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Remote Control Features to Watch For

Remote controls aren't clunky any more. New remote controls have all sorts of features and options for your home theater: tiny, large, color, touch-sensitive, voice-controlled, time-controlled, and on and on.

You can spend $19 on a great remote or $5,000 on a “gold-plated” touch-screen, whole-home remote control that not only controls all the devices in your home theater but also runs all the electronics in your home.

Here are some remote control features to watch for:

  • Radio frequency (RF) versus infrared (IR): It used to be that all remotes were infrared-based. Now, many are touting RF connectivity, which is in many ways better than IR. First, RF signals tend to travel farther than IR. Second, you don’t need to point the remote at the TV set; RF can go in all directions, even through walls and cabinet doors.

    A downside of RF remotes is the possibility that you could unintentionally control devices in other rooms. In the vast majority of cases, you won’t run into this issue, because those other devices won’t be using the same remote codes as the ones in your home theater room.

    Most home theater equipment uses an IR remote control system, so if you use an RF system, you need some equipment to convert the RF signals to IR to control these IR-only devices.

  • Touch-screen displays: Color and grayscale displays are replacing hard buttons on remotes, enabling them to be far more programmable and customizable for your system. It’s not unusual that your remote would connect to your PC to customize the “soft buttons” on your remote’s screen. Standalone touch screens are even starting to replace remotes.

  • New control options: Two-way operation and voice control are innovations that should grow in popularity. With two-way operation, higher-end remotes can interact with the controlled unit to determine its state. So, for instance, if a unit is already on, your programmed macro won’t turn it off at the start of its session. And with two-way operation, you can check your actions to make sure they were carried out.

    Voice control lets you bark orders to your remote control (and even to other microphones in your home theater). Want the volume turned up? No problem: “Higher volume please.” Voice-control functionality is making its way into a lot of devices, including standalone Web tablets, making voice control a key future item in your home theater.

    Another interesting innovation is the docking cradle. A cradle might enable your remote to charge, to access the Internet for revised programming schedules, or to update its internal code databases.

  • IR (infrared) emitters/blasters: When one IR device wants to control another device, it often sends signals to the other device’s IR port through an IR blaster — a small device that sits some distance from (or in the instance of very small versions called emitters, is taped to) the IR port. Many PC applications interface with your home theater system through an IR blaster, to do things such as change the channel on your satellite receiver to start recording a program. You might find you have several IR blasters for different devices in your system.

    Within specific brands of A/V gear, you will find IR ports for interconnecting and sharing IR data directly into the motherboard — bypassing the IR port. This is one of the benefits of using a single manufacturer for your gear. Examples include systems such as Sony’s S-Link, which uses a special cable to connect Sony devices to each other.

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