Stephen Fry on one of the most frustrating and useless gadgets devised by man, the so-called Universal Remote Control

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 27th September 2008 in The Guardian “URC: Universal Remote Control or Useless Rotten Crud” – The Guardian headline.

I yield to few in my love of gadgets: let a new gizmo arrive in the post or be brought back from the shops and you will see me fall on it like a lion on an antelope – I will savage the hard, clear, welded plastic packaging with my teeth and let out growls of drooling hunger and mews of pleasure. Out tumbles the doodad and straight away I will plug it in, install its drivers, power it up and connect it, and to hell with the manual. No matter how gimcrack or futile the toy might be, the adrenaline will surge, the lips part and the breathing come in shallow stertorous pants of ecstasy.

Actually, there’s a rider to that – aside from apologising for using the phrase “pants of ecstasy”, I ought to make it clear that there is one genre of gadget that over the years has proved so preternaturally disappointing, so remorselessly useless, that I receive it with dread. I am talking about the so-called Universal Remote Control. I have drawers full of them. Over the years I have bought more than 50, and not one was any use. Someone gave me a cheap market stall giant URC as a joke and that – oddly enough – is the only one I use, but it is configured only for the TV, which brings me to the principles underlying these wastes of plastic.

It ought to make so much sense. We sit hunched on our sofas while a lapping tide of remote controls surges towards us, threatening to flood every spare square inch of surface. Why not unite them into one remote? It really ought to work, I do see that. And yet… The configuration processes, whether by code look-up table, online software connection or IR “learning”, never work satisfactorily, unless I have been unlucky 50 times on the bounce, which is possible, if statistically improbable. I won’t claim they have never worked, but they have proved more cumbersome and annoying than the problems they were designed to solve. Maybe it is just me, but some mixture of muscle memory and brain mapping has meant that I have been happier with the complicated routines of the six or seven devices I know than with the streamlined convenience of one URC.

It was with low expectations, then, that I unpacked the Logitech Harmony One and the Philips Prestigo SRU 8015. Each has a colour LCD screen and claims to solve your remote control problems in one fell swoop with ease and power. After half an hour with each, I wanted to hurl them out of the window. They are not as dreadful as what has gone before, they are much worse: worse because there is so much more (badly implemented) technology to come between the problem and the solution. They both come – and this should alert anyone with an eye sensitive to technology – in the shiny piano black that was fashionable some years ago. Both Logitech and Philips have always had poor design sense, and this is demonstrated by their desire to copy colours and forms precisely at the moment they become tired and dated. But that shouldn’t matter if the functions are taken care of.

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The Harmony One is configured with your DVD, satellite, TV, amplifier and games machine by connecting it via USB to an online computer. You go through a tedious and ill-designed process, on PC or Mac (beware the Mac online update to the software that comes bundled with the remote – it simply does not work: I am not alone in finding this out; forums and user group sites are alive with furious users who have had to uninstall the update) and eventually five or six of your devices can be controlled by the Harmony handset. Only they can’t, because the system stinks.

The maddeningly non-intuitive Philips Prestigo uses inbuilt codes and works little better. Between them these two useless implements have sucked four hours out of my life. Usually I don’t mind when time is frittered away in digital device play, but somehow when it is lost trying to use objects whose only purpose is to simplify and harmonise, I get very cross indeed.

Initials of the week

URC Universal Remote Control or Useless Rotten Crud…

Absolutely unrelated

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