Taking control

Graham Clements
Remote controls can be difficult to use. Many remotes have tiny buttons. The buttons can be hard to see and press. But they can be replaced by a universal remote. Universal remotes can operate a wide range of equipment. Equipment might include a television, DVD player and amplifier. Some universal remotes have larger buttons that glow in the dark. Some use touch-screens. Others can be operated with spoken commands. Universal remotes need to be programmed before they can be used. Sometimes they might not work with your equipment. It is good to try a remote before you buy it.
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Graham Clements on 05/05/2011
The Logitech Harmony 1100 universal remote control. It has a large touch screen with a series of icons with titles like "watch TV" and "listen to music" as well as buttons for volume and channels.

The Logitech Harmony 1100 is expensive but can control many different devices

My mother had resigned herself to missing the last series of the television drama 24. The series was switched to a new digital channel. But she only had an analog television. So I bought her a digital set-top box. Unfortunately, her arthritic fingers found the tiny buttons on the set-top box remote difficult to use. She ended up relying on me to record the shows for her.

Many people find remote controls annoying or difficult to operate. For people with poor hand control or limited vision, some remotes are impossible to use. But specially designed universal remotes can offer a solution. They can be found at traditional electronic retailers as well as specialists like Independent Living Centres (opens new window).

Universal remotes

Universal remotes can control televisions as well as other home entertainment equipment. Typical devices a universal remote can control include:

  • Digital television set-top boxes
  • Video cassette recorders
  • Personal video recorders
  • DVD and Blu-ray players
  • Games consoles
  • Amplifers and receivers.

Instead of using a different remote for each piece of equipment, one remote can control them all.

Recommended remotes

Choice magazine did a test of 15 universal remote controls in 2008. The test recommended five remotes. Three of them were manufactured by Logitech. Choice said that size, weight or awkward buttons were a problem with most of the other remotes. The comparison can be found on the Choice website (opens new window).

Adam Turner, one of The Age newspaper's technology experts, also recommends Logitech Harmony universal remotes. Turner says the strength of the Harmony range is that they use customisable activities to run your entire home entertainment system. For example, just pushing Play DVD can trigger a series of operations. It can turn on your television, amplifier and DVD player, change to the appropriate TV channel and start playing the disc. This is also known as a macro command.

Big-button remotes

There are specially designed universal remotes that people with a disability could find easier to use than traditional models. Big-button universal remotes have very large buttons. For example, Dick Smith has a cheap universal remote with buttons that are about a square centimetre in size. The whole control pad also lights up when a button is pressed. But big-button remotes can be large. Some people might find them awkward to hold.

Touch-screen remotes

Another option is touch-screen remotes, They have a screen with icons to touch instead of buttons. They can resemble traditional remotes or look more like a flat-screen console. Adam Turner says touch-screens can be difficult for people with poor motor control to use. Touch-screens also lack tactile feedback for those who are vision impaired.

Voice-activated remotes

Voice-activated remotes are controlled with spoken commands. They could be a good solution for people who are blind or have a vision impairment. Once programmed by the user, some remotes can recognise over 50 spoken commands. Voice-activated remotes usually also have a few buttons for common functions like changing television channels or adjusting volume.

Programming a remote

A universal remote needs to be programmed with a code for each piece of equipment it is to operate. Most universal remotes come with a list of codes for specific brands and types of equipment. Some universal remote manufacturers have these codes on their websites.

Problems can occur if a universal remote manufacturer does not have the code for a particular brand of equipment. For example, the codes for a television and video recorder were easy to locate when I tried programming a Dick Smith remote. But no code could be found for a DVD recorder. Calls to Dick Smith and the recorder's manufacturer have yet to solve the problem.

Try before you buy

My advice is that you try any remote control before buying. It can also be wise to make sure the store will happily return a remote if it is unsuitable for your needs.


Have you found a useful universal remote control? Let us know in the comments section below.

Readers comments (1)

I have the Logtech harmony remote pictured above. It is easy to program. You just connect it to your computer, and some software guides you through the process of choosing what equipment you have. I have it set up for things like "playing a move" where it turns on three different devices.

The only criticism I have is that it cant receive information from the gear, it can only send commands. It doesn't know for example if my TV is already on if I turned it on by hand. It will then switch off the TV rather than leaving it on when I select "play a movie".

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