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Master remote controls tame your entertainment center

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Master remote controls tame your entertainment center 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1987, The Syracuse Newspapers

I know a guy with seven remote controls. When he switches on his VCR, turns up the TV, zeroes in on the proper cable channel, routes the audio through his stereo system and settles back to enjoy an evening of video, he assembles his menagerie of remotes around him like a hen gathering up her little chicks.

He has them all labeled—one little electronic doohickey for the VCR, one for the TV, one for the cable converter, one for the stereo receiver. Off to the side of his crowded end table wait three other remotes, for use at another time in controlling the CD player, the cassette deck and the latest addition to his entertainment complex, a video disc player.

The quandary my acquaintance finds himself in is more common than most of us would have supposed. Remote controllers, which send out coded signals on infrared beams, have become remarkably inexpensive, and they are now offered as standard or optional equipment with most home electronic components.

This makes each piece of equipment much easier to use, but the fact that each remote control speaks a different language represents a sort of technological anarchy. After all, the standard human "remote control" that we have been using for all of history—even though it has a reach of only two or three feet—works just as well turning off the TV as it does changing the volume level of the receiver.

What's needed is an electronic gadget that will do the same thing as your hand—a remote control that reaches everywhere and speaks many tongues. GE introduced the first device of this kind last uear, and now others have joined in.

The idea in the creation of a "universal" remote control is to combine an infrared receiver with a transmitter, all in the same hand-held case. The receiver works like an intelligent sponge, soaking up and learning the infrared codes that are sent out by your regular remote controls.

You point your individual remote at the front of the universal remote, holding down the same function buttons on each. When the all-in-one remote gets the code for, say, "power on" from the VCR remote, it stashes that code away in a part of its memory, and when it gets the code for "channel 3" or "fast-forward," they're filed away in another area of memory.

Once your universal remote is programmed, you can put the others away in a drawer—as long as the multi-function replacement is smart enough to learn everything it's supposed to know.

And there's the rub. Recently, I have been using the model RC-AV1M "smart remote" from Onkyo, and, although life has been a lot less complicated, I have spent a couple of fruitless hours each night trying to get the Onkyo to learn what must be an odd dialect of infrared language—the transport control signals for my primary video tape recorder.

The Onkyo, which is just being introduced this month, dutifully memorized all the signals for changing channels and switching the VCR on and off, but it has turned a blind eye to all the infrared entreatments that control the VCR's transport.

So far, in my testing, that seems to be the only area where the $100 Onkyo master remote can't mimic the signals of individual remotes.

Onkyo's instructions point out that some codes may take a long time for the master remote to learn, meaning the two remotes have to be pointed at each other and their matching buttons held down repeatedly. This process can take a minute or two with some complicated codes. But I was not able to program the "record," "stop" and other transport functions even when the Onkyo's little LEDs lit up to tell me they had been properly learned.

Chances are the VCR codes that I was trying to get the Onkyo remote to learn are not typical of most VCRs, since the video recorder I use is an expensive, limited-production model. To the Onkyo's credit, all the other remotely operated components in my home worked flawlessly with the little RC-AV1M.

The Onkyo, which uses four AAA power cells, had about twice the range of most of the remotes that it replaced. Most of the components could be operated from at least 30 feet away.

If you need even more range, another new product could be helpful. It's the Zapit from an audio accessory manufacturer, Monster Cable. I haven't tried the Zapit yet, but the manufacturer says it will boost the range of any infrared remote to 100 feet or more.

The Zapit attaches to the front of your remote and works like an amplifier. When an infrared beam comes into one end of the Zapit, it is boosted and shot out of the other end in a brighter beam.

It's a neat trick. And for $25, the Zapit could be a cheap way of bouncing your influence around the corner so you can turn up the TV when you hear something of interest, or so you can turn down the hi-fi from the other room when the phone rings.

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