Universal Remote

The principal user interface to our media center is the remote control (RC, aka clicker). Or rather it is 6 clickers (and counting): STB, AVR, DVD, TV, the two A/V streaming boxes, … So anyone with a media center soon develops a strong interest in something called a Universal Remote (Uclickr).

This is an update to my earlier article about universal remotes. Since that article, I was gifted with a Logitech Harmony One remote. Thank you B&Z. There is no looking back. The original article remains attached at the end, for anyone still interested in making do with the programmable (semi-universal) remotes that usually come with modern electronic gizmos.

Logitech Harmony One

Logitech makes a range of Uclickrs, in two technologies, radio frequency (RF) and infrared (IR). The Harmony One is the top of the line device in the less expensive line that does only IR. Other Logitech remotes provide both IR and RF and hence cost more. Most consumer electronics come with the less complex IR technology.

IR has limited range and requires line-of-sight to the device. Fortunately, it works through glass, cloth, and perforated metal; devices can be buried in a cabinet if higher WAF (wife acceptance factor) is necessary. Some devices support RF communication (akin to computer wireless connections). These devices can be controlled from anywhere in the building with the appropriate RF remote control. All of our devices are IR-controlled except our new Playstation 3 (thanks Owen), which uses Bluetooth communication for control and RF communication for streaming sources. Fortunately, Logitech makes a PS3 IR-Bluetooth adapter, so the Harmony One can control the PS3 as well.

Programming the Harmony One is simplicity itself. It comes with computer software and a USB connection. In the computer software, one is prompted for the identification of all the devices to be controlled. Then one connects the remote via USB and the software downloads the individual device instructions to the remote. Disconnect and it is ready to use.

The devices are organized into functional groups by the software. In our setup, the basic functions are Watch TV, Watch DVD (DVD-Video), Watch Movie (Netflix or Blu-Ray disc), Listen To CD (includes SACD and DVD-Audio), and Listen to Music (streamed to the Logitech Squeezebox from iTunes on the computer server; requires an iDude (iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad) together with iPeng app for remote control).

The Harmony One has a color touch-screen LCD and a complete set of well-organized, hard buttons. On the LCD are shown our five basic functions (activities). Simply by a tap on the appropriate activity pane, all the required devices are turned on in customizable fashion. These devices can then be further controlled by the hard buttons. Some device specific commands are also shown on the LCD, available for touch selection. When done, a push of the hard Off button on the remote shuts the entire media system down. Alternatively, when one activity is finished, one can touch the activity screen to select another activity; appropriate devices are turned off and on to end the prior activity and enable the next activity.

The remote is protected from obsolescence because the software is frequently updated to address new devices. The Harmony has two areas of quirkiness that are inherent in the functions being performed rather than issues with the remote itself. First, one must leave the remote pointed at the equipment longer than one is accustomed, when initiating new activities or shutting the system off. This is due to the complex sequence of IR commands that must be issued. Second, if one fails in one’s appointed pointing duty as above, some device on/off states may become out of sync. To regain sync, there are two choices. If one knows which device(s) are in problematic state, one can manually walk to the out-of-sync device and toggle its power. Or one can use the remote’s help system, engaging a touch pad dialog that guides one remotely through a series of state-changing options for the individual devices.

The Harmony One includes a user-replaceable lithium-ion rechargeable battery. It comes with a recharging cradle; ours goes at least three weeks week without needing cradling. Logitech is becoming one of my go-to companies. In the past I have complained that some of their designs lack user-replaceable rechargeable batteries, requiring the device be discarded when the battery life expires. Apple had been guilty of such consumer-unfriendly practice as well. But by and large, Logitech fills my niche needs with high-value, low cost solutions.

Perhaps the main benefit of the Harmony One is that Debby is no longer intimidated by the media system. As soon as I programmed it, she grabbed it, selected the ‘Listen to CD’ activity, and settled in for some music appreciation. Needless to say, the grandkids have little problem now working the controls.

Original Article

There are highly touted Uclikrs such as those by Logitech, but before dropping a bill or two on one, I decided to try to get both our AVR-supplied Uclickr or our STB-supplied Uclikr (Philips RC 1445302 Rev 2) to serve our needs.

There are different types of Uclikrs. The best are totally automated by download from a computer. Perhaps the best of these is discussed in the addendum to this article above.

Others can learn from the devices. Some come pre-coded, or are pre-coded but updateable. There are further hybrid combinations of these types. Pre-coded are easiest to setup. An additional learning mode is always handy if one has a device that doesn’t match any of the pre-installed codes or if a matched code leaves some keys unmapped. Our STB-supplied Uclikr is of the pre-coded persuasion, and has a limit of four devices that it will control. This is not enough for us, but since the streaming video player is not in its code list, we only have four that are supported.

The AVR Uclikr is a hybrid pre-coded and learning type, has backlight and touch screen for entering device-specific commands, and supports eight devices with macros and punch-through. Macros are useful for having one button press issue several device commands. Punch through enables control of a different device from the one currently selected, without having to select the different device’s control mode first. For instance, with the remote in SAT/CBL control mode, one can start and stop the DVD player without having to first select DVD control mode. Although there is no pre-coded value for the video streamer on this remote either, it is possible to learn the video streamer’s D-pad and Home buttons with this remote.

After working through some operating scenarios with the existing clickers, the STB Uclickr seemed the best choice. It feels most comfortable in the hand, is trivial to program (for mainstream devices), and provides the most functionality with the fewest button pushes and the least modality. But we will need to bite the bullet and use a second remote to control the video streamer. In any case, my iTouch will control the audio streamer, since I declined to drop another two bills on the schmancy Logitech remote with video display.

Debby and I will be comfortable with our STB remote. As is usual, though, the documentation that comes with the FIOS package can pretty much be ignored. It is designed for the majority of people who have just an STB and a TV and never get past paragraph one of any technical manual. The real information is on the web: the router user manual, the STB user manual, and the RC user guide.

Philips designers seem to have thought through the actual utility that most media center owners would find useful. It is a ‘just the basics’ controller, but what little it does it does well. It’s main drawback is that it is not upgradeable to support our video streamer and it only supports four devices. Programming the STB Uclikr is simplicity itself. For each of the three extra (non-STB) device modes, enter the code of the specific device that the mode will control (codes are found in the online User Guide for the remote on the Verizon site). Our FIOS installer programmed the TV device mode for us. Once I found the online user guide, I programmed the AVR and the DVD in a couple of minutes; the first code listed for each manufacturer was the correct code. But I learned later that the preset DVD code didn’t really work, other than for ON/OFF.

The STB Uclikr is principally used for STB device control, its primary operating mode. While in STB mode, the ON/OFF button controls both the STB and the TV. ON/OFF is the only TV command issued by the Uclikr, so it seems a waste to allocate one entire device mode to it. (But our situation is unusual in that TV audio and input selection commands are not needed; our TV has no speakers and only one video input from the AVR.) Other than STB and TV, our devices are always left on in standby mode and draw very little current, so ON/OFF do not apply. In STB mode, the CH+- buttons operate the STB and the MUTE and VOL+- buttons control the AVR. But one doesn’t need to switch to AVR mode to use the volume control (in effect, they ‘punch through’ all device modes). Unfortunately, the DVD transport controls do not punch through STB mode, so to operate the DVD, one must select DVD mode. (The AVR Uclikr does punch through these commands).

The AVR Uclickr has several characteristics I didn’t care for. The remote is too light and wide and so is difficult to work with one hand. Many of the buttons, including the ON/OFF button, seem to work only for the AVR. For other devices, a touchpad on/off function must be pressed. This touchpad/button modality is at best inelegant, and to some, could also be confusing. The hard buttons can be mapped to other learned device commands, but the touchpad buttons cannot be mapped. In spite of its finishing a distant second in my evaluation, I decided to have the AVR Uclikr learn the video streamer commands, so it will become our back-up remote (for my use only). It also learned the HDMI resolution selector button in DVD mode.

Many device functions are for one-time setup only. For these uses, the actual device clicker can be brought out from the clicker cubby. So, only every day operations need be mapped to the Uclikr. I managed to get the AVR Uclickr programmed so that I can control all 5 of our main video devices. Interestingly, neither of our Uclikrs had the correct pre-code for our somewhat off-brand DVD player, but going to the manufacturer’s site, instructions were obtained to try some codes for other more mainstream brands. For both remotes, one of the Toshiba DVD player codes worked. Our remote life is greatly simplified: from 6 clickers to 2 clickers. The extra cost to get down to 1 clicker that Debby would enjoy using, even if possible, is not warranted yet. But if an advanced Uclickr should appear on my doorstep one day, I would welcome the opportunity for clickr nirvana.

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