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Controlling those Remote Controls

The ubiquitous remote control is an amazing device. This usually infrared (IR)-based unit (sometimes RF is used) started out for basic TV-control use, but now accompanies virtually every home appliance, including air conditioners and HVAC controls, ceiling fans, and even some coffee machines. And yes, it's made us into coach potatoes (that law of unintended consequences in action, again.) A typical home now has four, five, six, or more in the multimedia room alone (formerly called the TV room or den). And like the Lilliputians of Jonathan Swift's classic “Gulliver's Travels”, they do have a way of tying us down.

Not to worry: there's the “universal” remote control. You can buy these for as little as $30, and they learn, or come programmed with, the codes for all your various units, at least in principle. Still, you are faced with a problem of too many or too few fixed-function buttons, a very limited display (or none at all) and the inability to implement sequences such as “turn on unit A before unit B.”

What to do? Check out the new Logitech Harmony 1000 (http://www.logitech.com) a universal remote with touch screen, incredible flexibility, programmable sequencing, and much more. You download the needed IR codes for your specific units you have via their web site and a USB connection. Oh, yes, there's one more thing it does: it removes about $500 from your wallet. Other units are available from vendors such as Universal Remote Control, http://www.universalremote.com, at between $250 and $1000.

The cost of this all-in-one remote control doesn't stop with the cash outlay. A recent article in the New York Times, May 27, 2007 “A High-End Remote for a High-Tech Life” (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/27/business/yourmoney/27novel.html, available online, but for a fee, sorry) notes that setup for a reasonably talented user can take about a day, including mundane tasks such as collecting the exact model numbers of every unit you want the remote to control. Then there is all sorts of “fine tuning” of its operation to get it “just right”, and make actual operation smooth and user-friendly, if not downright flexible.

But as I step back and think about the underlying problem of too many remotes and the obvious but awkward technical solution of the universal remote, I think about the mess we have unintentionally created, and the tangible and intangible costs of trying to extricate yourself from it. After all, a $500 universal remote becomes another technical mouth to feed, so to speak, demanding batteries, updates, care and attention, cold restarts, periodic download of updates from the vendor, and much more. It's enough to make you decide to get up, get some modest exercise, and use the old-fashioned “digital” approach.

On second thought, though, that may not be possible, either. Many new products can only be operated fully or properly through a remote control, since have very limited front-panel user controls. Oh, well, never mind!

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