Control Yourself

Once when we were watching a DVD in the media room, my wife missed a scene because she was nodding off. But usually it’s me who does the nodding. I search for the remote control, and I can never find it when I need it. Forget about the whole remote, I’ll just settle for the right button. I fish around. There, that must be it. My fingers traverse the button terrain to find the Pause or Rewind button in the dark purely by feel. Because I’m holding the darned thing upside down, I accidentally hit the Open/Close button, which stops the movie cold and slides open the disc tray. Ah, the joys of not missing a minute of a movie!

Does this sound familiar? If so, you need to read further. Juggling remote controls is one of the top three buzz-kills in the field of home electronics. And we can do something about it. The can-do spirit is in the air. Here, I’ll sift through the world of remote controls and share with you some prominent models that feature the absolute best characteristics in the category.

The Basics
First, a remote must be portable, and you must be able to operate it in the dark. It needs either backlit buttons or an easy-to-read touchpanel. If the remote is designed with buttons, it must be ergonomic so you can have a shot at hitting the right button by feel. A new remote should operate in the radio frequency (RF) range. This lets you hit a command without aiming the remote in a particular direction, so you won’t need to sharp-shoot it at your components like you would with a standard infrared (IR) remote. This lets you keep your components behind closed cabinet doors and keep the red LEDs and flashing digital front panels out of sight so they don’t distract you from what’s happening on the screen (the old suspension of disbelief). We will be looking at remote controls with the capability to integrate subsystems in addition to audio/video components (lighting, motorized window treatments, etc). You don’t want to control your home theater from a wall panel when you’re lying on the sofa. The last thing you’ll want to do is have to get up and fumble in the dark to change a channel. On the other hand, if you’re planning to expand control to other rooms and other subsystems, wall panels would be a very good thing to have.

As we ascend the hierarchical ladder, we’ll see some products that rise to the challenge of increasingly complex control scenarios and provide increasing capabilities. There are several brands I haven’t included, specifically because of my personal experience with their poor performance in a professional installation. To be fair, the entire category of remote control can be just about as glitchy as personal computersŃor even more so. This is why junk drawers across America overflow with “the last remote control you’ll ever need.” I think many of the problems with remote controls may stem from operator malfunction, a lack of understanding in setting up the system, or an attempt to exceed a remote’s capabilities. Much can go wrong, especially if you’re not a professional installer.

Logitech Harmony 900 with RF Wireless extender ($500) Harmony 1100 ($600)
RF? Check. Portable? Check. Color Touchscreen? Check. Lighting, climate, and other appliance control? Check. I saw hundreds of brands on the Harmony Website as I was checking compatibility, including Aprilaire thermostats, Lutron lighting, and tons of miscellaneous appliance brands.

Here’s how it works. You (if you’re handy with programming) or your systems integrator connects the remote to your computer via a USB port. You need to have Internet access and the Windows 2000, XP, or Vista operating system. Once you connect to the Harmony database, you can access more than 225,000 devices from 5,000 brands. The odds are excellent that the database contains the command codes for your brand and model components. If you’re concerned, check out the listing on Logitech’s Website before you buy. A step-by-step guide takes you through the process of programming your remote with commands for your components. Live customer support is also available. A wired rig is installed from up to four of your components’ IR windows to the Harmony RF Wireless Extender. This communicates with the Harmony 1100, and you can stash it out of sight, even behind a cabinet door. That’s the beauty of RF.

There are actually two Harmony remote controls I am considering. The Harmony 900 is a brand-new model. By press time, it will have been announced. The clever people at Logitech have introduced this unit with two IR blasters that can sit on the shelf along with your gear. This prevents the need to paste IR bugs on your components’ front panels. The handheld Harmony 900 has a full-color touchscreen for easy, one-touch access to your A/V world. And it comes with rechargeable batteries and a base station. Remember, my list of requirements included backlit buttons or a see-in-the-dark touchpanel. This model fulfills the latter, and it comes in at 100 dollars below what I am prepared to spend. Very competitive.

The other model I have my eye on is the Harmony 1100. This is a substantial instrument that’s similar in form to user devices found within the big boys’ product lines. I’ve read some customer reviews that have unfairly critiqued this model as not being conducive to single-handed operation. That’s the entire point of a more sophisticated device. Generous button layout and easy-to-use touchscreens are possible once you re-think the remote’s shape and size. If you don’t want to escape the same old misery, stop reading this article. The Harmony 1100 lives in a charging station when it’s not in use. The buttons on the 3.5-inch color touchscreen are customizable, and you can see the panel in the dark. You choose the commands and icons you want to see when you want to see them. Macro commands combine functions, so all you have to do is hit Watch TV, and all associated functions are set.

RTI ZRP-5 Remote Control Processor and T3-V Universal 
Controller ($1,775)
RTI sells its products through a network of trained systems integrators; they’re not available off the shelf at retail shops. You can locate a dealer through RTI’s Website. I packaged this system, which includes RTI’s ZRP-5 Remote Control Processor, and the T3-V Universal Controller. RTI offers a plethora of central processors and handheld remote controls, so you can mix and match to suit your particular situation. This package met my preliminary requirements.

One of the ZRP-5’s best features is that, once it’s programmed, your components’ operating commands are embedded in non-volatile flash memory. This means the system won’t lose the programming even when there’s no power. The other critical feature is that it has a power-sensing input for monitoring equipment status. If you’ve ever had a remote control that appeared to malfunction, you may have experienced this cruel joke. The power modes for all components (like the TV, DVD player, and satellite receiver) weren’t all in the same setting at the same time, either all on or all off. A house gremlin or phantom may have shut off your TV’s power but left all of the other associated components on. This tricked the remote control (no brand names mentioned) so that when the next unassuming viewer hit Power On, it shut the TV off. Funny joke, huh? This is historically one of the most commonly frustrating scenarios.

For $400 more, you can substitute the ZRP-6 processor, which offers control of more devices via six multi-purpose inputs and outputs, three programmable relay outputs, and two RS-232 ports, as well as one more IR and an Ethernet port. Like the ZRP-5, the ZRP-6 is equipped with support for separate ZigBee transceiver modules for expanded coverage and interface to other ZigBee devices.

With Resi and Electronic House Expo awards under its belt, the T3-V Universal Controller is a sexy beast. The three-way rocker switch for scrolling list navigation is well thought out. I like the 3.5-inch high-resolution VGA full-color touchscreen, which displays graphics, photos, and Websites as well as button presses in fine detail. The keypads and panel are bright! Its wireless Ethernet and a built-in Web browser let you access Websites and IP-addressable devices for Internet-based integration apps. Frankly, I don’t need all the Ethernet stuff for basic home theater control. The T2-C model, for $426 less, would be perfectly fine. Both models offer two-way feedback, so you can get a positive response from controlled devices on ZigBee (see explanation in Control4 below). But I can’t resist the T3-V’s new look, and I’ll more than likely get into its Internet capabilities. Ergonomically, the T3-V is on a whole different planet. The button layout is unconventional but easy to learn, thanks to its logical layout. I like the blue/red/white backlit buttons (one of my prerequisites), the docking station (with a three-to-four-hour battery charge time), and the fact that in RF mode, the system works up to 100 feet. I could be very happy with this selection.

Control4 HC-500 Home Controller and C4-TSM7-G-B Portable Touchscreen ($2,994)
Many industry insiders whose opinions I respect have enthusiastic recommendations for the Control4 system, with one caveat: As long as you don’t overextend its capability, you should be fine. After thorough research, I believe they say this because Control4 is expandableŃup to a point. People sometimes expect that a particular product will perform miracles. And to be fair, some manufacturers wink a little too much as they overstate their brand’s performance. Control4 is not one of these. Control4 cleverly addressed the most common subsystems that many residents want to control to a limited degree: multiroom music, lighting, home theater, and climate. Control4 appears to acknowledge its limits without dwelling on them, and I won’t either.

The Control4 HC-500 Home Controller is a robust home theater control system that can expand to include other subsystems and more. It also digitally stores music collections of up to 2,000 CDs in MP3 format and delivers multiple audio streams simultaneously. The HC-500 uses the AMG online metadata service to manage your music collection with the help of a 160-gigabyte hard drive. You can select music by artist, song, genre, or album cover art. The music server can operate independently from the control functions.

The HC-500’s Four relay inputs can accommodate devices such as projector lifts, motorized screens, and shades. Its six IR inputs let you control a bunch of devices: CD and DVD players, satellite receivers, etc. In the custom installation field, the hard-wired, dependable RS-232 connection is the preferred method of control whenever possible. With its four RS-232 inputs, you can control RS-232-equipped components like A/V receivers, flat-panel displays, projectors, and the like. The HC-500 also includes Ethernet connectivity.

Because Control4 uses the mesh network ZigBee platform, it can expand to include wireless control of its own products, like lighting dimmers and thermostats as well as other manufacturers’ ZigBee products. As I describe in my “Lighten Up” article on page 52, we briefly define wireless mesh networks as systems that are expandable, since each device also passes command signals to other mesh-enabled devices. There’s no central processor that each device discretely reports to. You can essentially build a chain to include additional A/V components, lighting, thermostat, or motorized window control. Where’s the limit? It’s possible to overextend the mesh network and thereby begin to experience latency in the commands. But for our purposes, it shouldn’t be a problem to encompass home theater, lighting, climate, and the like within one room.

The user interface in my selected system is the eponymous C4-TSM7-G-B 7-inch Portable Touchscreen. Control4 describes it as a Wi-Fi unit, which is true to a degree. It doesn’t connect to the Internet, as the term implies, but you can wander with it to control an entire Control4-equipped home. The unit has 12 standard hard buttons for navigation, channel selection, and power. It also has four customizable hard buttons for quick access to lighting and volume functions. The screen displays the full Control4 user panel. Control4 claims the unit has up to a five-hour battery life without being placed in the docking station.

Crestron MC2E Compact Control System and Isys TPS-6X Wireless Touchpanel with CEN-HPRFGW High-Powered RF Gateway ($5,200)
One of the Achilles’ heels of this technologically advanced company has always been that its product line doesn’t address entry-level users. At press time, this is about to change, and it may be in place by the time you read this. It may not be fair to expect Crestron to be all things to all people. Yet, the company has recently introduced innovative products that let a larger percentage of the population access their offeringsŃand in an expandable format.

The power of Crestron comes into play when you need full control of many subsystems beyond audio/video, such as lighting, pool, spa, surveillance cameras, security alarms, motorized window treatments, and more. The bones of the Crestron system are sound. As a centralized, hard-wired platform that uses non-volatile memory, you can unplug a touchpanel, set it aside for a while, and it will work just fine when you plug it in again. Not that you would do such a thing once your system was installed, but it demonstrates its robust nature. It should handle power surges, blackouts, and brownouts. If you’re going to the trouble of installing an expensive control system in your home, it better be reliable. You don’t want to have to reboot your house like you do your computer. This is why many corporate boardrooms and mission-critical commercial applications use Crestron products. In the hands of a professional programmer or installer, it’s about as rock-solid as you can get.

Components alone do not a Crestron system make. Programming expertise is fundamental to a successful installation. Since there are comparatively few dealers in any given region who have spent the required years doing the heavy programming lifting, Crestron has set up the Crestron Authorized Independent Programmer (CAIP) program to support local dealers around the country. The CAIPs, who can be located anywhere, write the program code and send it to your local dealer, who loads it into your system. Whether it’s local or mailed in, good programming is hard to find, and it’s fundamental to a great system.

You must realize that CrestronŃand its competitor AMXŃcan control many subsystems in residences that exceed 50,000 square feet. This means the home’s residents, nannies, and houseguests (even the unwanted ones) can control all of the subsystems from touchpanels that are strategically located throughout a large home. The reason you might consider Crestron is its expandability and capacity for whatever you can throw at it. If you have modest requirements, this may be overkill. An expanded system isn’t typically recommended for homes that are already built since pulling extensive wires means making holes in walls and a pricey labor tab.

So, if we were to design a lowbrow Crestron system, it would look like this. We’ll start with the MC2E Compact Control System, which has oodles of capability, with a combination of two RS-232 com ports, four IR/serial ports, four I/O Versiports, and four low-voltage relay ports. That’s a lot of stuff you can control, and it’s certainly more than you’d find in a basic home theater. If you were planning to expand your control to other rooms, this would be a good option. With the relay inputs, you could easily control a projector lift, a motorized screen, and two motorized window treatments like shades or drapes. The RS-232 inputs give you the ability to control a flat screen or projector and another serial device it they have RS-232 outputs and are controllable and Crestron compatible. I say this because there are some components that have such outputs on the back but can’t be controlled by a third-party control system. Be careful. With the IR inputs, you can control A/V receivers, DVD players, or any other component that can operate via IR. If this number of inputs is insufficient for a larger project, you need to go up a few rungs to other Crestron processors. But this is where we end our search.

The glamour puss of this Crestron duo is the wired/wireless touchpanel called the Isys TPS-6X Wireless Touchpanel. This is the third generation of Crestron’s new line, and the company seems to have fixed the glitches that haunted the first-generation units. In addition to its 5.7-inch bright and clear touchpanel, the TPS-6X has a series of hard backlit buttons for quick access to common functions (volume, etc.) and a no-button bezel option.

The genius of the TPS-6X is that, when it’s locked into the charging station, it can provide wired Ethernet communication and full-motion video capability. At this point, this isn’t possible for wireless operation (CCTV camera, DVD preview, or TV channel). When you place the touchpanel in the docking station, it automatically switches from RF wireless to fully wired operation and can tilt up to 45 degrees for optimal viewing. When it’s in the wireless mode, as it is when it’s on my lap, its operation is fast. To make the most of this device, you should have it programmed to provide the graphic user interface (GUI) with 3-D effects for enhanced depth, dynamic graphics, text, and album cover art. But that’s not all. We’re not done with expenses. You have to include another $2,000 for installation, labor, and programming, which comes out to slightly over $7,000 without tax. Before you faint, this is a standard control solution for theaters with a $20,000-to-$30,000 projector, a $3,000-to-$6,000 screen, and similarly priced amps and processors. So it is perfectly at home in theaters $100,000 and up.

What Have We Learned?
Define who you are and what you need. Don’t be duped by the promise of remote control nirvana. If you’re serious about remote controls, you must recognize that they aren’t merely accessories but the final component in a serious system. Spend some money on a good system. You’ll be happy for the rest of your lifeŃand it’s good for the economy.

Mark Elson is director of marketing for Sound Solutions, the Los AngelesĐbased high-end systems integration company.