The New Breed of Universal Remotes: Voice-Control & Smart Home Connections

Plus: Best Buy Recommendations

It’s less expensive than ever before to get a universal remote control that transmits infrared and Wi-Fi signals.

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Long gone are the days when your universal remote control, or universal remote, was tasked only with controlling a TV, a Blu-ray Disc player, and a cable or satellite set-top box (STB). Today, your home-entertainment setup might include a TV that has built-in apps, a video-game console, a soundbar, and a streaming-video STB or HDMI stick. You might even want to control your network-connected lights, door locks, thermostat and windows remotely.

In other words, the number of products that can be controlled remotely never has been higher than it is today.

Unfortunately, the number of universal remotes shrank in the past 2 years. We counted 47 models that were available widely as of press time, compared with 91 before.

If you’re looking for a universal remote that costs less than $80 and controls three to four devices, which experts tell us fills the demands of most consumers, you don’t have a lot of options anymore. Phillips and Sony discontinued their universal-remote lines in the past 2 years. URC, which was one of the leading manufacturers in the economy price range, has two such models remaining and is focusing on ultrapremium (read: at least $400) universal remotes that have to be installed professionally. That leaves Voxx International, which owns the RCA brand, as the leading manufacturer of sub-$50 universal remotes.

“There’s less players than there were in the past, but we have no intention of getting out of the remote-control business,” says Greg Urban of Voxx. “People are cutting the cord and trimming down what packages they have, but you still have 11.1 million households with TVs, and more than 50 percent of them pay for a subscription service and combine that with streaming services. People will always need remote controls for those services.”

We agree with Urban’s take. Unfortunately, all RCA remotes (starting at $8) have to be programmed manually.

That means that you have to find a numeric code for each product that you want to control and type it into the universal remote. We found that it’s easy if you’re tech-savvy, but otherwise it isn’t. What’s more frustrating is that you might find that your product is so new or so niche that a code for it doesn’t exist or it isn’t compatible with your universal remote.

Universal remotes that can be programmed easily by connecting to a computer through a USB cable cost at least $80, compared with $30 before.

MIXED SIGNALS. Universal remotes that are in the $80 range that can be programmed easily by connecting to a computer emit only infrared (IR) signals. We believe that that’s fine for most consumers, because IR controls most consumer-electronics products. However, you’ll have to have Wi-Fi to control video-game consoles, HDMI streaming sticks and connected home devices, such as a thermostat.

Logitech’s Harmony Hub ($99), which is a base station that’s capable of controlling devices by working with Apple iOS or Google Android smartphones and tablet computers that run Logitech’s free Harmony mobile app, is the least expensive Wi-Fi universal- remote-control system that we evaluated. Previously, you had to pay at least $300 to control connected home devices.

Unfortunately, we found that Logitech’s app, like all remote-control apps, takes far more time for you to perform a simple task than it does a typical handheld universal remote. That’s because you have to unlock your smartphone’s or tablet’s lock screen, open the app and tell the app to perform a task, rather than just press a button on a handheld universal remote. You also have to make sure that your smartphone or tablet is charged, and you might have to close other app windows to open the remote app window.

The bottom line: We found that systems that employ smartphones or tablets as the “remote” are a hassle. Todd Walker of Logitech agrees that remote-control apps aren’t an ideal solution.

“We always imagine having our phone with us, but in practice we don’t,” Walker says. “Our phone might be charging. It might be in another room. The kids might be using it. The remote is still the most convenient way for controlling entertainment.”

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