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Best universal remotes: the ultimate beginner’s guide

These days, you can control your air conditioning from the opposite side of the planet. You can travel to a new VR world. You can monitor your heart rate every hour of every day, if you want. 

But, technology still hasn’t fixed the common issue of misplacing your TV remote. It’s way too common to find a remote control you spent an entire weekend looking for that somehow found its way inside a sofa cushion. Anybody with a decent home AV setup, meanwhile, still has to deal with a plethora of the things.

The best answer available is a universal remote, which at the very least means there’s only one remote you need to keep tabs on. So, let’s take a look at exactly what today’s best universal remotes can do, and how they work.

What is a universal remote?

Many of you likely have a pretty strong grasp on the main idea of a universal remote already. It’s a remote control that can duplicate the signals sent by the remote that was included with your television, your home audio receiver and so on. 

There are a couple major reasons to get one: either you’ve lost an original remote, and don’t want to pay the often exuberant cost of a direct replacement. Or, you want to scale down the number of remotes crowding your living area. 

Almost every universal remote uses IR, or, infrared. It’s the same signal used by single-device remotes.

Cheap vs expensive

 If you plan to purchase an affordable universal remote, such as the One for All Essence, you’ll use a pattern of button presses to program the remote, locating the right set of instructions for your equipment. Manufacturers like Sony and Panasonic have used only a few different patterns of commands over the last decade or so for most of their TVs. You can just cycle through them until you find the set of commands that turns the TV in question on and off. 

Mid-tier universal remotes offer large databases and companion apps that let you simply choose the devices you have on your mobile device. It’s quicker, simpler and less of a headache to add new equipment, should your entertainment setup change.

Naturally, the more money you spend, the more devices a universal remote will be able to support. Logitech’s Harmony Elite has support for up to 15 devices with just the one remote, while basic models, like the One for All Simple, only support one. Again, we’re getting back to the basic use-case issue: are you replacing a lost remote or looking to use just one remote instead of a half dozen different ones? 

High-end universal remotes will also allow you to set up macros, sometimes called activities. These ‘activities’ will let you make a single button or touch screen tap fire off several commands. 

One remote, called ‘Watch TV’, for instance, may turn on your cable box, audio receiver and TV, change the receiver to the right channel and switch your TV to the right HDMI input. Another favorite is to turn all of your devices off with a single push of a button.

Who makes universal remotes?

There are two main universal remote control manufacturers, and they’re the ones we’ve lined out so far. Logitech makes all the best high-end remotes, in the shape of its Harmony line, while One for All is the best brand for more inexpensive units. 

In the US, you’ll also see a ton of low-price remotes from RCA. And if you’re buying for an elderly relative, or want a super-simple remote that only covers the TV basics, the Doro HandleEasy only lets you change channels and volume; it’s been around for years, but it’s a great lo-fi gadget. 

 Phones that are universal remotes

Some phones will also function as universal remotes, although perhaps not the models you may think. They need to have a feature called an IR blaster, which enables them to transmit the same signals as a normal remote control.

These used to be somewhat common, but have become quite rare, with the feature regarded as unloved and generally useless in the phones that had it. Current phones with an IR blaster include the Honor 9 and Huawei P10 Plus. Some Xiaomi phones have one too. The common thread? These are Chinese companies. 

The last high-profile phone to have an IR blaster was the LG G5, while the last flagship Samsungs with IR were the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge back in 2015. These phones have apps that enable you to configure your own setup, with on-screen buttons for (almost) all your remotes’ functions. 

We actually know people who owned phones with IR blasters a few years ago, but who ended up spending a significant amount of cash on a universal remote, oblivious to their phone’s abilities.

Have a phone with an IR blaster? You might want to check out a third-party remote control app like Peel or Sure, as these have a smarter interface than most built-in apps.

Controlling consoles and smart homes

One weak point of the vast majority of universal remotes is that they can’t control most smart home equipment, or Sony’s PS3 and PS4. This is because they use either Bluetooth, RF or Wi-Fi instead of infrared. The solution is a hub that supports these other standards, and right now you have two main choices. 

Logitech offers the best-known, and best, one. The Logitech Home Hub works with Microsoft and Sony game consoles, and a wide variety of smart home gadgets including Philips Hue lights. It hooks onto your home Wi-Fi, and can be controlled either by a phone app or one of Logitech’s higher-end remotes. 

Using one of the Harmony series’ tasty macro activities, you could therefore set the lighting level for movie night, as well as turning on your AV setup, with a single press. 

Elsewhere, the Broadlink RM and RM Pro are hubs that can control IR and RF (Pro model) devices through a mobile phone app. They’re significantly cheaper than the Logitech Home Hub, although as they don’t use Bluetooth you can’t use them to control a Sony PS4. 

It is a low-cost way to make up for the lack of an IR blaster, though. 

Voice control

One additional benefit of the Logitech Home Hub system is that you can already control it through Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa.

If you have an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot you can add a Harmony ‘skill’ to it, and using this you can say “Alexa, tell Harmony to turn on the TV”, and it’ll do so. We’ve tried it out as part of our research for this guide, and it works rather well. 

One day we’ll be able to control everything over Wi-Fi, but until that day it’s reassuring to see that universal remotes aren’t content to become ‘retro’ gadgets; they’re keeping up with the times.

Logitech Harmony at a glance

As the Logitech Harmony series is easily the most important range of universal remotes for people looking for an experience to suit a high-end setup, let’s take a quick look at what’s on offer. 

The Harmony family has two main lines – there are newer remotes that work with the Harmony Hub, and older pure IR remotes that don’t.

The newer kind includes the Elite, Ultimate, Touch, Ultimate One and 950 models, all of which have screens. Logitech’s Companion remote supports the hub but doesn’t have a display, making it a little more affordable. 

Those after something even less pocket-draining should check out the Harmony 650, which has a display but no Hub support, and the Harmony 350, a basic £35/$38 remote that’s a classic universal remote but can still combine the functions of eight remotes. 

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