A home theater system solves the problem of tinny TV speakers but introduces a set of new complications -- namely, the number of remote controls required to adjust volume, change channels, set the TiVo or play a DVD.
There's a way around this clicker complication, but it's not cheap for anyone with the variety of components I've got.
A remote that talks to them all and can issue multiple commands with the squeeze of a single button isn't something you'll find for $9.95 in an electronics retailer's bargain bin.
The trio of advanced remotes I tested, from Sony Corp., Logitech Inc. and Philips Electronics, retailed for between $150 and $600.
All allowed me to ditch my collection of old clickers once I finally got them talking to my home theater components. Where I once had to pick up and punch buttons on three separate remotes to watch a DVD, I now use only one.
Ease of setup and the intelligence of the underlying software varied radically.
Sony RM-AV2500 ($150)
Sony's AV2500 isn't the slickest-looking electronic gadget you'll ever see. In fact, its big buttons and paperback-sized girth are reminiscent of 1970s clickers. Its touch-screen display, which measures 4 inches diagonally, looks like a descendant of an old scientific calculator.
But there's something to be said for big blocky graphics and well spaced buttons when you're sitting in a dark room fiddling for a way to turn down the volume.
A dozen buttons along the bottom determine the remote's mode. When TV is selected, the display shows buttons specific to that device. Thankfully, the most frequently used buttons -- for volume and channel surfing -- are handled by physical buttons.
It worked out of the box with my existing Sony components -- a television and DVD player -- without having to enter a single device code. For others, it's a bit more complicated.
To control my Onkyo home theater amplifier, I had to hit a series of buttons on the remote and enter a four-digit code. To my relief, it worked with the first code provided in the instruction manual. My TiVo Series2 digital video recorder wasn't listed but I found the code on the Internet.
More button combinations were required to program macros that command multiple components. I was able to get a sequence entered within a few minutes. But unlike the other remotes tested here, there's no help system that tries to fix equipment that's out of synch with the clicker.
Logitech Harmony 880 ($250)
The Harmony 880 is very close to being perfect.
Setup is just a matter of plugging it into a computer via the USB port and running a program that asks questions about each component and how they interact. Once completed, the information is sent to the Harmony for instant configuration.
Making changes to add a new component or edit any commands is as easy as the initial setup.
The slim device fits easily in the hand and its bright, 2-inch color LCD display is easy on the eyes. Like most high-end remotes, the screen changes depending on what device is being controlled. Unlike others, the screen isn't touch-sensitive, though the graphics line up with physical buttons on the side.
When not being used, the Harmony 880 can be slid into a cradle that serves a nifty dual purpose: It recharges the battery and keeps it out of a couch's cracks.
When a command runs and fails because a component was on when it should have been off, a help wizard is just a button away. A series of questions appear on the screen, and it figures out what's not right and fixes it.
There's one quibble: Some of the buttons are located very close together, making it too easy to hit the wrong one.
Philips RC9800i ($600)
The Philips RC9800i is the most expensive of the units I tested and, not surprisingly, the most feature-packed. It's the only one I tested that connects to computers and the Internet over a wireless connection.
And it is oh so much more than a remote:
It can display photos on its impressively sharp 3.5-inch display. When connected to a charging cradle that's hooked up to speakers, it plays music streamed from a PC via software included with the remote.
With a separate Philips media adapter, it can control songs, photos and video as they're streamed from a computer and displayed on a TV. Plus, information for a built-in TV guide downloads from the Internet.
Did I mention it also turns the TV on and off?
Yes, it handles the basics just fine and complicated command macros, too. It even can control multiple devices -- including other entertainment centers -- in additional rooms.
Setup is fairly simple. Once the device boots up, it asks a series of questions then makes you point the old remote at the RC9800i. If that doesn't work, it can automatically scan a series of codes until the TV or other component reacts. Or codes can be manually selected.
I spent about 90 minutes on configuration, which was as tedious as it sounds. But it wasn't particularly frustrating except for the time I got stuck in an endless loop on one screen. Flipping the power on and off did the trick, and no settings were lost.
The RC9800i had no problems running complex commands. If there are synch problems, a help button launches a screen for quickly changing the on-off state as well as the input settings of the various devices.
The only disappointment is the limited extent to which the device uses its network connection.
Philips could have simplified setup even further by running a Web-based setup routine that doesn't require a PC -- like Logitech's excellent remote. Or it could offer news headlines, alerts to incoming e-mail and even notification for voicemail.
The possibilities are as big as the Internet itself. It's a shame Philips didn't exploit them further.
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