The average living room has more buttons than a jumbo jet. As our audio-video systems get more complicated -- replete with DVD players, VCRs, cable boxes or satellite receivers, and maybe digital video recorders -- coffee tables can start to run out of room for all the remote controls. A universal remote control can remedy the situation by consolidating buttons, combining the functions from several clickers into just one.
If, that is, it's actually easier to use than the prior accumulation of infrared gadgets.
We looked at five remotes that include LCD displays, macro functions to issue multiple commands in sequence, and the ability to learn command codes for new devices.
Universal Electronics' Mosaic (http://www.mosaichelp.com) resembles a personal digital assistant, with its large touch screen and stylus -- not to mention the $399 price tag. Most of its buttons are actually images on the screen, which you can redesign using the device's personalization mode. You can create your own screens of buttons for each component, changing each button's label and position.
This sounds like heaven for gadget freaks, but the Mosaic is a chore to use. The interface is slow: You have to switch between three screens just to control a VCR's basic functions, and you must scroll through a menu to switch devices. The virtual buttons provide no tactile feedback, so you must look at the remote to perform even the simplest command.
The RCA RCU1000B Touchscreen Learning Remote resembles the Mosaic, with its hefty size, LCD touch screen and stylus. But it's a lot cheaper, at $99, and its pleasant interface offers quicker navigation and less fuss than the Mosaic. Again, there's no tactile feedback for most buttons, which means taking your eyes from the TV screen. This remote will appeal to gadget lovers, but won't overwhelm folks who just want to watch TV.
RCA also offers a cheaper option, the $70 RCU810. It can control eight devices, but its daunting multitude of buttons -- some arranged in unintuitive locations, and many of which serve more than one function -- suggest it ought to be capable of more. A small LCD displays the time and provides step-by-step programming instructions, but this remote isn't particularly easy to use either. The manual brings more confusion than assistance.
The Sony RM-AV2100 ($179) looks as if it belongs in Mission Control. This unit combines a touch-screen LCD with standard, pushable buttons to offer an intuitive interface. Capable of commanding 12 components, it fits better on the coffee table than in the palm of your hand -- at almost five inches wide, one-handed control is difficult. Despite that, it is easy to use and program, supporting several types of macros for effective system control. And if you don't need to handle anything too arcane, a "change" button switches the onscreen interface between basic functions and more complex controls.
The $189 Home Theater Master MX-500, from Universal Remote Control (http://www.universalremote.com/htm/products/), looks more like a traditional remote control, with its array of physical buttons. It can control 10 devices and includes a small LCD surrounded by "soft" buttons -- their functions are indicated on the display and change depending on what you're doing. You can customize each of those buttons; for instance, you could program them with your favorite television channels. This remote offers a great balance of power and ease of use.
A newer model, the MX-700, can control 20 devices and include something that once might have seemed like somebody's idea of a joke: a second "SideKick" remote that offers a simplified set of commands. (Alas, this second remote can't actually issue commands to the primary remote.)
Confused? The Remote Central Web site (http://www.remotecentral.com) offers an extensive set of remote reviews and a "clicker picker" feature that can help buyers choose between them.