The Difference Between an Infrared & Universal Remote

by Fred Decker

If you've invested heavily in electronics for your home, you don't need a separate coffee table for all the remote controls, because the majority of remotes have very similar features and communicate with your electronics in the same way through pulses of infrared light. This means that you can replace a large number of single-purpose remotes with one "universal" remote, which can generate the necessary signals to run multiple devices.

Remote Basics

The remotes for most electronic devices use a relatively small handful of instructions to fast forward, rewind, load menus and perform other functions. When you program a universal remote, you're simply telling it which combinations of instructions to use. Inexpensive universal remotes often replace two or three single-purpose remotes, while higher-end models can replace six or more. Some add features not found in the original remotes, such as multiple programmable timers. Others provide the ability to perform complex command sequences, such as turning down the lights, switching on the home theatre system and starting a movie, all with a single press of the button.

Infrared Limitations

Imagine two ships at sea, using lights and semaphore to communicate. If fog or a cliff comes between them, it cuts off communications. That's also the limitation of infrared remotes, which need a line of sight between them and the device they control. Therefore, a single remote can't usually control items in different rooms. Electronics spread horizontally across the width of a room can sometimes be problematic if their position creates a very broad angle. Even an entertainment stand with a glass door can sometimes reflect enough light to prevent an infrared remote from working properly.

Radio Frequency Remotes

Some remote controls avoid this problem by using radio frequency transmission to send commands. High-end universal remotes do the same, adding RF capability to your existing electronics by attaching a small receiver unit. The unit consists of a radio receiver to pick up transmissions from the remote, and a small infrared emitter that attaches to the front of the device. When the remote sends a signal, the receiver unit translates it into infrared impulses, and sends them to your audio or video components. RF remotes typically cost more than infrared, and you need a receiver for each device you control.

Choosing a Remote

To choose the right universal remote, start by defining what you want it to do. If your ambition stops at having one remote to run your TV, DVD and stereo, a simple and inexpensive model will serve your purposes. On the other hand, if your home is wired with remote-control everything, you might need a top-of-the-line controller. For example, Logitech's high-end Harmony models support over a dozen components, and have a touchscreen and Internet-based programming for ease of use. Some models also have RF support for whole-house use. Some remotes are easier to program than others, so ask store staff for a demonstration whenever possible.

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