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Inexpensive remote controls for small home theaters

If you want to control only a few components -- a TV, DVD player and cable or satellite box, for example -- a basic universal remote under $40 might be all you need. The drawback is that these simple remotes suffer in terms of features compared to more expensive options. Many come pre-loaded only with codes for a limited number of devices. If the remote you buy has the code for your particular brand of TV or equipment, you're in luck; otherwise, not so much. Some basic remotes also have the ability to learn new codes from an existing remote. In addition, at least one low-cost remote has the ability to connect to the Internet to download codes and simplify setup, though a lot of corners have been cut to get it down to this price range.

The Universal Remote Control (URC) R6 (*Est. $15) , a basic remote that can control up to six devices, gets good professional and decent user reviews. Like most basic remotes, users basically have to rely on the remote's internal database of component codes, although the URC R6 can learn from other remotes. There are few other features beyond support for macros -- programming commands to turn on multiple components and execute commands (like selecting inputs) with a single button push. A My Favorites feature lets you assign up to five "favorite" cable TV channels to one of four buttons.

The URC R6 universal remote is the runner-up to the Logitech Harmony One in a test of 12 universal remote controls conducted by Good Housekeeping. Although the analysis is brief, the editors of Good Housekeeping praise the URC R6 for its quick setup operation. It's also one of the top-rated universal remotes at Buzzillions.com. Most owners are surprised at how well this inexpensive remote works and the majority say the setup was easy enough. However, a few reviewers report problems when setting up the remote. Reviews at Amazon.com are a little less positive, however. Although a majority of owners give it good grades, a minority say the limited memory curtails the number of devices and commands that can be added via the learning feature. Though still available, finding the R6 at retail outlets has become challenging.

The URC WR7 (*Est. $20) is a step-up basic universal remote control that adds a few features to the R6. One is backlighting to make using the remote easier in a darkened room. It also offers a quick programming feature that simplifies using the WR7's built-in codes. Memory is expanded to handle up to seven devices, squelching any user complaints about too-little capacity to hold all of the codes in some more complex home theater systems. Among the practical niceties is a couch mode that turns off the remote if a button is pressed for 30 seconds or longer -- such as might happen if a remote is accidently trapped between couch cushions. Experts have not weighed in on the WR7, but user reports at Amazon.com and Buzzillion.com are pretty positive overall. Again, availability is not as broad as it once was, however.

The Logitech Harmony 300i (*Est. $30) has received professional reviews from CNET and PCMag.com, as well as a good number of user reviews at sites like Amazon.com. PJ Jacobowitz of PCMag.com isn't that enamored by what's left out of the Harmony 300i, though he notes that it still does include "Logitech's killer app: computer-driven setup." That feature lets you hook up the remote to the Internet via your computer for (relatively) painless, automated setup.

CNET's John P. Falcone is only slightly more impressed. He says that the Harmony 300i is "a cheap and easy universal remote," but adds it's only a good choice for those who can live without the capabilities of Logitech's more advanced models. For example, it lacks the ability to handle all but the most basic activity based commands. (Activity-based commands let you program all of the settings on all of your devices needed for a specific activity, like watch a Blu-ray disc, to a single button push -- see What to Look For).

Other corners are cut as well. There is no support for macros, and the Harmony 300i can only be used to control up to four devices. There's also no LCD screen, and the keypad is not backlit. Overall, while the pros at CNET and PCMag.com like the price of the Harmony 300i, they say that it doesn't offer the features and functionality of other Logitech remotes. User reviews echo those views. Most owners say they are happy, but there's also negative feedback from those who have used more upscale Harmony remotes and find this one falls short by comparison.

The Logitech Harmony 200 (*Est. $20) is even more stripped-down than the Logitech Harmony 300i, making it the least expensive -- and the least capable -- of Logitech's well-regarded Harmony line of universal remotes. However, the "price of the Harmony 200 puts it in direct contention with those supercheap universal remotes you can buy at the drugstore," John Falcone notes, en route to calling it "the best universal remote you can buy for under $20" (though it sometimes sells for a few dollars more than that). Reviewers at ExpertReviews.co.uk and TrustedReviews.com echo the sentiment, awarding the universal remote control a Recommended and Best Buy award, respectively.

Performance and setup is similar to the Logitech Harmony 300i's, although the Logitech Harmony 200 only controls up to three devices (opposed to the Harmony 300i's four). Setup is done via the Web-based MyHarmony interface -- the same one used for the Harmony 300i -- after connecting the remote to a PC via a USB connection. The remote itself is sturdy, comfortable and offers many more button options than typical budget remotes. One gripe users have is the lack of dedicated skip forward and skip back buttons, which makes jumping between DVD or Blu-ray scenes more difficult than normal. "I could program another button for these functions, but which button should I sacrifice?" one Amazon.com user ponders. "There are four generic buttons (A, B, C, D), but these aren't near the fast forward/backward buttons." The Harmony 200 also lacks the five Favorite Channel buttons found on the Harmony 300i.

Despite those reservations and limitations, users and critics say that the Logitech Harmony 200 is a very capable remote for those with basic home theater setups. "It can only replace three remotes, but, if that's all you need, it's a real star," Andrew Williams writes at TrustedReviews.com.

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URC WR7 Universal Remote Control for up to 7 A/V Components with 4 Favorite Channel Buttons
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from Amazon.com
New: $29.99 $21.50   
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