The Best Remote Controls

We’ve owned many remote controls throughout the years; the vast majority sit buried somewhere in a drawer. Although for years, we resisted purchasing a learning remote because of the price, we were one day struck down with a case of “clicker madness,” replacing our current crop of remotes with a single Home Theater Master MX-700.

Although you can hardly say that a programmable clicker can change one’s life, it’s definitely made life easier as our equipment has gotten more complex. Surrounded by Luddites as we are, it saves countless trips to turn things on and off. As Steve Jobs is reported to have said: “Save a second, save a life.”

The single most important feature is usability: ease of use and programming. A combination remote that isn’t easy to use isn’t worth having. The best remotes come in two flavors: Classic push button remotes Touch screen remotes

The argument for selecting one of these two types over the other is as follows. A classic push button remote already has all of the buttons on it that people familiar with remote controls expect. That makes it easier to match up buttons from one device’s remote to the buttons on your universal remote.

On the other hand, if you need a remote that will manage many systems, including a whole home, then a fully programmable touch screen–based remote is the way to go. The second important feature is reliability. No remote is going to survive constant abuse. Trust us; we know this for a fact.

We’ve owned four of the MX-500 remotes (a particular favorite), three of which were destroyed by small people. The MX-500 is in fact a very ruggedly built remote. Unfortunately you can’t know what the reliability of a remote is until you’ve had it a while.

But you can read comments people have left for different remotes online (we’ll get to that in a moment). Battery life and signal strength are also factors to consider. You can improve both through the use of better batteries, repeater systems, and so forth. This is the essential list of automation features a quality remote should have:

  • Access to a large library of device codes from which to assign a mode of your remote.
  • The ability to create macro buttons that perform two or more actions at once.
  • A punch-through feature that will let volume and channel controls work for multiple devices.
  • A strong learning capability, the ability to emulate any IR device’s signals.

On the list are some optional features:

  • A manufacturer that’s been around a while and offers a reasonable warranty.
  • A method for saving all of your device’s programming.
  • Setup using a software program.
  • Firmware that can be upgraded.
  • A TV guide programming feature.

Don’t even think about purchasing a remote that doesn’t have the essential features. Personally, we prefer to set up a remote by computer. Many remotes don’t require that and can be programmed directly from the keys, as is the case with the MX-500.

One step up the line, the MX-700, the programming moves to a software program that is not only faster and more convenient, but it also stores all settings.

The MX-700 also comes with a second, dumbed-down remote that you can give to other users who aren’t familiar with your custom settings. The MX-500 isn’t particularly hard to set up (it takes an hour or two), but having had to do it three times for the same system is a little much.

The MX-500 has a clone feature; it will beam its settings from one MX- 500 to another, but you have to have two working remotes to make it work. So a system that saves settings, even if it’s on the Web, is a good thing.

If you want to read about remotes from an authoritative source, go to This site gives you in-depth analyses of nearly every remote available for the home theater market, and a few of the remotes for the home automation market. A review is simply one person’s opinion.

What makes special is its user forums. You can get a really good idea for how good a remote is by reading those reviews, learning about each remote’s quirks, features, and reliability from actual users. We think that is miles ahead of any other place we’ve seen talk about remote controls.

Of the remotes we’ve worked with and from the reviews that we’ve read, we recommend the following remotes to you: The Home Theater Master MX-500 and MX-700, the Kameleon 8 URC 9960 (and its Radio Shack equivalent), the Intrigue Technologies Harmony H780 (formerly the SST-768), the Philips Pronto, and Marantz RC series.