1. Who needs a universal remote?
If sitting down to watch TV or a movie requires shuffling between 3 or more remotes, switching inputs, and powering multiple components at the same time, then a universal remote is for you. Though a bad universal remote simply combines the functions of several remotes into one device, a good universal remote not only eliminates coffee table clutter and the remote shuffle but also eliminates button pushes by combining multiple actions into one button press.
For example, instead of having to push separate buttons to turn on your TV, switch HDMI inputs, power on your AV receiver and change inputs there, turn on your Blu-ray player, and then—finally—press the play button to get your movie started, a good universal remote can reduce all of that to one command (“Play Movie”) that you can access at the touch of a single button. Though this functionality used to be reserved for high-end professionally programmed systems, these days a few relatively inexpensive remotes can do the same complex jobs.
2. How we picked
A universal remote control has to be universal, meaning able to control all the components an average audio/video enthusiast could throw at it. A typical system will have five or six devices, including a TV (or projector), DVD/Blu-ray player, DVR, surround sound receiver, and maybe a media player (such as a Roku or Apple TV). It might also include a game system or two. A remote that can juggle eight devices at once will cover most systems. And because most devices rely on IR (infrared) control, an IR remote will be sufficient for most people. RF and WIFI remotes are available in order to hide components or add Automation features to a room or house.
If you scan Amazon and other online retailers for universal remotes, you’ll find a lot of low-end replacement remotes. Philips used to sell a series of programmable remotes called Pronto, and Sony previously offered a couple of nice, now-discontinued universal remotes. The company called Universal Remote Control used to lead the pack with remotes like the URC-R40, not the MX-450, but the company now focus almost exclusively on control systems for professional installation. We also tried out two app-only remotes, but concluded that a dedicated handheld remote works better for everyday control than a smartphone or tablet app. These days, selecting the best universal remote seems largely a matter of choosing the best Logitech Harmony device or hiring a professional to do a discovery and call out things you might not see.
3. Our pick
If you’re a DIY’er, the easiest controller is not always the best controller. The Harmony 650 is a relatively simple remote to program for up to 8 devices. It’s IR only so all components will have to be line of site. If you have an AV Receiver with a second zone, good luck!
If you want a professional, we go between Savant, Control 4 and URC. It really depends on what the cusotmers needs are now and in the future. The “need” can be 1 room, 1 touch universal remote all the way up to full smart home which is the easiest way to manage your home and the simplest to use. It’s always worth a call to see where your needs fall and to see what’s available.