. It's brilliant, simple to program and excellent value. Recommended!

 

One For All telephone  (31) 53-488 8000

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Pre-programmed, 5 devices, 10 macros, timer, sleep timer, 'Key Magic' programming (see text), illuminated keys and display, upgradable via telephone

 

Batteries            4 x AAA

 

Features            *****

Ease of use            ***** 

 

Caption

·        Sharp styling and a lot of functions for your money

 

PHILEX WIZARD, £25

VERDICT ****

The Philex Wizard packs in a lot of advanced features for the money. It's an 8-device controller with pre-programmed and learning functions, plus an 8-macro memory, all for just £25. The library isn't as extensive as One For All's, however, and it couldn't find a code for the Goldstar TV. Set-up using manufacturer's codes isn't quite as simple as the OFA handsets either, it can involve a lot of button pressing and it's not always clear what the thing is up to; you can go for ages with nothing happening. Fortunately the learning facility will bale you out if the code isn't there, but with only one dual-colour LED to let you know what’s happening it's quite a palaver. Operation is okay but there's a lot to remember the range of function buttons is adequate but there are obvious gaps like Video Plus+ and VCR trick play. Great value but not that easy to use.

 

Philex telephone  0181-457 2100

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Learning &  pre-programmed, 8 devices, 8 macros, illuminated keypad

 

Batteries            3 x AAA

 

Features            ****

Ease of use            ***

 

Caption

·        Small and shapely but it can be tricky to set up and use

 

 

PHILIPS 6 IN 1, £30

VERDICT ***

In spite of what it says on the packaging the Philips 6 in 1 does not appear to have any 'learnable' facilities. It is pre-programmed with a library of command, but not a very extensive one, judging by it's inability to control a couple of devices, including the Goldstar TV, (though we did achieve control over channels 1 and 2…). Set up is quite simple, but only if it works; if the code listed doesn't do the trick it can be programmed to step through its command library. This can take up to five minutes, during which time it is necessary to hover over the unit and punch the power button if anything happens. There are no extras and the range of secondary functions is a bit limited. It's not very comfy to hold but the illuminated buttons are some consolation, and it comes with a set of batteries but to be frank, it's not very inspiring.

 

Philips telephone  0181-689 2166

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Pre-programmed, 6 devices, illuminated keypad, Philips default

 

Batteries            2 x AA (supplied)

 

Features            ***

Ease of use            ***

 

Caption

·        Long, thin and top heavy, not very comfortable to hold either

 

 

SONY RM-AV2000, £150

VERDICT ****

Although the AV 2000 is clearly designed to appeal to Sony fans with a lot of Sony gear it shouldn't disgrace itself in the wider world. It has both pre-programmed and learning facilities, plus macro programming but the most obvious features are the large touch-sensitive LCD panel, and the sheer size of the thing (it takes six batteries…)! The LCD is divided into squares and the text and labelling changes according to the function or mode selected. The panel is also backlit, though it's not very contrasty. The code library has gaps, including the Goldstar TV but it learns quickly and set-up is generally quite painless. There are three macro memories which can store up to 16 commands, or single commands and volume controls can be set up to 'punch through', irrespective of the device selected.  It's slick and well presented but the size takes some getting used to. It's on the large side for our taste -- you need two hands to use it --  but we can't fault the design or functionality.

 

Sony telephone  (0990) 111999

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Pre-programmed & learning, 12 devices, 3 macros, illuminated touch-sensitive display, user definable functions        

 

Batteries            6 x AA (four for remote, two for backlight)

 

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

Caption

·        More like a laptop than a remote, but it does the business

 

 

TANDY 4 IN 1 LIGHT UP, £19

VERDICT ****

No prizes for guessing what the headline feature on the Tandy (it's actually badged Radio Shack) 4 in 1 'Light Up' might be… In fact the keyboard illumination is dual-level with the most frequently used buttons (volume and channel change) brighter than the rest. The command library is one of the largest in this group; it even included the elusive Goldstar codes and everything else we tested. The big buttons are great but functionality is average, it doesn't have any colour coded fastext buttons and secondary features, like picture controls, can be a bit haphazard, but there is a channel scan facility and volume punch through. The former steps through the stored channels on a TV or VCR, and volume punch allows volume adjustment on the TV, whatever mode the handset is in. Otherwise it scores quite well for ease of use, convenience and value for money.

 

Tandy telephone  (01922) 434000

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Pre-programmed, 4 devices, illuminated keyboard (2 level), volume punch-through

 

Batteries            4 x AAA

 

Features            ***

Ease of use            ****

 

Caption

·        Big buttons, they light up and it's very easy to use

 

 

VIVANCO UPLR-800, £30

VERDICT ***

The UPLR-800 can control up to 8 devices from its built in command library, additionally up to three device modes can be programmed using a learning facility. One of the functions is assigned to a home control system, there's little information in the instructions but we suspect it is meant to operate Vivanco automation and security products like Cyberwave Switch (see HE March). Programming the unit from the code book can be quite laborious – the instructions are quite hard going -- and the only way to control our Goldstar TV was to use the learning mode. The button layout and labelling isn't very good – most keys are very small – but they are backlit and it is comfortable to hold.  The UPLR-800 a decent enough design, it feels solid and well made and the brand coverage is generally quite good but it is let down by poor instructions and a lack of any extra facilities.

 

 

Vivanco  telephone  (01442) 403020

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Pre-programmed & learning, backlit keypad, home security functions

 

Batteries            4 x AAA

 

Features            ***

Ease of use            ***

 

Caption

·        A smooth good looker but the layout isn't that wonderful

 

 

WALLACE CM200, £20

VERDICT ***

The CM200 is one of the most basic handsets in this roundup, it's mainly designed as a replacement for lost or damaged remotes and it can only control two devices, namely a TV and VCR. The code library is brief and there are a lot of missing names, including Goldstar and some other big names, like Aiwa, Akai and Ferguson. The range of TV options is very good, covering virtually all of the main functions, and quite a few of the less frequently used ones as well. The keys are clearly labelled and the layout is generally good. Two-device control is clearly not going to make much of a dent in the average collection of RC handsets but if that's all you need, then it's fine. The only point to make is that compared with other budget handsets this one is not especially good value and for the same (or very little more money) there are several considerably more advanced models available.

 

Wallace telephone  0181-870 3388

 

UP CLOSE

Features            Pre-programmed, 2 devices,

 

Batteries            2 x AAA

 

Features            ****

Ease of use            ***

 

Caption

·        It looks worse than it is, there's a good assortment of TV controls are

 

VERDICT

The first thing to say about the universal remote control market is that there really is something for everyone! The dozen controllers we've looked at are a tiny fraction of what is available, there were lots of others we would have liked to have included, like the notorious Casio remote control watch (remember the recent story about the car thieves using one to replicate vehicle alarm codes…?).  Unfortunately this is now being discontinued, apparently Argos still has a few but you'll have to hurry! Then there are the dozens of novelty handsets that pop up, in just about every shape you can imagine. We could have included PC based or generic one-make systems, bespoke installations, cordless and wireless remotes and industrial-strength devices that can control every appliance in the house but in the end we thought we'd better play this one straight, otherwise it would have taken over the whole magazine.

 

Considering the wide diversity of this type of product it is unfair to make too many direct comparisons but in any group test there have to be winners and losers and the least impressive controller in this roundup was the Maxview Universal. It had gaps in the library, secondary functions were not well covered and it wasn't terribly good value for money but the clincher was a lack of memory backup, and that's unforgivable on a product of this type.

 

The Philips 6 in 1 caused a certain amount of irritation with the claim that it had learning facilities – which it doesn't – programming was slow and the ergonomics leave something to be desired but it was the £30 price tag that really counted against it.

 

The Tandy 4 in 1 Light Up was a step in the right direction, it is easy to use, there are some useful features and it's fair value but it lacks important functions like fastext. The Philex Wizard is worth considering, it's a very good price for a learning/programmed handset but we felt it might have quite a steep learning curve. The similarly specified Vivanco UPLR800 did very slightly better for set up and use but was let down by poor instructions, nevertheless both models are well worth shortlisting if you're in the market for a versatile 8 device controller at a sensible price. The Sony AV2000 would undoubtedly have achieved a higher score but for the price. We have to say that £150 is rather a lot to pay for any remote control handset, even one as large and accomplished as this one but if you are a Sony fan, with a lot of Sony kit then a little thing like the price is not going to worry you.

 

The highish price was the only thing that weighed against the Arcam RC200, it was one of the top performers and just the job for big home cinema systems, it's also very easy to use but we think £120 could be a bit off putting. In the same context £150 sounds like a lot to pay for the Marantz RC2000, but we feel this one gets closer to justifying the price because of the extra functionality, better display and wacky cosmetics.

 

On paper the One For All 4 has a similar specification to the Maxview, Tandy and Wallace pre-programmed remotes but it is like comparing chalk with cheese. This one is in a different league with lots of additional features and the ability to operate the widest range of products, but best of all, it will only cost you £20; it's a bargain!

 

The Cambridge M1 gets joint top billing for two reasons, it has to be one of the best thought out products on the market, and the currently low price makes it exceptional value for money. Replacing dozens of buttons with a touch-sensitive LCD keyboard is inspired and instantly does away with the problems of labelling and inherent shortcomings of keypads. This might also be the first truly spill proof remote, though we didn't include that in our tests (at least not intentionally…).

 

Sharing top honours is the quite excellent One For All Topline, no matter that it only controls 5 devices, just look at the list of features and the range of functions, including no less than 10 macro memories and built in timers. Not only that, it also has the biggest command library of any handset we've tested and in the unlikely event a particular code set is missing, it can be easily upgraded over the phone, quite remarkable!

 

RIVAL BUYS

Matsui 8 in 1, £29

This model is a Dixon's exclusive capable of controlling up to 8 devices. It has a pre-programmed memory covering most popular makes and brands of AV equipment and specialised functions like fastext. Easy to setup and use, good value.  

 

Visual 8 £40

An 8 device handset using both learning and pre-programmed commands. A built-ion LCD display helps with set-up and also shows time and date. All major brands and classes of AV equipment covered, freephone support available.

 

Remote Angel £80

LCD touch-screen remote for controlling up to 8 devices using IR learning system. The screen displays change according to function. Macro function allows up to 10 commnads to be sequenced, fully customisable screen and commands.

 

 

 

 

 

TABLE

 

Make

££s

Funt

Lrn

PP

Bac

Feat

Verd

Arc

120

8

*

*

1yr

*****

****

Cam

80

8

*

-

60m

****

*****

Mar

150

10

*

-

Indef

****

****

OF4

20

4

-

*

5m

***

****

OF5

50

5

-

*

indef

*****

*****

Max

18

3

-

*

none

**

**

Phw

25

8

*

*

indef

****

****

Phl

30

6

-

*

1hr

***

***

Son

150

12

*

*

1hr

****

****

Tan

19

4

-

*

1m

***

****

Viv

30

8

*

*

Indef

***

***

Wal

20

2

-

*

2m

****

***

 

Key Func = number devices covered, Lrn = learning functions, PP = pre-programmed, Up = upgradable, Bab = battery backup (mins/hrs)

 

---end---

ã R. Maybury 1999 3105

 

 

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