Control Your Remote

There are so many Pow! Bang! Ka-chow! buzzwords thrown out by the consumer electronics industry's marketing war chariots that smaller, more important things often get lost or completely overwhelmed in the ground clutter. Sure, we're bombarded with messages of "In living 3D!!!" and "contrast of 1 bazillion to 1!!!" and "height, width, depth, space, and time channels!!!" - but what if you can't actually use your new infinity-to-1, 3D TV with 20-channel surround because the remote control, um, sucks?

Without question, picture and sound are crucial, the raison d'être for the home movie or music experience. And no matter how great your remote control is, if your TV and sound are smothered in weak sauce, the experience will always be poor. However, the reverse is definitely not true. A great TV and sound system can be marginalized by a terrible control interface.

Hopefully, the importance of good ergonomics won't be lost with the whole "works with" iPhone and iPad frenzy. The iPhone is too small to be seriously considered as a dedicated controller. And the iPad - well, the iPad is cool. Way cool. With all of the apps that are out there, it can do some amazing stuff. Some companies - Sonos, for instance - have dialed in their app to create a killer control experience. And if you're using an iPad with a system like Control4, it can be a sweet primary controller. But if you have to hit a button to wake it up, swipe to unlock, select an app, and then find a volume button, that's about four steps too many, especially when your wife is yelling, "I said, turn it down!" This is one reason why I think some- thing like Crestron's iPaneL, with its insidiously simple and brilliantly clever hard buttons, will make all the difference.

Now, I could pick on receiver manufacturers like Denon, Yamaha, Onkyo, and, well, pretty much all of them for making challenging remotes. The remotes included with receivers are so brutally complex that even people who know what they're doing can't figure out how to use them. The remote that came with my preamp/processor is so hatefully complicated that it makes me feel inadequate just seeing it lying in that seldom-used drawer. And just because your TV/Blu-ray/cable box/whatever remote can pos- sibly - in some crippled, Frankenstein fash- ion - be a kind of quasi-all-in-one controller doesn't mean it should. In fact, that definitely means it shouldn't.

The answer is investing in a universal re- mote control. Whatever it costs, it's worth it. My daily wand is a $600 URC MX-980, and in my elaborate home theater system, it's the piece of gear I use most often.

Simply put, a remote control system must be easy to use to be successful. This means activities should be performed with a single button press. And that pretty much sums up remote control commandments 1 through 5. This means the buttons can't be tiny and packed too closely together. This seems to be a big problem with the up/down/left/right keys that are often squished into an awkward disc requiring lady fingers to operate.

Next we have the ultimate sin: poor back- lighting. I don't know about you, but when we watch a movie in my house, we do it with the lights down on the low-low. And if I can't see which button to press or, even worse, if I instead press a wrong button, I'm not happy.

I recently played with a remote that hit on all the wrong cylinders: the remote included with the Sony NSZ-GT1 Blu-ray player for use with Google TV. At first blush, the remote looks kind of cool - busy, but cool. And I can definitely see the value of having a QWERTY keyboard for entering things like Napster, Pandora, or Netflix information. It has a lot of buttons, but they're decently spaced. Where it gets strikes 1, 2, and 3 are its thumb pad, its com- plete absence of backlighting, and its being RF only. The thumb pad - a.k.a. the Optical Finger Sensor - worked so sporadically that I kept wondering, "Is my thumb too oily? Too dry? Too cold? Too hot? Too full of vodka? Why won't you work, damn you?!!" So I was constantly jerking my thumb around the pad like it was having a mini-seizure. Without a backlight, the remote was unusable even in dim lighting. I can't imagine why backlighting wasn't included. Maybe lighting up that many buttons would've required the user to wear a backpack filled with D-cells. But when you find yourself grabbing another remote (or a cellphone!) to provide the lighting to a re- mote, that's a red flag. Not good.

Finally, this system responds to RF only, which is usually a great thing because it means no pointing. But because this remote is RF only, you can't replace it with another remote to improve the experience. Sigh.

The remote control is the gateway to us- ing and actually enjoying your system. In fact, I might go so far as to say that you shouldn?t buy an A/V system if you aren't willing to make the investment in a good controller to go with it. If you're fumbling with "Is it on the right input?" or "Why can I see it but not hear it?" or "Damn! I hate this thing!," then your system has control issues. Fortunately, there is a solution.