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The best universal remotes for serious home theaters

Reviewers consistently name Logitech Harmony remotes as the best overall; rarely have we seen a product line dominate the competition so completely in reviews. Experts say these universal remotes are the best available -- they are easier to use, more intuitive and work better than other remotes on the market. Owners back up these professional opinions and Logitech Harmony remotes are consistently the highest-rated universal remotes on user-review sites. The high price is a serious downside, but experts say it's justified if you have a large, multi-component home theater. If you want to control only a few devices, like a television and DVD player, a basic universal remote under $100 will probably suit you just fine.

The Logitech Harmony One (*Est. $140) , reviewers say, is one of the best universal remotes available. "Logitech's Harmony One is one of the best -- if not the best -- universal remote we've ever tested," says CNET's David Carnoy. "Yes, it's expensive, but it's not outrageous when you consider you're getting the Porsche of universal remotes." Experts say the Harmony One is a big improvement over previous Harmony universal remotes, which also were said to be excellent. Its major addition is a color touch screen. Instead of hunting for the right button, you can simply glance at the screen and touch the icon for "watch TV" or change channels by touching the logos of your favorite networks. It's the top scorer in a test of 12 remotes at Good Housekeeping, and Clint DeBoer at Audioholics.com says the Logitech Harmony One "stands in a league of its own." User reviews are generally positive, and the Harmony One receives a good overall score from owners at Amazon.com following tons of feedback.

Critics note that the glossy black finish picks up every fingerprint and smudge. But the main criticism of the Harmony One is that it can be complicated to set up initially. It sounds easy -- you hook it up to your home computer via USB, and the Harmony One remote control starts asking you questions. The Harmony One takes this information and automatically sets up commands for you – such as "watch TV." However, several experts say the setup process doesn't always work. Some tinker with the commands themselves, and others call customer service and find it helpful. With its ability to control up to 15 devices, critics do say that the Harmony One universal remote is probably overkill for a home-theater setup with only a few simple components, and they say that because it is infrared (IR) only, the Harmony One can't control components in another room.

The Logitech Harmony 900 (*Est. $250) , improves on the Harmony One by using both radio frequency (RF) and IR signals. The addition of RF means that you can control components through closed cabinet doors or walls by placing the included modules into your home-theater cabinet. The design is very similar to the Harmony One, although Logitech has bumped up the resolution of the touch screen and added a set of dedicated Blu-ray buttons to the Harmony 900. Like the Harmony One, the Logitech Harmony 900 uses a computer-based setup process with an included USB cable, and it can control up to 15 separate components.

The Logitech Harmony 900 universal remote has accumulated a host of good expert reviews, including an Editors' Choice award from CNET. David Carnoy at CNET gives the Logitech Harmony 900 his highest praise. He says the RF modules work well for controlling his seven-component system, and he finds the remote easy to set up. Although he would appreciate more macro customization options, Carnoy concludes that the Logitech Harmony 900 is "hands down, the best universal remote we've ever tested." Shane McGlaun at I4U.com comes to a similar conclusion, saying the Logitech Harmony 900 is "easily the best of the Harmony line." McGlaun acknowledges that it's an expensive remote, but says the price is worth it if you have a multi-component home theater.

The Logitech Harmony 900 doesn't score as highly as the Harmony One with users, however. RF range -- which many say is weaker than claimed -- seems to be a sore spot. Others say the remote's lack of macro support (called "custom sequences" by Logitech) is too limiting. Happy owners, on the other hand, say the remote works well, although some also add that they think the Harmony One is a better deal if you don't need RF control.

If you like Logitech's Harmony remotes but don't want to spend quite so much, the Logitech Harmony 700 (*Est. $100) might be worth a look. It can't control as many devices as more upscale Harmony remotes -- just six. In addition, the Harmony 700 can't communicate through walls or cabinets like the RF-enabled Harmony 900, and it doesn't include some of the nifty features found on more expensive remotes -- there's no touch screen or charging cradle, for example.

Still, this universal remote is attracting some pretty positive reviews, including an Editors' Choice award from PCMag.com. PJ Jacobowitz at PCMag.com says the Logitech Harmony 700 offers much of the same functionality as the top-rated Harmony One. CNET also gives the remote high grades, adding that it delivers most of the features of the Harmony One, but at a lower price. Continuing the trend, Matt Burns at CrunchGear.com says the remote is the "perfect combination of form and function at the right price." User reviews are solid, though not overwhelmingly so. Most users are happy, but some run into problems programming or using the remote. A couple question build quality, and CNET says that the Harmony 700 does have a bit of a budget feel about it.

The Logitech Harmony 650 (*Est. $55) is similar, but there are two key differences compared to the Harmony 700. For one, the Harmony 650 can control only five devices compared to the six of the Harmony 700. In addition, it does not include the rechargeable batteries of the more upscale Harmony remotes. If those niceties don't matter to you, the Harmony 650 is arguably a better buy than the Harmony 700 -- and, according to CNET, one of the best remotes you can buy for less than $100. User reviews are also pretty positive for the Harmony 650, with the majority of owners reporting in at Amazon.com granting it 4 or 5 stars overall.

Although reviewers prefer the Logitech Harmony line overall, the Universal Remote Control (URC) Digital R50 (*Est. $75) is a worthy contender among less-expensive full-featured universal remote controls. Unlike Harmony remotes, the URC Digital R50 doesn't use a computer-based setup; instead, users complete the setup process using a programming wizard displayed on the remote's color screen. The remote can control up to 18 devices, and it includes several important features like backlit buttons and advanced customization options, known as macros. John Falcone at CNET gives the URC R50 a very good rating, but contends it's a step behind the Logitech Harmony remotes. The editors of HomeTheaterReview.com say the URC Digital R50 is sturdy and well designed, but they find the advanced options and macros can require a lengthy setup time. User reviews are solid, though not as strong as some more highly regarded Harmony remotes. Comments indicate that there is a bit of a learning curve in getting the R50 set up correctly. However, those who work their way through things -- including some who say they initially hated the remote -- add that the effort is worthwhile.

The more upscale URC MX-450 (*Est. $250) also gets high marks. It can be viewed as a competitor to the Logitech Harmony 900 because the MX-450 can use both infrared and radio frequency signals. The design is very similar to the URC Digital R50 and, like the R50, the MX-450 uses an on-screen setup instead of the computer-based method popularized by Logitech. John Sciacca at Sound & Vision magazine has a lengthy overview of the URC MX-450, concluding that the computer-free operation will appeal to those who are intimidated by using a PC to program a remote control. URC recommends professional installation for the MX-450, but Sciacca says he thinks the average person could set up this remote just fine.

Universal remotes for gaming systems

Few universal remotes can control the Sony PlayStation 3 without an extra adapter, because the game system uses Bluetooth instead of infrared. All Logitech Harmony remotes can control the PS3 with the addition of the optional Logitech Harmony Adapter for PlayStation 3 (*Est. $45). The adapter gets high marks on Amazon.com, where owners say it works nearly flawlessly with the PS3, although the setup may cause a few headaches.

The Nyko BluWave remote (*Est. $10) is another way to add some PS3 control to your Logitech Harmony remote. That remote includes an adapter (dongle) that plugs into the console's USB port and allows standard IR control, but only of those commands that are on the standard PS3 controller. That means certain commands -- such as power, angle and eject -- can't be accessed. Most of those who opt for the BluWave throw away the remote itself and use the dongle with their universal remotes to control a PS3. Reports say that the limitations are an annoyance, but that the low cost of the BluWave remote makes it worth considering.

The SMK-Link Blu-Link Universal Remote Control for PlayStation 3 VP3700 (*Est. $40) is another option. The remote can control regular home-theater devices and the PS3 without an extra adapter. It has a basic design and can control up to six components. No professional reviewers have tested the Blu-Link, but it has received fairly good ratings so far from more than 180 reviews on Amazon.com. One caveat, however, is that a significant number of owners, including some who otherwise give the remote a good grade, report that the Blu-Link remote has a tendency to fall out of sync with the PS3.

It's not much easier to find a universal remote that works with the Microsoft Xbox 360. Logitech used to make a remote geared specifically to Xbox users -- the Harmony Advanced Universal Remote for Xbox 360 -- but it has since been discontinued. The top-rated Logitech Harmony One is compatible with the Xbox 360. SMK-Link has also released the Xlink VP3701 (*Est. $30) universal remote control, which includes the ability to control an Xbox 360. We found a brief review at a gaming-oriented site, GameRevolution.com, that awards it a good grade, but scant other professional or user feedback.

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SMK-Link PS3 Blu-Link Universal Remote Control
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $49.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Logitech Harmony 650 Remote Control (Silver)
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from Amazon.com
New: $90.60 $59.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Nyko BluWave Remote for PS3
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $14.99 $8.95   
Average Customer Review:  
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SMK-Link X-Link Universal TV Remote Control (VP3701)
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $29.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  

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