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Is a Universal Remote Worth Your Money?

A man controls his entire media center using a single remote. It's a universal remote!ra2studio/Shutterstock

Universal remotes have been around for a while, and they’ve come a long way. They can control your media center, your IR devices, and even your smarthome. But are universal remotes worth your money? If so, which one should you buy?

What Can a Universal Remote Do?

Before deciding whether or not a universal remote is worth your money (and which one you might want to buy), you should know that universal remotes can do more than just control a TV.

We’re going to quickly look at the Logitech Harmony Companion’s features, as it’s arguably the most robust universal remote. Keep in mind that other (cheaper) universal remotes may only carry only one or two of these features, but we’ll get into that later.

Here’s what universal remotes can do for you:

Simplify Your Media Center: Universal remotes can imitate the IR blast from any remote control. In other words, you can control multiple devices with one remote. Create TV Routines: A universal remote can also automate your TV processes. If you wanted to turn on your TV and PS4 with the press of one button, for example, a universal remote could do that. You could also flesh out this routine by adding time-saving commands like “switch to HDMI input 2.” Control Your Smarthome: Along with IR controls, some universal remotes can control Wi-Fi enabled smarthome devices. This means that you can control Alexa, Google Assistant, Philips Hue, and other devices through the universal remote control (or companion phone app). These smarthome features can also be used in conjunction with TV routines. You could set your Philips Hue bulbs to dim when you turn on the PlayStation, for example. Make “Dumb” Devices Smart: Some universal remotes can control any device with an IR sensor (cheap lights, portable air conditioners, etc.). In effect, they can technically make your “dumb” devices smart. An electric fireplace that’s set up with a universal remote can be controlled through Alexa or Google Assistant or added to smarthome routines. (This can only be done with smarthome compatible remotes).

Now that you know what universal remotes can do let’s get into it.

Do You Own a Complicated Media Center? A pretty minimal media center. Maybe this person should skip the universal remote.Keith Muratori/Shutterstock

If your TV is hooked up to just one video source, then you probably don’t need a universal remote. But if your media center is comprised of a cable box, a few game consoles, a Blu-Ray player, and an old VHS player (for example), then a universal remote is probably worth your cash.

Aside from the ability to turn on different devices with a single remote, some universal remotes, like the Logitech Harmony Companion or the Harmony 665, can build custom routines. You could program your PS4 and TV to turn on with the press of a single button (which can be done without a universal remote on some TVs using HDMI-CEC), for instance. Or, you could expand on the routine by adding commands like “turn to HDMI input 2,” or “set volume to 20.”

Of course, you could keep things simple with a cheap remote, like the GE 33709 or the Philips Universal Remote. These remotes don’t have smarthome features or routines, but they’re capable of controlling up to four devices at a time. That’s still better than fidgeting with a pile of different remotes.

Do You Have a Robust Smarthome? A man controls a smarthome using his phone. He's got a lot of connected devices, maybe he should get a universal remote.Loocid/Shutterstock

Even with a tiny media center, a universal remote can still be worth your money. That is, so long as you have (or want) a robust smarthome.

At a basic level, remotes like the Harmony Hub, Harmony Companion, and the Fire TV Cube can easily integrate into a smarthome. They can control devices like the Philips Hue bulbs, and they can be used to set up nifty smarthome routines.

But, as we mentioned earlier, some universal remotes can also turn any IR-controlled “dumb” device into a smart device. If you have a string of Christmas lights controlled by an IR remote, you could use a universal remote to integrate those lights into your Alexa or Google Assistant setup. Then, you can control the lights with voice commands or with typical smarthome routines.

The thing is, smarthome-ready universal remotes are expensive. The Logitech Harmony Companion costs about $105, and the Amazon Fire TV Cube (which only works with some dumb devices) runs for about $120. But, to be fair, these remotes may be cheaper than replacing your current IR-controlled soundbar, Blu-Ray player, or Christmas lights.

I Want a Universal Remote, Which One Should I Buy? A woman thinking about money. Should she pay for a universal remote?Pathdoc/Shutterstock

If you can’t justify the price of a universal remote, then you probably don’t need one. There’s not even much of a point in buying a $10 universal remote like the GE 33709 if you’re happy with your media center. And you probably don’t need a $105 Logitech Harmony Companion if you don’t own any smarthome devices.

But, if you’re sick of your complicated media center or you want to control your electric fireplace with voice commands, a universal remote may be worth your money. They’re relatively easy to set up, and they can make your life a lot easier.

There are a ton of universal remotes on the market, and it can be tough to find one that actually suits your needs. So we’re going to quickly run through the best universal remotes and explain why they might be useful to you. We’re also going to divide these remotes into “basic” and “smarthome-ready” categories to keep things simple.

Without any further ado, here are our favorite “basic” universal remotes:

GE 33709 ($10): This 4-device remote is as straightforward as it gets. It’s configured a bit like a cable TV remote, and it’ll work with just about any device in your media center. Philips Universal Remote ($10): A small 4-device remote that’s configured for streaming, Blu-Ray, DVD, and DVR functionality. It has just as many buttons as any other remote, but this is a good choice if you don’t watch much live TV. Sideclick for Roku ($25): If you do most of your TV watching with a Roku, then the Sideclick can eliminate the need for a bulky universal remote. The Sideclick attaches to your Roku remote, and it can control your TV, media players, and cable box. Logitech Harmony 665 ($69): This 15-device remote has a built-in screen, and it’s capable of following IR-based routines. It isn’t smart, but it’s a great option if you want a streamlined universal remote.

And here are our favorite smarthome-ready universal remotes. Remember, they all do different things, so don’t just spring for the cheapest (or most expensive) remote without knowing what it does:

Logitech Harmony Hub ($70): On its own, a Harmony Hub (sans remote) can control up to eight smarthome devices (including smart TVs). It doesn’t come with a remote and requires you to do everything through the Harmony app on your smartphone. It’s a good option if you don’t really need a remote that works with IR-controlled devices; just know that it can’t add smarthome functionality to “dumb” tech. Logitech Harmony Companion ($105): This is the ultimate smarthome-ready universal remote. It can control up to eight IR and smarthome devices, and it can be used to make “dumb” devices smart. It’s also compatible with the Harmony app, so you can control everything with your phone. This is an excellent option for someone that wants everything from a single remote. Amazon Fire TV Cube ($120): If you already own a bunch of Alexa-enabled devices, then the Fire TV Cube can make for a great universal remote. Just know that it can only control some devices, specifically TVs, soundbars, cable boxes, and A/V receivers. And in case you’re wondering, it doesn’t force you to use the Fire TV/Prime Video app.

Again, don’t bother buying one of these remotes if you don’t need one. But, if you really want one (or you know someone who needs a nifty gift), then maybe it’s time to pull out your wallet. We’re sure that you won’t regret it.

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