Commentary

Remote Control Hell: It's Time To Fight Back!

Recently I examined the ubiquitous problem of electronics: their obnoxious, blinking LEDs and displays. Our assimilation with machines has led to a subtle encroachment of electronics status updates that constantly demand our attention. But there's yet another encroaching violator of our sanity amidst the electronics realm: remote controls. 

Similar to LEDs and displays, nowhere is the plague of excessive remote controls more evident than in our home theater room. With nearly every new device comes another remote control. We need a remote control for the cable box, DVR, DVD player, Roku, multimedia receiver, multimedia PC, plasma television and streaming Internet radio receiver. I'm leaving a few devices out, but you get the idea. I have at least 50 remote controls in my house.

In fact, we have a stylish box full of remotes and, depending on which equipment I want to use, I'll go fishing for the right one. But it's never just one remote that's needed; it's always a combination of two or three. For example, a music-listening session typically requires the remotes for the Internet radio receiver and the multimedia receiver. Conversely, a movie-watching session typically requires remotes for the multimedia receiver, the plasma screen and a video source device, which might include the Roku, DVD player, or PC. Few remotes are intuitive, so every usage and combination is akin to solving a new puzzle.

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Are all these remotes necessary? If you want entertainment control from the couch, then the answer is yes. Can't you consolidate device control with a universal remote? Theoretically? Yes. Practically? No. Consolidation on a universal remote used to be possible when you had only two or three interconnected devices, like a television, cable box and DVD player. Even then, the programming of cryptic numeric codes was near-impossible, and training people how to use a universal remote was always impossible. Using multiple, dedicated remotes always worked better, even though it resulted in more clutter.

A disturbing new trend is making remotes absolutely necessary. Two such offending devices are the Roku online video streaming receiver and the Phillips Streamium Internet receiver. With these devices, the remotes are your only control. If the batteries die, you're temporarily out of luck. If you lose the remote, then you endure the hassle and cost of acquiring new ones. This problem is especially severe for households like mine, where toddlers are on a never-ending mission to seize and hide remotes. They often leave them outside in the sandbox, or secretly take them into the bathtub.

Similar to the problem of LEDS and status displays, this version of remote control hell stems from design and engineering flaws. On an individual level, electronics manufacturers most often fail to produce simple, dedicated remotes that work well with even a single device. This most often comes on top of devices that start out with a poor interface, or, increasingly, no interface at all.

In the commons, the entire electronics industry has failed to recognize that all customers assimilate with many different electronic devices from many different manufactures. They fail to recognize that every consumer creates his own modular realm of utility and entertainment. One bad remote is bad. But many remotes create complexity and dissatisfaction of exponential proportion. It would be great if manufacturers could band together to solve this problem.

The encroachment of excessive and poorly designed remote controls has been subtle yet ubiquitous. That's probably why few people speak up. But the problem has gotten bad enough. It's time to speak up and fight back!

You can start by leaving a comment if you agree.
12 comments about "Remote Control Hell: It's Time To Fight Back!".
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  1. Charles Reilly from WPHL TV, August 21, 2009 at 11:58 a.m.

    You've described the remote clutter on my family room coffee table as if you've been there. The bigger challenge is actually educating anyone unfamiliar with the 1-2-3-4 step necessary to work it all. Kids seem to figure out the process relatively quickly (switching to video games), but when Grandmom comes to visit - well, forget it.

  2. Carolyn Hansen from Hacker Group, August 21, 2009 at 12:06 p.m.

    Perhaps the reason we electronics consumers/users haven't spoken up is the embarrassment of having to confess our addiction to entertainment.

    My husband and I (no kids) have two DVRs and a TiVo that regularly fill up. The DVRs are identical Comcast boxes with identical remotes. We have to mask one of the DVRs' infrared receivers (a Star Wars 3-pack DVD box does nicely) so that only one DVR responds to our commands. Wish we had a remote that would move that Star Wars box.

  3. Simon Cohen from Bell Canada, August 21, 2009 at 12:11 p.m.

    Max, Charles I feel your pain.
    While not perfect, our Logitech Harmony 520 remote is a close to total solution as I've discovered. It's reasonably intuitive, the Harmony community does a great job of keeping remote codes available online and despite my mom still calling me while my wife and I are out to ask "how do I get the DVD working", it's still vastly better that the 4+ remotes it replaces.

    But let's keep complaining - eventually companies will respond with a scheme that is truly 'universal' and not just a universal band-aid.

  4. Mike Patterson from WIP, Inc., August 21, 2009 at 12:13 p.m.

    Great commentary as usual Max and so right on! And you hit on THE most disturbing trend of them all (IMO)...the devices that REQUIRE a remote and cannot be used without one...such a frustration.

    But I think maybe I have the solution...Apple needs to bake infrared technology into the iPhone or iPod Touch (or any other smartphone manufacturer for that matter) and then the device manufacturers could make apps that would turn the phone deck into a remote control. I know this is already possible with Apple TV so why not extend the functionality with infrared technology?

    The iPhone solves another huge consumer problem...somebody call Steve Jobs!

  5. Russell Cross from Prentke Romich, August 21, 2009 at 12:14 p.m.

    I'm with you on wanting designers to make sure their technology can work independent of the remote. Anything that can get lost WILL get lost, and that applies especially to remotes. After 10 minutes of searching unsuccessfully for a missing remote, I am all in favor of suspending my opposition to the death penalty for designers.

    Also up there in my tech-peeves is the design of rechargeable portable house-phones that DON'T have a backup battery. I had four at home and if you lose one, you can call it to here it ring - until the rechargeable battery dies. Now I have one somewhere in the house but six months on, I have not come across it.

  6. The digital Hobo from TheDigitalHobo.com, August 21, 2009 at 12:18 p.m.

    As someone who has spend countless hours configuring my remote (touchscreen Philips Pronto), and advised friends with their remote choices, I have to disagree.

    People need to learn how to control their devices. You wouldn't buy a manual shift car if you didn't know how to drive it would you?

    Logitech's Harmony remotes let you plug your remote in to your computer, tell it what devices you have, and voila, they work. Perfect for the wife who just wants to watch a movie.

    If they don't have your new device, give them a few weeks and they will. Couldn't be any easier.

    Custom programming a remote isn't the easiest thing to do, especially when you get your new remote and try to hook up 7 devices, but adding them one at a time isn't all that difficult, particularly for the basic functions. Setting up macros manually is a pain, but if thats not for you, again, check the Logitec remotes. I'm sure there are others that do the same. Plug it in, download, and hit "Watch Movie." TV turns on, receiver turns on and switches inputs, dvd turns on.

    I'm down to two remotes for 99% of my viewing. My universal remote and my mouse, which drives my Media Center.

    Remote clutter is mostly the result of people not wanting to spend another $250+ "just for a remote" that would solve all of your problems. That, and the fact that guys love their toys, even if its a pile of remote controls.

  7. The digital Hobo from TheDigitalHobo.com, August 21, 2009 at 12:25 p.m.

    @ Mike -

    The touchscreen remotes work exactly as you describe. Any remote that is capable of "Learning" should work for nearly any device that comes with its own remote. Just point the remotes at each other and teach it how you want it to work.

    And I was using my old Palm Pilot 5+ years ago to act as a remote control. As Simon said (ha!), there are universal remotes that will eliminate the clutter quite easily.

    The 2nd biggest hurdle right now (imho) is that some remotes are IR based and others are Bluetooth.

  8. Jacob Dietz from Porchlight MCG+, August 21, 2009 at 12:42 p.m.

    We've got a rather complex home theater setup with multiple amps, speaker sets and digital sources that had us juggling remotes for too long. For anyone in the house other than myself, hitting the wrong button on the wrong remote would take everything offline, so house sitters and visiting relatives more often than not had a less than stellar experience.

    I've been running a Harmony 890 for about 2-years now and that is the only remote we use to control all of our equipment which is locked away from view in a media closet - a single button kicks off a wonderful chain reaction of equipment turning on and tuning in to exact specifications. It's so simple to use, I bought one for my parents and they love it - all the extra remotes now live in a drawer in case the Harmony battery dies, but they're pretty much no longer in use.

  9. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, August 21, 2009 at 12:46 p.m.

    Max, you're too young to channel Andy Rooney.

  10. Warren Lee from WHL Consulting, August 21, 2009 at 1:48 p.m.

    Great post Max, I quite agree. Thanks for all the folks that recommend the Harmony remote. I might just have to get one as I can not find the remote that powers the TV in the family room. I think it may have gone to camp with one of my daughters!

  11. Jimmy Bellagio from Bellagio Electronics, August 22, 2009 at 2:11 a.m.

    Couldn't agree with this post more. I tried the Harmony approach though and my family thought it was too small and not user friendly. After much research I wound up hiring a professional to reccomend and custom program a remote for me. I wen't with an RTI T2-C and it is one of the best investements I made. I was able to get it programmed by a company called Total Control Remotes - www.totalcontrolremotes.com. They were fantastic and even gave me a lifetime contract for any programming changes for only $75! In any event not only do I not have the coffee table clutter, I have a control system that operates my media room, shades, lights and apple tv.

    Jimmy Bellagio

  12. Max Kalehoff from SocialCode, August 22, 2009 at 9:48 a.m.

    There's some good feedback here. My conclusion is that the Harmony is the best off-the-shelf solution out there today to deal with remote control hell. However, it seems like a huge compromise and doesn't solve the core problem of poor design and engineering, both by individual manufacturers, and collectively.

    Jimmy Bellagio: Hiring a consultant to create a custom remote is over the top. I'm sure your guy was great, and the solution works. But that's not a scalable solution for the rest of us.

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