URC: Universal Remote Control or Useless Rotten Crud

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.

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…

This blog was posted in Guardian column Related topics: , and

38 comments on “URC: Universal Remote Control or Useless Rotten Crud”

  1. boyonabike says:

    I bought the Logitech unit a few months ago. I find it useful mainly as a spare remote, since the kids are forever losing the remotes down the back of the couch.

    The software is an absolute dog. Whoever designed it should be banished from the industry – it is an insult to programmers everywhere. There is no logic to it whatsoever – Logitech should be sued and forced to remove the “logi” bit from their name.

  2. Mike says:

    I threw out a box of universal remotes a few months back. Not one of them was able to control a typical set of hifi + DVD / VCR + TV + cable-box units, and even if it came close, the control layout was so baffling that it was easier to locate the original remote and use that.

    I learnt that those with screens were usually the most ergonomically inefficient: when lying on my sofa, there’s nothing I want less to do than to scroll through several screens to locate the function I needed.

    My current situation is as close as I’ve gotten to practical nirvana. First thing is to use a SONOS system to connect up all my audio sources around the house wirelessly. Second is to simply run my TV through the amplifier so that I almost never have to deal with the TV remote for volume changes. (Australian)Live TV is so awful that I now just watch DVDs on the TV, and get TV-content delivered thus from Amazons UK and US.

  3. Mike says:

    I don’t have the books handy, but I remember that one of the famous computer UI designers (I forget who but probably either Jef Raskin or Donald Norman) was once asked by a television manufacturing company to design a remote control with a good interface for a new television they were producing. He was very excited to be asked, because he’d hated remote controls for a long time because they generally tend to have very generic designs which are intended to make them easier to mass-produce for multiple models of television than to make them easier for the end-users. It was probably all his complaining that caused them to ask him to design a better one.

    After a few weeks of doing typical things that researchers do, such as assembling a research team, figuring out a plan for designing and user testing and adapting and re-testing and so on, the company asked him where the design was. There wasn’t one by that time, of course, so they ditched him and went with their generic remote control. It seemed there wasn’t enough time in the product cycle to spend a lot of time researching something so simple and irrelevant to the sale of a television set, when they had to have it in the shops soon. (After all, how frequently do people buy TV’s based on usability of the remote?)

    You’d expect this should be different for something like a universal remote control, because the URC is the actual product being marketed instead of something just tacked onto the side, but unless you find a silver bullet and sell lots of them in a market flooded with sub-standard imitations, there’s probably not a lot of money to be made in designing a really good URC, at least without a lot of risk. Sometimes I wonder if the companies that make these sorts of things are just a bit stuck in a rut as to how they think about it.

  4. gjhsu says:

    I chortle at this because my good friend has one of these snazzy Logitech Harmony remote controls, and does indeed have it in a ‘working’ state of controlling anything and everything that happens to be plugged into an outlet – including his Microsoft XBox 360. The fun begins if someone, anyone, happens to turn off said gaming machine by its built-in method, via its wireless controller. Proceed then to hit the ‘All off’ macro button on the magic remote, and voila, the tv shuts off, the AV receiver turns off, and the Xbox turns on. And there’s no built-in check to make sure that things that are off stay off, only that it goes to the state that it is currently not in.

    What follows is a contortionist act of impeding the IR transmitter with part of the hand, whilst simultaneously praying to gods in hopes that it figures out what you want…. or go through the inconvenience of taking three steps to hit the power button by hand.

    I’ll stick with my 14 separate remotes, thank ye kindly.

  5. taluta says:

    I too have found these devices serve only to frustrate, if not, enrage me.

    I have one word to say about them, RECYCLE! At least this way we may gain some productive use from them.

  6. Alicej says:

    I don’t own anything with a remote control. I have a black and white TV for watching QI, a wind-up and solar powered radio, and a computer which can play CDs and DVDs. Can’t say I feel I’m missing much. I am a bit odd, though.

    http://alice-in-blogland.blogspot.com/

  7. Alicej says:

    P.S. Why not just get up and press the button?

  8. Momgoth says:

    I think the Logitech was featured in the latest issue of MAKE. In fact, I came within an hour or so of actually ordering one. “Ooh, I could program it on the computer. Maybe this time it’d work.” Yes, we have a bad, horrific history with universal remotes. The “universal remote” we have with out satellite service doesn’t even work with the television half the time. So, thank you for saving me a couple hundred USDs – it’s a bit pricey to part out when it doesn’t work, which is the fate of all broken/crap electronics devices here.

  9. robertas says:

    Oh honestly Mr. Fry… I have just a thing for you and it will work with the 6 or 7 remote controls you already have… I’m surprised you have not heard about it before… then again you probably do not frequent IKEA often :)

    http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/catalog/products/50129977

    You will need 2 me thinks, but I would forget about newspapers, this is perfect for storing snacks… it definitely saves me the bother of going for snacks in the middle of House :) And it is machine washable too :)

    Why would you even bother with Useless Rotten Curd? :)

  10. RubyCosmos says:

    I seem to recall that URCs used to be pretty good. When I still lived at home, my family had one that combined TV, VCR, and cable box (back when that was an unthinkably large amount of hardware, at least for my grandparents). We never actually had a problem with that one. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what sort it was.

    Now, on my own, I have TV, VCR (which is currently broken and working as little more than a converter box), DVD player, and PS2. My somewhat progressive g’rents have invested in satellite, have two separate DVD players for reasons I’ve yet to fathom, XM radio, and two remote-controlled CD players. None of us has even considered getting a new URC.

    The only true problem arises when someone says to ‘grab the silver one’ and there are four of those. I think either a masking tape label or a paint job is in order. ‘Grab the hideous chartreuse one’ would be a bit quicker.

  11. Mike says:

    AliceJ: most TV/DVD/VCR devices don’t actually have all the necessary buttons on them. If you don’t have the remote, you can’t perform many functions.

  12. misoseksi says:

    URC’s were created as a band-aid solution to help people deal with the fact that consumer electronics manufacturers still cannot get together and create/conform to a standard. (They are still more interested in becoming the standard). The only reason that URC’s exist is because your TV still has no clue what your other home theatre devices are doing and vice-versa. If that was the case then you would be able to press one button and your devices would then talk to one another and they would be able to sort themselves out. There is no technical reason why this can’t happen.

    HDMI-CEC seems to try to solve that but again every manufacturer has their own version of it. How stupid!

  13. Simes says:

    I have a URC at the moment which does seem to do pretty much all that I want. It’s a Sony one, and wasn’t even very expensive. I have never managed to persuade it to control all of the functions of every device that I use it for, but then I’ve never really tried that hard. It does cover the major functions, like changing channels, or starting and stopping a DVD, and to be honest 99% of the time that’s all I use. On the other hand, I have had some pretty useless contraptions in the past, including one of those hideous touch screen devices, that ended up simply refusing to do anything except switch everything off. Mind you, in these days of global warming and impending ecological disaster, maybe it had the right idea after all….

  14. steeef says:

    I own a Logitech Harmony 650, a step down from the Harmony One, and its the first “universal” remote that comes close to its name. Sure, the software’s a bear (a web-based configuration program, Logitech? Really?), but its allowed me to finally put away the rest of my remotes. Being able to hit “Watch a DVD” and have everything work the way its supposed to is immensely satisfying. My fiancée was always confused with my setup, but she had no trouble figuring out the Harmony remote.

    Yes, Stephen, URC’s aren’t yet perfected, but it feels to me like the Harmony comes a lot closer than any others.

  15. timfg says:

    I’m frankly suprised that someone of Stephen’s clear tech-friendliness didn’t get on with Harmony. I accept that the history of the URC is littered with poorly designed and barely functional devices – but a different era arrived with Logitech’s entry to the market. The software is poor and getting that initial setup right, as a result, a challenge – but Logitech’s telephone support is exceptional. I invested perhaps 4 hours in my Harmony 555 to get it setup as I want – but the fact is that I haven’t touched the original remotes since, nor has my luddite partner. It controls the usual range of Home Cinema kit + an Xbox 360 and a CD player. Absolutely it can get out of kilter if someone blocked a command, but it’s very easily rectified, since it asks whether what it has done has worked and then rectifies it if it hasn’t. And it does work 99.9% of the time; Even our babysitter can use it. The best £40 I’ve spent on gagdgets for aeons.

  16. mickstephenson says:

    I’m afraid your doing it wrong, Stephen.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dx5nhbWoF5U
    What you need is a Megatron

  17. Buffy says:

    The buying public seems to have ‘URC Amnesia’ – one buys the URC, it doesn’t work and it’s thrown in a drawer. Then a new URC comes out and people think ‘Hey, this one will work. It’s new!’ but, it’s just as useless as the last. Repeat ad nauseam.

    I guess one just gets desperate when there’s a remote for the computer, telly, DVD player, cable, iPod dock, Wii and both air conditioners…

  18. hob says:

    There’s one function missing from all of these remotes.

    An “off” button.

    My grandma used to have this ridiculously old TV with this amazing technicolour remote control – and one button was marked “standby” and another marked “off”. You had to hold “off” for several seconds, but after that, the power switch would physically shoot out of the telly to the “off” position!

    Why this technology can’t be used today is beyond me…

  19. Sean says:

    This was long a point of contention between my parents. My Mom, in an effort to reign in some of their gadgetry, brought a URC home one day. My Dad, who, when it comes to all things electronic just wants things to work, gave it a go but ultimately decided to figuratively chuck it in the bin.

    Since their audio/visual set up is different from mine, I invariably have to ask my parents for a refresher course on how to use all of their remotes when I visit. This would often cause my Mom to mention her attempt to introduce the URC into their household. Based on her current assessment that your opinions about URCs are, “Spot on!” she is now in agreement that trying to use one is futile endeavor.

  20. I’ve had the exact same experience of universal remotes as Stephen – I found a 4.99 remote I bought in Lidl was one of the best. I could even control my fan with it! Its biggest failing was that it seemed on a quest to eat batteries. Possibly some sort of sneaky ploy by Lidl to get me to buy their batteries.

    I have managed to accumulate at least eight remotes that I can think of, so recently bought myself a Logitech Harmony 785. The Harmony One seemed a bit pricey, but also lacks the coloured buttons we use for Fasttext and interactive; the green button gets me into my Sky planner, something I REALLY needed.

    Overall, it’s a good remote, but the software for programming it is DIRE. I’d much rather use that though, than try and enter a range of random codes from a little manual I have to somehow prop open whilst simultaneously keying them in. Why it insists on doing EVERYTHING possibly in wizards, I’ll never know. I’d love to have a simple ‘script editor’ of a sort, so I could just have a list of commands, and step through and add stuff in. It’d make things SO much more powerful.

    But, I found myself using it all the time since I’ve had it, and I’m really rather used to it now. I tried picking up my SkyHD remote yesterday for something, and it seems so big and cumbersome by comparison. Considering the power it wields (once I’d finished swearing at the software) it’s a rather sleek thing. The playback buttons could be a bit better laid out (something like the Sky or Media Center remotes), but it’s liveable.

    I wrote a more comprehensive ‘rant’ on my website here: http://www.davidrickard.net/2008/09/20/singing-in-perfect-harmony/.

    Shameless plug over :)

  21. steph-angel says:

    ‘Between them these two useless implements have sucked four hours out of my life…’

    Stephen, I always imagined your life to be filled with much more fun & jollity than this!!!

  22. hellgelb says:

    Would the simplest solution not be a touchscreen universal device that was configured to display a copy of the hardware control surface of all of the relevant remotes ? Flick through them like you flick through the various home pages on an iPhone. Simple.

    Tomorrow, I shall be solving the current global financial crises; Wednesday it’s the Middle East.

  23. hellgelb says:

    The simplest solution would be a touchscreen that simply replicated the hardware control surface of each remote, dowload the profiles online, flick between them as per multiple home screens on an iPhone. Simple.

    Tomorrow I’ll be sorting out the global financial maelstrom; Wednesday it’s the Middle East.

  24. Len says:

    While I’d like to think that it is my business alone whether I’ve ever owned “pants of ecstasy,” I will admit to having once obtained a tie of titillation.

  25. richarris says:

    I must say, I disagree strongly about the Logitechs. I’ve a Harmony 525, as have many of my mates post me going on about how great they are for 30 quid via play.com.

    I’ve a drawer full of universal remotes, and this is the first where not only have I been able to hide all the original remotes, it’s the first that my other half has been able to pickup and start using without any tips – and this is on a tv/av amp/sky box/xbox media center/baby cam fairly complicated setup.

    Yes, the Mac client’s crap, but you can set it up using your existing logitech account on http://www.myremotesetup.com which is much better.

    what it’s taught me is that multi remote nirvana is not trivial. You’re not going to get Apple-levels of integration in a world where all the hardware’s different and each brand has a vested interest in promoting their own hardware.
    However, the Logitech is the Ubuntu of the multiremote world – spend an hour or so learning what it can do and it’ll repay you many times over. *It just works* is how I think of it now after spending an hour tweaking.

    Honestly, bear with it. You’ll love the thing – and to be honest it really is your only option for anything approaching remote nirvana…

    Ric

  26. I bought the Logitech Harmony 555 remote control a while ago and gave up on it initially, however having bought a blu ray player this week, I decided six remotes in my room was getting crazy, so i decided to give the Logitech Harmony another go.

    This time things went a lot better, primarily down to one thing, updating the software first, the new software resulted in far less problems, it still took time, but was far more manageable and everything works!!!!!

    I do now have a draw full of superfluous remotes, but a clutter free coffee table instead.

    So one piece of advice for the less technically minded ( or forgetful like myself ) download the most up-to-date software before anything else, it will save you time.

  27. Sparks says:

    I have one of the Logitech Harmony 880 remotes. The 880 works better than any previous universal remote I have had… but that doesn’t necessarily say much, as ‘works better than any previous universal remote’ sets the bar ridiculously low.

    The 880 seems to be Logitech’s apex for the remotes. Anything lower-level doesn’t seem to work as well, and any of the higher-end stuff (like the Harmony One) seems to overcomplicate things even more. The nice part is that you can tell the 880 ‘I want you to just be a TV remote,’ and voila, now it changes from a universal remote to just being A Remote For Your TV. Or ‘I want you to be a stereo remote’ and, voila, now you have a stereo remote.

    Sadly, the remote is oft-times far more useful in that mode than in the overall ‘control everything’ super-genius remote mode. When you get into the ‘control everything’ mode, you have to make sure everything is synched, and half the time the television hasn’t changed inputs properly (because while our Phillips 47-inch HDTV is a great TV, it takes about 5 seconds to turn on… by which point, the remote has already sent everything).

    So generally I end up hitting a mode, waiting, then hitting ‘Help’ (which on the 880 will make sure the equipment and the remote are in the same state), and THEN I can use the universal remote. But otherwise, I just tell it ‘Device, TV’ or ‘Device, Stereo’ or whatever.

  28. Vincent says:

    I remember when television sets were just coming out with remotes, a time when a lot of people rented their set. The gentleman who was trying to get me to exchange my set for a top of the range model (i.e. very expensive) was most put out when I told him that I already had a remote and it worked with everything – my little boy. Since he’s grown up, it doesn’t work anymore.

  29. nipissing says:

    I have a tv from the 1989.

    I don’t want to talk about it.

  30. nipissing says:

    …”the” 1989…

    Oh, you know what I mean.

    You should see my modulator. Hee…

  31. slinkoff says:

    I’m surprised that someone as tech savvy as Stephen had such difficulty with them. I think the Harmony remotes are brilliant and I’ve setup my parents, brother and uncle with one and they get on fine with them. If my parents can cope I would have thought Stephen could!

    Checkout the AVForums website and you’ll find loads of people praising the Harmony remotes and several other universal remotes too. I think this article is a little unfair because the Harmony approach to to “Activity” based operation rather than trying to copy every button of all of your remotes is a great idea and makes operation very simple. My parents can now just press “Watch TV” or “Watch a DVD” and hey presto everything comes on and away they go. Much easier than pressing the TV button, followed by ON then the Amp button followed by ON etc. etc.

    They also have a very useful Help function on the remote that solves problems if something is turned off manually thus mucking up the macro. It will ask questions like “Is the TV on now?” while fixing the problem. It works extremely well and it’s very rare that you even need to use this anyway.

    All in, the newer universal remotes, especially the Activity based Harmonys work extremely well, the later versions of the software are much simpler to use (although I personally didn’t find many problems with the earlier ones) and ultimately they can replace the numerous remotes for AV systems, TVs, Projectors, DVD players, PVRs etc. etc. with a single, easy to use remote, which is obviosuly a very good thing. I largely agree with Stephen’s opinions on many things but in this instance I think he’s got it wildly wrong.

    Slink

  32. Puplet says:

    Apple FrontRow remote – 3 buttons and it does your music; your photos; your DVD; your MPEG videos … There is hope after all.

  33. goran says:

    I have purchased a rather expensive 37″ Philips LCD 100 hz with Ambilight and all. The remote was totally useless (in black piano finish) with tiny buttons. These buttons make a “smacking ” sound every time one presses them. Very annoying! And the cap for the batteries is sliding……….
    So, I have bought a new one, also an Philips named SBC RU 7060 and this one works much better and feels more like quality.
    Is it not strange that you have to buy a new control directly?

  34. Nixie says:

    Useless Rotten Crud? I like that. It’s an abbreviation I could apply to other annoyances in my corner of the biosphere, both non-living and living forms alike.

    Yeah, my dad tried one of these URCs once. Once was all it took for him to chuck the notion out altogether. And, he came up with a cheaper solution: he got an empty plastic jar and dumped all our remote controls in it. So when you watch a VCD or DVD, all you need to do is pick up the jar and plunk it down beside you–simple, cheap, and effective.

  35. I too am surprised that Stephen does not like (or worse: could not get the Harmony to work)
    I have the Harmony 880 (http://www.logitech.com/index.cfm/remotes/universal_remotes/devices/372&cl=us,en) 3 or 4 years already for my TV, VHS (not current), 3 DVD/HDD players/recorders, a HIFI system (not current), XBox 360, HD media player.
    It does take a little practice to set things up, the software could be improved for speed and clarity but once it is setup it is BETTER than the original remotes, I can access more functions on all my devices than with the original remotes (like go directly to a particular AUX channel instead of cycling through all of them)
    For the commenter who said that if a device is turned off without the remote knowing that the only option is to turn of everything, I have programmed mine to have power on/of buttons for each device via the device option.
    This is the one device that has stood the test of time, I have no other device that is so good as to last more than 3 years and it is robust, it has fallen and I’ve had to open it to remove Cola from the inside and it is still in perfect working order.
    Yes I really love it!

  36. Fentex says:

    I recently bought a Harmony One to replace my Harmony 880 that has been used to death.

    I agree the software is poor, but I found it relatively easy (though painfully slow) to set up. I know however this has something to do with the autistic effort I put into configuring my 880 and understanding the Harmony mindset some four odd years ago.

    I love Harmony remotes, their ability to change context is wonderful and it took me thousands of dollars in testing variuos remotes to uncover it (before I got my 880 the best remote I’d found was a Sony with macros).

    But you have to program them differently from Harmonies defaults to get the best out of them and carefully structure the states it assummes for appliances. It is worth the reward to persist.

    I once tried to edit the XML downloaded from Harmony directly to overcome frustrations in the 880 before I concluded setting every activity up as a ‘custom’ activity in their old web interface was the way to go.

  37. LynxLuna says:

    I’ve had plenty of this things through my life, too. They worked only on the TV, so I’ve never bothered to configure them for the video or any other device. All of them ended up into the bin, anyway, as we changed our televisions and got new shiny remotes with them. No great deal.

  38. marksimon says:

    i too bought a logitech, and i am stunned at the lack of functionality.
    it’s easier to update a device it’s support list via a small file via usb, than put all the settings via a computer.

    i do want a device where i didn’t really need my PC to set it up, some of the really old onkyo remotes included with their receivers just had the point at the remote with the original and it worked.

Leave a Reply