Wireless Remote Controls

For many years, programmable universal remotes have been the province of high-fidelity enthusiasts. Complex, pricey, and difficult-to-program programmable remotes held little interest for most people.

It was hard to reconcile a $200 price for an all-in-one when you could simply replace a remote control for any device for as little as $15, or purchase a limited code-based combination remote for under $30.

The installation of home theater, the unbelievable proliferation and growing complexity of single-purpose remotes, and automated control systems such as X10 devices have changed a lot of people’s minds about investing in a complete solution.

Today you can buy a decent universal programmable remote for as little as $50 that will control up to eight controllable devices with relatively easy macro programming.

More complex remotes in the $100 to $150 price range offer features such as editable button labels, punch-through buttons (volume and channel controls that work for two or more of the same devices), Web setup, more programmability, better ergonomics, and numerous other features that you may find appealing.

Still more expensive remotes are full-fledged PDAs in their own right. You’ll find remotes in the $200 to $700 range that will let the user program them with a completely customized screen, customized buttons, and customized routines.

Although these remotes are really meant for home theater system installers, the setup routines are simple enough that many enthusiasts find them valuable and terrific fun to use. A look at the higher end in this device category is an exercise in the best that the graphical user interface can offer.

The determination of good, better, and best is certainly in the eye of the beholder. For the device owner or the person who programmed the remote, a little complexity is a small price to pay for a lot of control.

However, with great power comes great responsibility, and those significant others, guests, and complete strangers who also have to use the remote control need to be accommodated.

So find a very comfortable couch, grab a bag of potato chips, and get your twitching finger ready. You are about to take control over your environment. Can life get any better than this?

The remote control is a child of the electronic age. Prior to the 1940s, remote controls existed only as prototypes in military applications. By some accounts they first appeared in German remote control motor boats in World War I.

What really fueled the commercialization of remote controls was the introduction of the television set. The Zenith Radio Corporation played a prominent role in the development of early remote controls.

The first commercial TV remote that appeared may have been the single-button wired remote control called the Lazy Bone (how appropriate!) in 1950. Zenith followed up in 1955 with a wireless remote called the Flash-matic that shined light onto four photocells at each corner of the TV screen.

Later in 1956 the Zenith Space Command used ultrasonic signals to six vacuum tube components in the TV, which made the Space Command very expensive, increasing the price of the TV by 30 percent.

In the mid-1960s, the introduction of the transistor dramatically lowered the price of the Space Command so that more than nine million of them were sold. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that infrared TV remotes replaced ultrasonic ones. Zenith also developed the first track ball remote control called the Z-Trak, to emulate a computer mouse.

TV was not the only market for remote controls. In 1954 the Alliance Manufacturing Co. released a radio controlled garage door opener called the Genie, a one-button remote, and the system was so well received that the company is now called Genie.

These early controls were relatively simple; each remote had an ID code that set the frequency of the signal. You set the frequency in the receiver unit to match by setting a set of DIP switches on the circuit board, a system still in use today.

By the late 1980s, programmable remote controls started to appear, and the technology had largely switched over to infrared signals. With combination remotes, you could enter a device code ID and have one remote serve the function of several remotes.

A significant milestone was reached in the late 1990s, when Marantz released the RC2000 remote for its higher-end audio receivers. The RC2000 was an important product because it not only offered a programmable remote, but it was a learning remote as well.

You could program the RC2000 by taking other remotes and detecting the signal they emitted for each specific function. There were also limited screen editing features. The RC2000 was released to such rave reviews that Marantz sold a very significant number of these remotes as stand-alone units.

The RC2000 influenced many products on the market today, and the RC series continues on at Marantz. It became important for any higher-end audio/video component manufacturer to deliver a quality remote with expensive stereo receivers and TVs by the mid- to late-1990s.

In 1998 Microsoft and Harman/Kardon developed a fully programmable remote called the Take Control (based on the Windows CE operating system), which sold for $349 and was unique when it was introduced.

The Take Control, which appeared as several other brands and names (Madrigal IRIQ and the JBL TC1000) offered a superior ergonomic design as well as PC software for customization of the remote.

Microsoft’s software was especially good and its Setup Wizard got you going by setting up the main devices in an entertainment system using the large library of manufacturer IR codes. The learning feature allows the Take Control to control any IR remote control device, and is easy to use.

The year 1998 was a seminal one for programmable learning remotes, because it was also the year that the Philips Pronto TS 1000, shown in Figure below, was released.

Philips Pronto TC1000

Philips bought Marantz USA in 1980 from Marantz Japan and held the company until 2001 when it was again resold back, so they gained a lot of expertise in remote making.

Philips’ Pronto was a touch screen remote with fully programmable buttons. Its programming was more difficult than the Take Control, but also more powerful.

The Pronto series continues on and its features are found in later models of the Marantz RC series such as the RC5200.