Sony Universal Remotes

I just bought a pair of Sony Model RM-VL600 universal remote controls (or “remote commanders” as Sony likes to call them), and figured I’d post my first impressions.

First, a little bit of background.  All of our TV comes over the air — no cable, sattelite, or FiOS.  Upstairs we have an old analog TV with an Apex DTV converter box.  Downstairs we have an LCD flat panel with a surround sound system.  We have 2 directional dipole-type antennas in the attic, and there are two antenna feeds to each TV.  To switch between antennas, each TV has a Radio Shack model 15-1968 remote control antenna switch.  All this gear, plus the requisite DVD players, VCRs etc, means lots and lots of remote controls.  Downstairs, we have never had a universal remote before, and have been juggling 4+ remotes for pretty much forever.  Upstairs, we started out with a cheapie preprogrammed universal remote made by Philips.  It worked great, until we added the DTV converter box.  The problem here is that DTV converters are still relatively new, and most of the preprogrammed universal remotes have not yet caught up with them.  I was able to get the Philips remote to “sort of” work with the Apex converter box, using the code for a Hughes cable box.  But certain essential buttons did not work, for example, the period button used for tuning ATSC “sub channels.”  Also, the preprogrammed remote didn’t have any codes that worked with the Radio Shack A/B switch.  So sadly, I had to retire the Philips remote (I did really like its layout and ergonomics).

What I really wanted was a remote that works similarly to the Philips, but includes a “learning” feature.  The Sony fit the bill perfectly.  It’s preprogrammed with a lot of codes, and buttons can be remapped arbitrarily using the learning feature.  And unlike many other learning remotes, it’s reasonably priced.  That’s important, because our house, with its two young children, is not what you would call the friendliest environment for remotes.  My youngest son broke our DVD remote in half.  Our old TV remote was dropped enough times that the battery door broke and we had to use tape to hold the batteries in.  Others have been lost, dropped, kicked, stepped on, had stuff spilled on them, etc.  The point is, I have no interest in spending megabucks on a fancy remote.  The Sony weighs in at just under $25, which is not a terrible loss should it meet some kind of untimely demise.  So, I figured I’d give it a shot.

I set the first remote up to work with our downstairs equipment.  The general trick to setting these remotes up is to first find the preprogrammed codes that work best with the equipment, then use the learning feature to fine-tune buttons until everything works the way you want.  As shipped, the remotes are configured to work with Sony equipment.  Our downstairs TV and DVD player are both made by Sony, and sure enough, the remote worked with them out of the box.  I also found codes that worked with my 10-year old Denon A/V Receiver and 12-year old Toshiba VCR.  The Receiver required a bit of “teaching” for individual buttons, as the preprogrammed code only worked with volume and a few of the inputs.  I finished up by programming two buttons to work the A/B antenna switch.  The entire process only took around 10 minutes.  We’ll see how things go after a couple weeks of regular use, but so far, I’m impressed.

Next up was the upstairs gear, including the DTV converter.  Similar to the Philips remote, the DTV box worked with a Hughes code, and certain buttons like the period didn’t work.  With this remote, though, I was able to use the learning feature to program all the missing buttons.  I found codes that worked with all the other (rather old) upstairs equipment, including a Mitsubishi TV and a GE VCR.  The remote also includes a “macro” feature, which I took advantage of by programming a button to turn the TV and DTV converter on and off at the same time.  Very nice.

As you’ve probably figured out, I’m impressed with these remotes.  They’re extremely versatile at an exceptionally reasonable price.  So what’s wrong with them?  Just a couple things that I’ve found so far.  I’m not crazy about the ergonomics.  The remotes are wider at the bottom than at the top, which seems kind of unnatural to me.  The remotes feel a little too big in my hands.  This may be something I get used to over time; we’ll have to see.  The only other thing (and this is really nitpicking) is a problem that I’ve seen with just about every universal remote I’ve tried:  button labels.  There are two opposing forces at work here.  On one hand, we want one remote to control as much equipment as possible.  On the other hand, we want the remote to have as few buttons as possible.  No one likes a cluttered remote with a zillion buttons, but at the same time we need to be able to access all the features of a given piece of equipment.  That means that, depending on the equipment, a single button on the remote might end up doing 3 or 4 completely different things.  So how do we accurately label the button?  The answer is we can’t, unless we use fancy LCD displays, or messy stickers, or overlays, or whatever.  So instead, we compromise.  In my case that means (among other things) I have to press the “twin view” button to turn closed captioning on on my DTV converter box.  It’s confusing at first, but you get used to it.  It’s just the way things are with inexpensive universal remotes.  All told though, these are among the best inexpensive universal remotes I’ve tried.

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