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The best universal remotes 2018: the ultimate beginners guide

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Universal remotes are smart home lifesavers because they solve one of the biggest problems any home entertainment enthusiast tends to struggle with. And that’s what you do with all the remotes you have in your living room for your TVs, your soundbars, your cable boxes, your games consoles and everything else.

Because tech keeps moving forwards, manufacturers aren’t keen on giving up the remote – even in a post-smart assistant world.

We know that transitioning away from our plastic companions can be tough, it’s a necessary move if we want to cut down on all the clutter in our living rooms. 

And that’s where a universal remote can be really useful. 

What is a universal remote?

To put it simply, they’re just remote controls – exactly like the ones that come with your TV – that can imitate the signals sent by the original remote of your TV, AV receiver or whatever device you own that uses an infrared signal.

If you’re wondering why you should buy one, there are two key scenarios where they’re ideal: either you’ve lost your original remote, and your TV provider wants nothing less than your first-born child to pay for the replacement, or you’re looking to have fewer remote controls because you want to streamline your AV experience. The best universal remotes are the answer to both of these scenarios. 

Pretty much every universal remote uses infrared, or, IR. Which is the same signal used by manufacturer remotes.

Cheap vs expensive

If you’re considering shopping for a cheap universal remote, such as the One For All Essence (which is only available in the UK), you’ll use a pattern of button presses to program the remote, selecting the right set of instructions for your hardware. Manufacturers like Panasonic and Sony have only used a couple different patterns of instructions over the last decade or so for most of their TVs. You can just cycle through them until you find the set of instructions that lets you operate the TV in question.  

The low-cost One for All Essence can replace two remotes

Many mid-tier universal remotes boast companion apps and large databases that let you just select the TV or receiver you have on your mobile device. It’s quicker, easier and less of a hassle to add new devices, in case your AV setup ever changes.

Generally speaking, the more devices you’re looking for your universal remote to support, the more money you’ll be spending. Logitech’s Harmony Elite is compatible with up to 15 devices with just the one remote, while low-end models, like the One for All Simple, only support one. Just like most things in the tech world, it just comes down to that classic use-case question: are you replacing a lost remote or do you just want to use just one remote instead of a half dozen unique ones? 

The Logitech Harmony Elite is one of the top-end universal remotes

When you start getting to the High end of the spectrum, you’ll start seeing remotes that allow you to set up custom macros, or ‘activities’. These ‘activities’ will let you make a single button or touch screen press send off several commands. 

One remote, called ‘Watch TV,’ for example, may turn on your cable box, audio receiver and TV, change the receiver to the right channel and switch your TV to the right HDMI input. Another classic is to turn all of your equipment off with a single press of a button.

Who makes universal remotes?

There are two main players in the universal remote control game, and they’re the ones we’ve listed out thus far. Logitech makes all the best high-end remotes, in the shape of its Harmony models, while One for All is the best brand for more inexpensive remotes. 

The Doro HandleEasy is as basic as universal remotes get

In the US, you’ll also see a plethora of low-price remote controls from RCA. And if you’re buying for an elderly relative, or want a super-simple remote that only covers the TV basics. The Doro HandleEasy lets you change volume and channels. It has been around for years, but is a great lo-fi gadget.   

 Phones that are universal remotes

If all of that sounds too overwhelming, you might be holding the answer to your home entertainment solution in your hand right now. 

That’s because some phones will also function as universal remotes, although perhaps not the models you may think. They need to have a feature called an IR blaster, which enables them to transmit the same signals as a normal remote control.

These used to be somewhat common, but have become quite rare, with the feature regarded as unloved and generally useless in the phones that had it. Current phones with an IR blaster include the Honor 9 and Huawei P20 Plus. Some Xiaomi phones have one too. The common thread? These are Chinese companies. 

The Honor 9 is one of the few new phones to have an IR blaster

The most recent mainstream phones to feature IR blasters were the LG G5 and LG V20, while the last flagship Samsungs with IR were the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, and those came out almost three years ago. These phones have apps that let you configure your own setup, with on-screen buttons for (almost) all your remotes’ functions. 

We know people who owned phones with IR blasters a few years ago, but who ended up spending a significant amount of cash on a universal remote, oblivious to their phone’s abilities.

Have a phone with an IR blaster? You might want to check out a third-party remote control app like Peel or Sure, as these have a smarter interface than most built-in apps

Controlling consoles and smart homes

A weakness that the vast majority of universal remotes share is that they can’t control most smart home devices, or Sony’s PS3 and PS4. This is because they use either Bluetooth, RF or Wi-Fi instead of IR. 

In that case you might not need a universal remote at all. Instead, the answer might be to invest in a hub that supports these other standards, and right now you have two major options. 

Logitech offers the best, and the most popular one. The Logitech Home Hub is compatible with Microsoft and Sony game consoles, and a wide range of smart home gadgets including Philips Hue lights. It connects to your home Wi-Fi network, and can be controlled either by a mobile app or one of Logitech’s higher-end remotes.  

Logitech’s Harmony Hub levels-up the abilities of universal remotes

Using one of the Harmony series’ tasty macro activities, you could therefore set the lighting level for movie night, as well as turning on your AV setup, with a single press. 

Elsewhere, the Broadlink RM and RM Pro are hubs that can control IR and RF (Pro model) devices through a mobile phone app. They’re significantly cheaper than the Logitech Home Hub, although as they don’t use Bluetooth you can’t use them to control a Sony PS4. 

It is a low-cost way to make up for the lack of an IR blaster, though. 

Voice control

One additional benefit of the Logitech Home Hub system is that you can already control it through Amazon’s digital voice assistant Alexa.

If you have an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot or any other product with Alexa built-in, you can add a Harmony ‘skill’ to it, and using this you can say “Alexa, tell Harmony to turn on the TV”, and it’ll do so. We’ve tried it out as part of our research for this guide, and it works rather well. 

You can now use your voice as a universal remote, with the right hardware

One day we’ll be able to control everything over Wi-Fi, but until that day it’s reassuring to see that universal remotes aren’t content to become ‘retro’ gadgets; they’re keeping up with the times.

Logitech Harmony at a glance

As the Logitech Harmony series is easily the most important range of universal remotes for people looking for an experience to suit a high-end setup, let’s take a quick look at what’s on offer. 

The Harmony family has two main lines – there are newer remotes that work with the Harmony Hub, and older pure IR remotes that don’t.

The Harmony Ultimate is one of Logitech’s full-fat universal remotes

The newer kind includes the Elite, Ultimate, Touch, Ultimate One and 950 models, all of which have screens. Logitech’s Companion remote supports the hub but doesn’t have a display, making it a little more affordable. 

Those after something even less pocket-draining should check out the Harmony 650, which has a display but no Hub support, and the Harmony 350, a basic £35/$38 remote that’s a classic universal remote but can still combine the functions of eight remotes. 

So, what is the best universal remote?

At $250 (£99, AU$449), the Logitech Harmony Elite obviously no small investment – and if you’re not absolutely serious about the form and function of your home entertainment setup, then you needn’t bother. But for anyone who wants one remote to control just about everything, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything that is both this functional and relatively easy to use out of the box.   

If your setup is complex and you’re seeking some automation in your routine, or you just can’t stand the sight of a handful of differently-shaped remotes laying on your couch, then the Logitech Harmony Elite might be a luxury worth splashing out for. Despite the occasional hitch, it’s a powerful remote that can wrangle your audio/visual madness, plus it looks and feels pretty good doing so.