URC MX-980 Universal Remote and MRF-350 with Light Control

Who needs a universal remote? As far as I'm concerned, just about anyone with a media system, even as simple as a DVD player connected to a TV. Almost every piece of A/V equipment sold today offers its own remote with "universal" functionality, but these are cumbersome and offer limited programmability compared to third-party remotes.

The marketplace for universal remotes is crowded with offerings from Logitech, Philips, Universal Remote Control, and others. Each offers a better user experience over stock remotes, and depending on your wants and needs, there is a plethora of choices to fit almost any budget.

Universal Remote Control (URC) sells both consumer and professional lines of remotes. The consumer products are designed for Joe Six-Pack to quickly set up on his own, while the professional line is intended to be programmed and installed by experienced custom installers—or advanced hobbyists, like the average UAV reader.

Within each line, there is a wide range of options from text-based/hard-button models to ultra-elite touchscreens that change their functions depending on what you're doing. While the touchscreen models have a certain pizzazz and wow factor, I've never been a big fan of them. I like a remote I can operate with one hand and actually feel the button I'm pushing. With URC's MX-980, I get the best of both worlds—a bright LCD screen for flexibility and hard buttons for that coveted tactile feel.

The MX-980 is a wand-style remote that can be programmed from any Windows PC with a USB port. It features a stunning 2.4-inch color LCD screen with a resolution of 320x240 pixels that can display graphics in a variety of formats as well as animated GIF files, all of which can be assigned to any of the eight adjacent activity buttons.

The MX-980 is designed around two types of activities—Watch and Listen. For example, to watch TV, you simply hit the Watch button followed by TV. After pressing these buttons, the remote turns on the proper components and selects the right inputs, and it can even reset the lights to the optimum level for the activity (more on this later).

The remote includes a motion sensor that turns on the display and button backlighting when it's picked up so it can be easily used in a darkened room—a must for any home theater. A small speaker optionally beeps in response to button pushes, indicating that it understands the command. Additionally, a low-battery alert reminds you to place the remote into the supplied base station to recharge its lithium-ion battery, which should be done every couple of days with normal use.

The MX-980 supports both infrared (IR) and radio-frequency (RF) operation. IR works great when pointed directly at components, but if they are off to the side of the room or hidden from sight, RF is a cost-effective alternative to the mega-bucks control systems from Creston and others.

For RF control, URC offers the MRF-350, which is compatible with the MX-980 and various other URC remotes. It receives RF commands from the remote, converts them to IR, and blasts them to the equipment via its IR emitter. Additionally, it offers up to six addressable line outputs that can be connected to the IR inputs on the back of many components or to IR "blaster" cables attached to the components' IR sensors.

In a partnership with Lutron, URC also offers what it calls Native Lighting Control dimmers and switches. With the MX-980, no additional interface is required to control the lights directly via RF.

To program the remote, you need URC's proprietary software called MX-980 Editor, which can't be downloaded from their website. Be sure to buy the remote from an authorized reseller who will include the software with your purchase. Unauthorized merchants on the Internet are notorious for selling the remotes at a discount without the software, so buyer beware. URC recommends using a professional audio/video installer to program the remote to enjoy all of the benefits it offers, but with time and patience, most enthusiasts should be fine on their own.

In addition to MX-980 Editor, URC also offers a Favorite Channel Package that includes a large number of broadcast, cable, satellite, XM, and Sirius channel logos to integrate with the remote. Also, there is an MX-980 Expansion Pack that adds 10 new templates to the editor. New device icons are available, along with all the buttons, backgrounds, and other screen elements for all the new styles. Like MX-980 Editor, these additions are available only from an authorized reseller.