Some researchers claim that the obesity epidemic began with the introduction of corn syrup in the American diet. Others assert that it began with the decline of physical education in schools. Those who really understand it know it all began with remote controls. In a favorite comedy routine, a frustrated father barks to his dull-eyed slacker son: "We didn't have remote controls in our day…We got our exercise by getting up to change the channels—all three of them. That was all we needed."
Like the personal computer and the cell phone, two other devices that define contemporary life, the remote control was first a laboratory curiosity, then a household rarity, then a commonplace and indispensable tool. The remote control is unquestionably one of the cleverest and most convenient gadgets ever invented. It's also one of the most annoying, particularly in its garden variety— jam-packed with hard-toread tiny buttons and more functions than anyone could ever need.
Nowadays few electronic products come without remotes. Many come with two— a complex one for the technically obsessed and a simple one for everyone else. (Or one for setup and another for operation—actually not a bad idea.) Products that lack them are hopelessly mired in the past, retro without the cool. You can bet that armies of engineers are hard at work figuring out ways to create remotes for all kinds of things that have stood the test of time without them. And you can bet as well that each new remote will come to rest on your coffee table, taking its place among others of its kind, like sea lions on the beach in mating season, fighting for that last square inch of real estate.
The cure for remote proliferation, of course, is the universal remote control, the übermensch of clever devices. One well-made universal remote can do the job of dozens of inferior specimens, leaving your coffee table clean and your mind serene. There are literally dozens of universal remotes on the market now, actually far more than anyone would want to count. Many come pre-loaded with codes for hundreds of current products, as well as for those of recent vintage.
Universal remotes communicate via IR (infrared) signals, or via RF (radio frequency). IR remotes are by far the most common. All remote-capable equipment comes with an IR sensor somewhere on the front panel. The disadvantage with IR communication is that it's basically line-of-sight— you can't control a device that's hidden by furniture, in a closed cabinet, or in another room. RF overcomes this—the radio signals pass through doors and furniture—but it requires an RF receiver near your equipment to convert the signals to IR.
Another way around the line-of-sight problem is to use an IR sensor/relay system. Niles, Xantec, and many other companies supplying the custom installation market make such devices. An IR sensor mounted on a wall, tabletop, or even on a TV screen or loudspeaker sends the signal through a small wire to a repeater. Stick-on IR sensors are about the size of a pack of chewing gum, and are available in white, silver, or black to match their background. The repeater operates flasher LEDs located near your equipment. A single wide-area flasher is often all that's needed to operate an entire home entertainment system. There's very little current needed to trigger an LED, and you can extend the sensor and flasher wires if necessary.
IR repeaters are the ideal way to control systems in closed cabinets, closets, or in other rooms. They can be a tad problematic only when used in the open, where receiving equipment gets a signal direct from the remote and also from the repeater—a situation where the delayed repeater signal interferes with the primary one, a version of the old "multipath" problem that plagues over-the-air TV and FM radio reception. If your system seems balky or unresponsive using an IR repeater, you can cure the problem by making sure it's blocked from "seeing" the original signal from your handheld remote control.
Remotes come in two basic configurations— the classic hard buttonencrusted version, and the programmable touchscreen. The Philips Pronto has long been one of the most popular touchscreens; the latest iteration is the RC9800i, a large handheld model with only a few hard buttons and an iPod-like scrollwheel. Many manufacturers have riffed on this design, in particular Marantz, whose RC-5200 combines hard buttons with a customizable touchscreen that can be set up with several levels of menus, with the most-used features on top.
Programmable touchscreens (or touchpanels) are available from many manufacturers. They vary in their programmability as well as in their sensitivity to touch and legibility in daylight and darkness. The backlight that illuminates the screen can be kept on for a user-selectable length of time, at the risk of shortening battery life. Nonresponsive touchscreens sometimes need only more fingertip pressure. By all means, read all user comments about any universal remote you are considering for purchase, and if possible try it out in person. Buying a touchscreen is like buying the right pair of shoes—what works for someone else may not be right for you.