Universal remotes clone the commands of your existing zappers and let you switch between controlling your TV, DVD and other devices at the press of a button. This is easier than searching behind the sofa for the other remotes, but it doesn’t add any functionality.
What’s more, the nature of watching TV these days is that more than once device is almost always involved, whether it’s a set-top box, smart stick or AV receiver. What you really want is a remote that knows which one you want to communicate with at any moment and does the switching for you. That way, you reduce the chances of turning off everything when all you really wanted to do was switch the channels because Piers Morgan had come on.
Controlling devices this way is done by creating “activities” on your remote, rather than simply giving it a list of devices. For example, you can tell it that “watching TV” involves your Freeview box and your soundbar as well as the TV itself. The zapper then knows it should send commands to the Freeview box for channel changing and the soundbar for volume adjustments. At the same time, it can set the TV to the correct input and offer up a selection of other relevant commands on a little screen.
This is such an obvious use for a remote that it’s surprising there are not more models capable of doing it, especially given that the technology is far from new.
Logitech’s Harmony range is the brand leader, though the familiar high street label One For All gives it a run for its money at the lower end of the market. The absence of more widespread competition means prices have remained high.
The best mid-range activity remote currently available is perhaps Logitech’s Harmony 650, which can be had online for just over £50, some £20 less than the official asking price. It has a scrolling LCD screen on to which you can overlay commands relevant to the current activity, so you’re not restricted by the number of physical buttons on the remote - a common bugbear of more basic models. The programming is done on an app, in this case running on a desktop or laptop PC rather than a phone. The number of options are bewildering at first, but it’s easy once you get the hang of it.
At the top end of the scale, Logitech’s Harmony Elite blows away any notion that the zapper is a mere afterthought; at £250, this one costs as much as some TV sets. But if you have devices inside cupboards and in different corners of the room, the Elite will tame them all, blasting out infrared, wifi and Bluetooth signals in all directions from a companion hub, sited discreetly among your equipment.
It has a decent-sized touch screen and its own phone app, from which you can also control compatible third-party devices like a Sonos entertainment system and a Nest central heating thermostat. The app can also control devices directly, from another room if need be.
It’s a shame the price makes these zappers such a hard sell, because once you’ve tried one, you won’t want to use a standard remote again.