Digital Gear: Battle the clutter of remotes

New remotes for audio and video devices change the way users surf channels and play music

Are the number of audio and video remotes at home getting out of hand? A new set of universal remote controls introduced in the last few months could help you take back control. The remotes include different features and functionality and are targeted at different audiences at different price points. Logitech's Harmony 900 remote is the latest in the company's line of universal remotes that can switch on up to 15 entertainment devices, including the TV, by pressing one button. Yamaha launched the NeoHD audio-video receiver, which moves remote control functionality to TVs. The Wand Co. is offering a funky universal remote shaped like a magic wand. And IBM is looking to bring social-networking tools to remotes through a patent application.

Logitech's Harmony remote

Logitech's Harmony remote control can command multiple entertainment devices. The company in August released its latest remote, Harmony 900, which offers an improved range up to 100 feet to reach devices inside cabinets. The remote does have drawbacks, with its US$399 price, and some complexity involved in using advanced menus.

Setting up the remote took about 15 minutes by plugging the it into a computer. Software helped set up the remote control to connect to devices and the sequence in which devices were to be started. The settings can be changed in case the remote isn't set up in the right sequence to switch on boxes, or if the boxes can't be detected.

The remote operated easily after set up. Pressing one button set off a string, turning on the TV and other devices. But the remote relies heavily on a logical set of sequences, and if the remote is not correctly pointed at a particular device -- like a set-top box -- it may have to be powered up manually. Logitech tried to solve that problem by bundling additional RF receivers that need to be placed around a room so signals reach out-of-range devices.

It also has a color touchscreen interface that could make operation of devices easier. However, as remote designs differ, Harmony may not offer some buttons found on original remotes that came with the devices. For example, I had to press multiple buttons on Harmony to reach specific movie menus on a cable box, as opposed to one-button access through the original remote. The trick lies in mastering the device through a few hours of study and experimenting with buttons.

Overall, Harmony 900 is one of the better and more intelligent universal remote controls. It is especially useful to start and operate multiple devices with just the click of a button. The device started shipping this month and is available through Logitech's online store. The price is hefty, but it helps to clean off a table full of remotes.

Yamaha's NeoHD

Yamaha has an ambitious plan to make remote controls irrelevant. The company has launched the NeoHD audio-video receiver, which can consolidate multiple entertainment boxes into one device. The receiver has an on-screen menu that helps retrieve content from a number of audio or video sources, including Blu-ray players, digital video records, cable boxes and game consoles. The receiver can also retrieve playlists from iPods, from which songs can be played back either through a TV or speaker.

The receiver is operated by a remote with a few buttons. On touching the remote's power button, the TV automatically gives users on-screen entertainment choices -- to watch, listen or play. Based on the selection, users can choose more specific activities, like watching a movie, or watching live TV, based on which relevant content is retrieved from a specific device. The remote can also power up multiple audio or video entertainment devices.

The receiver can connect to a maximum of six boxes and has multiple audio and video inputs including HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface).

NeoHD is available in a multiple configurations depending on a customer's need. The basic NeoHD, called YMC-500 comes for $599.95. The NeoHD WiFi, called YMC-700, comes with wireless and wired networking and is priced at $799.95. Also priced at $799.95 is NeoHD System 2.1, model YMC-S21, which comes with speakers and a subwoofer.

Magic wand remote control

The Wand Co.'s Kymera television remote control is like a toy straight out of a Harry Potter book. Shaped like a magic wand, the motion-driven universal remote can change channels or volume simply by waving it. For example, you can rotate the wand clockwise or counter-clockwise to change volume.

At first, it was hard to take this product seriously, but there is some major science behind those abracadabra moves. The remote is equipped with small accelerometers that help detect wand movement, wrote Chris Barnardo, a spokesman for The Wand Co., in an e-mail. Based on gestures, a microprocessor and software instruct the remote to send specific commands to control the TV.

The wand is customizable, so you can specify the gesture-related functionality related to TV controls. The wand needs to be placed in learning mode where it picks up gesture-based instructions from infrared signals emitted by a TV remote control. The wand can pack only a dozen or so commands, so it does have limitations.

When it ships, the Kymera wand would be a cool device to have at home. But be prepared to shell out £49.95 (US$81) for it. It is scheduled to ship on Oct. 14.

IBM's TV remote play

IBM and TV remotes? Sounds like an odd relationship, but IBM has applied to patent an "enhanced remote controller," which is a TV remote that can interact with social-networking tools on the Web without a PC. In addition to channel surfing, the device allows viewers to blog about a program on the Internet. The remote is also designed to automatically leave Twitter messages or update a Facebook status on a program being watched. An image of the patent design can be viewed on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site.

Of course, there's no guarantee the remote will ever see the light of day. But it is one cool remote concept.

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Agam Shah

IDG News Service

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