Universal remote controls span a broad price range, from basic models that cost less than $10 to ultra-sophisticated touch-screen LCD remotes that cost more than some audio-video (AV) components. Some high-end universal remotes even require professional programming and installation. Basic universal remotes can control between three and eight components, while pricier universal remotes can replace up to 18 individual remotes. These more expensive remotes are also activity-based, meaning you can order the remote to perform an activity that usually requires multiple keystrokes -- such as turning on a TV, Blu-ray Disc player and home theater receiver -- with just a single button, which is also known as a macro.
Less expensive remotes use preloaded product codes to identify your AV equipment. Setup involves finding your components in the list and training the remote to recognize them. In addition, some basic remotes are learning remotes, meaning you can use your existing remotes to "teach" the universal remote the commands it needs to control a piece of equipment.
More advanced universal remotes use a web-based setup that most experts prefer; you have to have a computer with Internet access, but reviewers say this kind of setup wizard is the easiest and causes fewer headaches. While web-based setup helps, even experts sometimes get frustrated when they try to program a universal remote to run all of their equipment. "As we all know, programming a universal remote is only slightly less fun than electrocution," writes Adrienne Maxwell at Home Theater magazine.
Few new models have been released in recent months, and as such, not a lot of professional reviewers have been expending a lot of time covering universal remotes. CNET, however, is a bit of an exception as that site continues to do a good job of staying abreast of the latest offerings had offers the most comprehensive coverage of universal remotes of any reviewer we've found. Other reviewers provide spottier coverage, but that's not necessarily a liability because most of the best universal remotes have been available for some time. Good sources include PCMag.com and Gizmodo.com. RemoteCentral.com doesn't rate or rank remotes, but it has what are easily the most detailed reports on universal remotes. ConsumerReports.org has abandoned its coverage of universal remotes altogether. User reviews at Amazon.com and elsewhere are helpful for evaluating budget remotes, because most professional reviewers usually don't cover these inexpensive models.
While the standalone remote arena has been relatively quiet, one area has gained attention recently -- hardware/app combos that turn smartphones and tablets into universal remotes. Several critics cover a number of these devices, including Laptop Magazine, Home Theater Magazine and Sound & Vision.