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What is the Perfect Universal Remote Control?

by November 09, 2015
Where is the perfect remote?

Where is the perfect remote?

It seems like remote controls are the one piece of any equipment that we’re never really happy with.  Many manufacturers seem to have given up.  They know their remotes are barely adequate and trust that you’ll just go find a better, universal remote to use.  However, I still believe that any equipment can come with good remote design if you break down how it will be used.

Before reading on, we suggest checking out our YouTube Video Overview below to get some insights on the various types of remote controls available and their associated strengths and weaknesses. 

 The Perfect Remote? Audioholics Soundbytes Video Review

 Let’s take a look at current remote designs...

The Tactile Approach - Physical Buttons

This are actual physical buttons that you can find often without looking directly at the remote.  In other words, 99% of current remotes.  However, there’s still a right and wrong way to do this.  For instance, Yamaha make great receivers, but the remote they shipped with their RX-A2040 AV Receiver features lots of small, similarly sized buttons that are easily confused and require reading tiny text to discern the difference.  Multiple, small, flat buttons is the “wrong way”.

Yamaha RX-A2040 Remote

Yamaha RX-A2040 Remote

For the “right way”, take a look at the remote that some with the $50 Roku stick.  Roku has stripped out all but the most essential buttons, and relegated rarely used functions to on screen menus that can be navigated with the standard direction pad.  This is the “right way.” 

If you’re going to build a remote with physical buttons, use unique sizes and shapes of buttons, and including dedicated buttons for only the most used, absolutely necessary functions, while banishing the rest of the rarely used functions to on-screen menus.  Bonus points for giving a single button multiple functions depending on the context of what’s happening, for instance, a button that “selects” when in a menu screen can “play/pause” when content is playing.

Roku Streaming Stick Remotea

Roku Streaming Stick Remote

The Non-Tactile Approach - Touch Screens

These types of remotes could be apps that you download onto any smartphone, or a custom tablet that can cost hundreds or thousands to implement. There are no physical buttons, just a touchscreen.  At first blush, doing away entirely with physical buttons seems like a great idea.  How great that now you just get a screen that is infinitely customization and only shows the relevant buttons to you.  That button that allows you to switch screen aspect ratios that you’ve never used?  It’s gone.

Yamaha Remote App

Yamaha Remote App

The downside is that, with an ever-changing layout, touch screen remotes require that you take your eyes off what you’re watching, and stare at a touchscreen instead to do a simple volume adjust, or navigate an on-screen menu.  In a dimly lit theater room, the bright screen of your cellphone can be quite the blast of light to your eyeballs.  I love setting up the arcane features of an AVR via touchscreen, but for just navigating and watching content, I still need my physical buttons.

The Hybrid Approach - Physical Buttons Plus a Touch Screen

So the answer might be to keep some physical buttons, and send the rest of the functions to a touchscreen.  There are a few remotes taking this approach.  The most well known is probably the Logitech Harmony series which combines a stripped down physical remote with a small, built-in touchscreen.  Programming these remotes is usually done via a user-friendly computer program, which will be a huge relief for those of use who, in previous decades, spent hours flipping through a tiny book full of numbers trying to find the proper 4-digit code on our RCA “programmable” remotes.

Harmony Elite Smart Remote

Logitech Harmony Elite Smart Remote

This hybrid combination address functions in terms of what is important to see, and what is important to be able to feel.  I tracked my use over a few days and discovered that my most used buttons were  power, volume, and transport/navigation.  For me, these are the only functions that need to be hard buttons, accessible without looking at the remote.

Power:  I want to be able to grab the remote and easily fire up the system, usually on my way to grabbing some food and a drink.

Volume: I’m constantly nudging volume up/down with different program material.  I want to make changes on the fly while keeping my eyes fixed on program material.

Transport/Navigation: Thankfully, smart design has given the D-Pad multiple functions dictated by whether program material is playing back.  I want to be able to reach them quickly and reliably, with no accidental presses accidentally skipping forward to give away future scenes.  For navigation, all the important info is on screen, where my eyes are. I don’t want to have to look at the remote (with the exception to this being casting to Chromecast.)

Is the NEEO the Perfect Remote?

This one’s a bit of a leap of faith, because this remote isn’t even out yet.  Priced at $250, this remote became one of the most funded kickstarter projects at $1.5 million.  Currently in development and production, it promises control of nearly every infrared or wireless devices, including zigbee and z-wave home automation devices.  It features a delightfully sparse 14 button configuration matched with an LCD touchscreen.

NEEO Remote

NEEO Remote

Does it sound too good to be true?  Yes, absolutely, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not eager to see what it looks like when it’s released.  The release date has been listed as “very soon” for months now. 


In our search for the perfect remote, we've moved both forward and backward. As equipment has packed in more features, remotes have become more complex. However, on-screen navigation and smart remote design is starting to pop up making the user control experience more intuitive and simple. A few robust universal remote designs are popping up that reveal a new way of thinking about how we interact with our systems. It will be exciting to see where we go from here. 

A Few Lingering Observations...

I really only have 2 sources, and HTPC and Chromecast (recently replaced my Roku as a secondary streamer).  More sources means, potential, more complex remote needs. How many sources are in your main system?

For me, mute is dead thanks to pause, skip.  Do you still use the mute button? 

Home Automation is set to kick into mas adoption any year now. The perfect remote should also control your lights and shades. Thermostats, door locks, and garage doors are a bonus. Have you started adopting a smart home yet?  Let us know your thoughts in the related forum discussion thread below by clicking the link.


About the author:
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Marshall is an Educator by trade, and currently lives in Oregon. He was lucky enough to grow up in a musical household, and though the AV equipment wasn't the greatest, it was always on. His dad introduced him to Queen, Paul Simon, and Sgt. Pepper's, and his mom played Lionel Richie and Disney Soundtracks. When Marshall was 14, his uncle passed down a pair of JBL towers and Marshall finally had his own system. Having enjoyed podcasting and video production over the past 10 years, Marshall is happy to be contributing at Audioholics.

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