Mad Men fans might have noticed that in the last season or two, the television remote control has made an appearance on the show. The series began in 1960. But the current season takes place in the late '60s, and that's when TV remotes were becoming standard. (In fact, they had been around since the '50s, but hardly anyone had one.) The show is notorious for historical accuracy. And it's funny that these "clickers" actually make a clicking sound when characters change the channel.
Those early remotes did very little. They turned the TV on and off, changed the channel and adjusted the volume. Those were the days. Now TV remotes have to do a lot more, because entertainment systems are more complex. They have to control hundreds of channels, as well as cable boxes, smart-TV boxes, Internet connections, DVRs and more.
Consumers tend to have a lot of ambivalence about remotes. They're a major convenience. But they're also overly complex. Every major component of the TV system comes with its own remote. And there are just too many buttons. Plus, remote controls are known to vanish inexplicably and are the source of countless domestic power struggles. Whoever has the remote has the power.
The good news is that new universal remote options have come on the market recently that really are easier to use, and that also extend control to nonentertainment appliances, such as lights.
Let's take a look at three totally different alternatives. Click!
Logitech Harmony Ultimate Remote Control - $349.99
Logitech recently made universal remotes more universal by adding appliances to the list of devices you can control with your remote. Its new Harmony Ultimate product combines a "hub" and a remote that together bring video games and lighting into the world of things you can control from the remote (in addition to the entertainment system).
I told you here about the Philips Hue lights, which can be controlled with a smart-phone app. Now you can dim the lights directly from the remote as you're settling in to watch a movie.
The Logitech Harmony Ultimate works with more than 225,000 home entertainment devices and more than 5,000 brands, according to the company. The hub also connects wirelessly to the Sony PS3, Nintendo Wii and Wii U game consoles (sorry, Xbox fans).
The Harmony Ultimate remote features a customizable touch screen and the ability to program and customize it on a computer.
iRule Cloud-Based Universal Remote Control System - $49.99 »
One of the more innovative remote control ideas not only replaces your remote with your existing phone or tablet (as many apps do), but also puts the programming of the remote into the cloud.
If you have a life, you may not know what the cloud is, exactly. It just means that software or data that might otherwise sit on your computer or gadget instead resides out there on the Internet somewhere. For example, 15 years ago your email software was an application you would install on your computer. Today, you might use a service like Google's Gmail, which isn't software you install but instead a website you go to. Gmail is in the cloud.
A company called iRule does the same thing with software that performs the same jobs as the software inside your remote. It has just recently unveiled version 3 of its iPhone and iPad app. (The company is promising an Android version for later this year.)
Here's how it works. You download and install the app on your iPhone or iPad. Then you open and pay for an account on the company's website. Follow the instructions and wizards to drag and drop rules and modules into your personal remote interface. And when you launch the app on your mobile device, your custom universal remote is there.
It's a great idea, because even if you lose your phone or upgrade to a new phone, your programming and customization doesn't vanish with it. And you can add additional devices, and they can all take advantage of the programming you've already done.
The company also sells a very wide range of hardware devices for connecting to a vast array of home entertainment gear as well as lights and other home appliances.
TouchSquid Home Remote Control for Samsung Galaxy S4 - $19.00 »
Most TV remotes use infrared (IR) for communicating between the TV and the remote. In the past year, the addition of infrared capability into major smart-phone models has become something of a trend, and a happy one for people who want to replace their universal remote with their smart phone.
The quintessential examples of this trend are the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One, which are currently the two leading alternatives to the Apple iPhone in the smart-phone market. And unlike the iPhone, they both have "IR blasters" (the ability to function as infrared remote controls).
The great thing about using a smart phone as a remote is that the software part of it can be opened up to general competition among different companies, which gives consumers choice and also drives those companies to make better products.
A company called TouchSquid makes an all-purpose TV remote app for Android devices. But the company also makes a few model-specific versions of the app that can take advantage of the particular features of each model. The newest version is for the industry-leading Samsung Galaxy S4 smart phone.
The new app lets up to four people each set up a separate profile, so each member of the family can use a customized remote interface using their own phones. (Another version that enables up to 10 devices costs more.) The TouchSquid also has features that let advanced users program not only TV stuff but also lights, curtains and other home elements.