Best universal remotes: the ultimate beginner’s guide

In 2017, you can control any number of devices and appliances in your home from anywhere in the world. You can travel to a new virtual reality. You can monitor your heart rate every hour of every day, if you choose.

Still, technology still hasn’t remedied the everyday problem of misplacing your TV remote. It’s way too common to find a remote control you spent an entire afternoon looking for that somehow found its way inside a kitchen cupboard. Anybody with a decent home AV setup, meanwhile, still has to deal with a plethora of the things.

The best solution available is a universal remote, which at the very least means there’s only one remote you need to keep an eye on. So, let's take a look at precisely what today’s best universal remotes can do, and how they work.

What is a universal remote?

Most of you probably get what the main idea of a universal remote is already. It’s a remote control that can imitate the signals sent by the remote that was included with your television, your home audio receiver and whatever other devices you have that use an IR signal. 

There are a couple main reasons to get one: either you’ve lost an original remote, and don’t want to pay the often obnoxious cost of a direct replacement. Or, you want to strip down the number of remotes crowding your living room. 

Almost every universal remote uses IR, or, infrared. It’s the same signal used by single-device remotes.

Cheap vs expensive

If you’re looking to buy an inexpensive universal remote, such as the One for All Essence (only available in the UK), you’ll use a pattern of button pushes to program the remote, locating the correct set of instructions for your equipment. Manufacturers like Sony and Panasonic have only used a few different patterns of instructions over the last decade or so for most of their TVs. You can just cycle through them until you find the set of commands that turns the TV in question off and on.  

The low-cost One for All Essence can replace two remotes

Mid-tier universal remotes boast large databases and companion apps that let you simply pick the equipment you have on your mobile device. It’s faster, easier and less of a hassle to add new devices, should your entertainment setup change.

Obviously, the more money you spend, the more devices a universal remote will be able to support. Logitech’s Harmony Elite has support for up to 15 devices with just the one remote, while low-end models, like the One for All Simple, only support one. Again, we’re getting back to the essential use-case question: are you replacing a lost remote or looking to use just one remote instead of a half dozen different ones?  

The Logitech Harmony Elite is one of the top-end universal remotes

High-end universal remotes will also empower you to set up custom macros, often called activities. These ‘activities’ will let you make a single button or touch screen press set off several commands. 

One remote, called 'Watch TV', for example, may turn on your cable box, audio receiver and TV, change the receiver to the right channel and switch your TV to the right HDMI input. Another classic is to turn all of your equipment off with a single press of a button.

Who makes universal remotes?

There are two major universal remote control companies, and they’re the ones we’ve listed out thus far. Logitech makes all the best top-end remotes, in the shape of its Harmony models, while One for All is the best name for more affordable remotes.  

The Doro HandleEasy is as basic as universal remotes get

In the US, you’ll also see a ton of low-price remotes from RCA. And if you’re buying for an elderly relative, or want a super-simple remote that only covers the TV basics, the Doro HandleEasy only lets you change channels and volume; it's been around for years, but it's a great lo-fi gadget. 

 Phones that are universal remotes

Some phones will also function as universal remotes, although perhaps not the models you may think. They need to have a feature called an IR blaster, which enables them to transmit the same signals as a normal remote control.

These used to be somewhat common, but have become quite rare, with the feature regarded as unloved and generally useless in the phones that had it. Current phones with an IR blaster include the Honor 9 and Huawei P10 Plus. Some Xiaomi phones have one too. The common thread? These are Chinese companies. 

The Honor 9 is one of the few new phones to have an IR blaster

The last high-profile phone to have an IR blaster was the LG G5, while the last flagship Samsungs with IR were the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge back in 2015. These phones have apps that enable you to configure your own setup, with on-screen buttons for (almost) all your remotes’ functions. 

We actually know people who owned phones with IR blasters a few years ago, but who ended up spending a significant amount of cash on a universal remote, oblivious to their phone’s abilities.

Have a phone with an IR blaster? You might want to check out a third-party remote control app like Peel or Sure, as these have a smarter interface than most built-in apps.

Controlling consoles and smart homes

One weak point of the vast majority of universal remotes is that they can't control most smart home equipment, or Sony’s PS3 and PS4. This is because they use either Bluetooth, RF or Wi-Fi instead of infrared. The solution is a hub that supports these other standards, and right now you have two main choices. 

Logitech offers the best-known, and best, one. The Logitech Home Hub works with Microsoft and Sony game consoles, and a wide variety of smart home gadgets including Philips Hue lights. It hooks onto your home Wi-Fi, and can be controlled either by a phone app or one of Logitech’s higher-end remotes. 

Logitech’s Harmony Hub levels-up the abilities of universal remotes

Using one of the Harmony series’ tasty macro activities, you could therefore set the lighting level for movie night, as well as turning on your AV setup, with a single press. 

Elsewhere, the Broadlink RM and RM Pro are hubs that can control IR and RF (Pro model) devices through a mobile phone app. They're significantly cheaper than the Logitech Home Hub, although as they don't use Bluetooth you can’t use them to control a Sony PS4. 

It is a low-cost way to make up for the lack of an IR blaster, though. 

Voice control

One additional benefit of the Logitech Home Hub system is that you can already control it through Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa.

If you have an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot you can add a Harmony ‘skill’ to it, and using this you can say “Alexa, tell Harmony to turn on the TV”, and it’ll do so. We’ve tried it out as part of our research for this guide, and it works rather well. 

You can now use your voice as a universal remote, with the right hardware

One day we'll be able to control everything over Wi-Fi, but until that day it's reassuring to see that universal remotes aren’t content to become ‘retro’ gadgets; they’re keeping up with the times.

Logitech Harmony at a glance

As the Logitech Harmony series is easily the most important range of universal remotes for people looking for an experience to suit a high-end setup, let’s take a quick look at what’s on offer. 

The Harmony family has two main lines – there are newer remotes that work with the Harmony Hub, and older pure IR remotes that don’t.

The Harmony Ultimate is one of Logitech’s full-fat universal remotes

The newer kind includes the Elite, Ultimate, Touch, Ultimate One and 950 models, all of which have screens. Logitech’s Companion remote supports the hub but doesn’t have a display, making it a little more affordable. 

Those after something even less pocket-draining should check out the Harmony 650, which has a display but no Hub support, and the Harmony 350, a basic £35/$38 remote that's a classic universal remote but can still combine the functions of eight remotes.