|It's the one piece of equipment that can really make or break your home theater system; the remote control. It's no good to have the latest and greatest gear and world's biggest DVD collection if you can't figure out how to use anything. True home theater nirvana is a fantastic performing system anyone can use with a single button press.
Many of today's home theater receivers and surround processors come with a "smart" remote control. Some of these are actually pretty good too. B&K and Denon come to mind. If you know what you are doing, you can get one of these babies programmed to orchestrate your entire system pretty well. If you haven't the time or inclination for such a project yourself, hire a professional installer to bring everything together for you. A great place to start is CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association). They have member firms in every state, and many foreign countries, that are experts in making complex home theaters easy to use.
Remote controls come in several flavors. The one most people are familiar with comes with almost any electronic component you buy these days. For the most part it does a pretty good job at making the particular component do what you want. Some of these even let you control other components, especially if they are from the same manufacturer. This way, for example, you can use your TV remote to also control your VCR or DVD player.
The next rung up the remote control ladder is the so called "smart remote". This type of remote is able to control multiple pieces of equipment from different manufacturers. Some can control up to 8 or 10 different components. They are usually set to control each piece of equipment by entering a 3 or 4 digit code. Some of these units will learn control functions from other remote controls. This is helpful if the unit you need to control is not in your remote control's internal database. You usually accomplish the learning by entering a "learn" mode on the smart remote, pointing the "teaching" remote at the smart remote and pressing the desired button. Viola! Your smart remote has learned the command from the original remote control.
If you want things even easier than using just one remote to control everything, you need a remote that does macros. These are command sequences initiated by pressing one button. For example, you want to watch a DVD. Typically you would have to turn on your TV, DVD player and surround receiver. Then you would have to switch your TV to the component input and your receiver to the DVD input. With a macro capable remote, this sequence is programmed into the remote. The remote then plays back all the commands in the appropriate order so you don't have to.
If you want a remote that controls everything, you need a remote with a lot of different buttons. This can make the remote a little intimidating. Sure it can do almost anything but make toast, but where to start? If you have the budget, now is the time to get a touch screen remote. With a touch screen, you typically have only a few actual buttons. These are typically the most used functions such as volume up / down, channel up / down, mute and possibly cursor functions.
All other buttons are just icons on a screen that you touch to initiate the desired command. The beauty of this approach is that you only need to have just a few icons on the screen at any one time. This really cuts down on button clutter and confusion. The icons can be graphical representations of the command, which makes everything very intuitive. For example, you can have an "NBC" logo you touch to go to the local NBC station.
Touchscreen remotes come in four basic variations. First there is the choice of color or grayscale. Color looks better and more information can be conveyed more quickly. Grayscale units are much less expensive. Next, the communication with the remote can be one way or two way. Two way communication allows status to be updated on the remote itself. For example you can display album and artist information from a music server or check the status of your security system or thermostats. Two way communication has been provided via a two way radio link, similar to a digital spread spectrum telephone.
The latest two way remote controls being introduced from companies such as AMX and Crestron use WiFi. This allows a whole host of other possibilities. The range is spectacular for one thing. You can roam around your entire home. On some units you can browse the internet too. Imagine, you are watching a game but you want updates from around the league. Just go to ESPN.com on your remote and take a look.
The remote can really make or break your system. You can have an unusable system with 7 different remotes or a slick system that even visitors can use with no instruction. It's all up to you, your budget and your programmer.
Steve Faber has almost 15 years in the custom installation industry. He received his BA from Washington State University. He is a CEDIA certified designer and Installer 2 with certifications from both the ISF and THX. His experience spans many facets of the industry, from the trenches as an installer and control systems programmer, and system designer, to a business unit director for a specialty importer of high end audio video equipment, a sales rep for a large, regional consumer electronics distributor, and principal of a $1.5M+ custom installation firm. He currently is senior sales engineer for Digital Cinema Design in Redmond, WA. He is on the web at