At last, new remotes that are 'universal'


SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The 50-inch plasma HDTV has been installed. It's wall-mounted and miraculously configured with all the components, including new DTS receiver, cable box, DVD, DVR and VCR.

It's a veritable shrine to 21st-century ingenuity, the perfect home entertainment system and then some.

Wait a minute. There's a glitch in this high-def picture. Scattered about the family room are the Panasonic TV remote, Sony DVD remote, Yamaha receiver remote, Philips VCR remote, Comcast remote - and a couple of mystery remotes.

Eyeing the mess, Frank Ballesteros of Best Buy, says: "You need a universal remote."

Yeah, sure. Like a third eye.

Ballesteros, a custom home technician in San Jose, recommends one in the new line of programmable remotes: Logitech's Harmony series, which sells for $99 to $399. The Harmony remotes are currently being cross-promoted with the movie Click, starring Adam Sandler as a stressed-out dad who attempts to control his life with the ultimate remote.

Other high-end programmable remotes competing with the Harmony series include Philips' Pronto and, for multi-room use, Universal Remote's Home Theater Master and Crestron's MiniLCD, which are radio-frequency remotes that can "see" around corners. The Harmony and Pronto can be set up by a consumer; others must be programmed by the installer, sometimes for an additional charge.

"The universals are for the wife who hates 55 remotes, the kids who are always changing channels ... the parent, just home from work, who doesn't want to troubleshoot their system," Ballesteros says.

Memories of previous "universals" come flooding back. You need an advanced degree from MIT to program the suckers. And even then they control only two, possibly three, of your components. The universal remote that's supposed to replace the other remotes has become, arrrgh, just one more.

"Remotes? In my book, they're P.I.T.A. - a pain in the, uh, backside," groans Joan Slaughterbeck of Campbell, Calif., who has five (or is it six?) remotes on her couch. "They don't interface with one another, and you need a Ph.D. to read the manuals. And God forbid there should be a power outage and you have to reprogram the things."

The Harmony 880 (with time bar, color LCD and recharge cradle) or Home Theater Master Aeros may be the answer to Slaughterbeck's angst. These programmable remotes have the potential to interface with thousands of infrared-controlled devices, including lighting fixtures, air conditioners and ceiling fans. Harmony bills itself as a computer operating system in your hand.

But more important, says Lloyd Klarke of Logitech, the smart remotes are bringing closure to America's love-hate relationship with the remote, which began back in 1950, when Zenith introduced a remote tethered to the TV by a cable.

The Harmony, when docked to the USB port of your PC, downloads component specs from Logitech's Web site and configures up to 15 devices for one-button functionality. Press "Play TV" on the Activities bar and the TV, cable box and receiver are activated. Press "Play DVD," and the cable box snaps off and the TV, DVD player and receiver snap on. Press "Play Radio," and everything but the receiver blinks off.

"We set out to create a remote that passes the babysitter test," says Klarke, director of marketing and development for Harmony remotes. "It's for someone who may not know your system, your devices. That person should be able to walk into the room and use the system, which, with the advent of the high-definition HDTVs, has gotten much more complex."

Magnolia Audio Video, owned by Best Buy, is pushing the Home Theater Master's models, including the pre-programmed Osiris ($149) and programmable Aeros with RF capability ($399).

"We give our customers a choice, but they often go with the Aeros," says Mahdie Yasavolian, a sales counselor at Magnolia's store in Santa Clara, Calif. "The Aeros is faster and more ... user-friendly."

Both remotes address what's known in the biz as "coffee-table clutter."

"Let's face it, people don't like their remotes that much, and there's a great deal of frustration tied to the new technology we've added to the living room," Klarke says. "And the so-called 'universal' remote didn't deliver on its promise. It just replaced a lost remote with one that was more complex."

And don't forget the WAF, or wife acceptance factor. The Harmony is as sleek as a stealth fighter.

"The Harmony not only makes the system easy to work," Klarke crows, "it also fits very well into the decor of the living room."

Ballesteros doesn't just push the remotes, he also uses one to keep peace in the family. "I'm OK with 25 remotes," he says. "But my mom goes nuts. She can't tell one from the other."

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