Guide to Universal TV Remotes

All-in-one remotes help manage your TV and other devices

Plenty of home theater and entertainment devices come with their own remote control, but usually, the remote can only be used to operate that one device. Some TV remote controls have the ability to control other devices within the same brand. For example, most LG, Samsung, and Sony TV remotes can be used to control Blu-ray disc players of the same brand.

However, most people want just one remote control that can operate all of their devices, regardless of brand. That's what a universal remote control is for.

What Is a Universal Remote Control?

GE, Logitech, RCA Universal Remote Controls

A Universal Remote Control provides a way to operate basic and in some cases, more advanced features of home entertainment devices from several product brands.

The types of devices that can be controlled by a universal remote include TVs, CD/DVD/Blu-ray Disc players, home theater receivers, soundbars, cable/satellite boxes, video game consoles, and streaming devices, such as Roku and Apple TV. Additionally, while most universal remotes require you to press buttons, there are some that feature a touchscreen, much like a smartphone. A growing number of universal remotes also provide access and control of Smart TV features.

Although the word "universal" implies that such a remote controls everything, in reality, they have different levels of "universal control."

Remote Control Programming Options

RCA Universal Remote Direct Code Entry Example

In order for a universal remote to operate different brands and device models, it needs to be programmed to recognize the device in need of controlling. Universal remotes incorporate one or more of the following programming features:

  • Pre-Programmed (aka Multi-Brand): This capability allows the remote to be used with a limited number of devices from select product brands without further programming.
  • Learning: This feature allows a remote to "learn" remote control commands of other remotes by pointing a universal remote and a dedicated device remote at each other and programming each command one-at-a-time.
  • Programmable with a Code: This feature allows the remote control to be programmed by typing in a special code designated for specific brands and devices or by connecting the remote to a PC via USB and inputting the code directly from a special website.
  • Programmable Without a Code: Most programmable remotes also include a feature that can scan for a needed code via a series of steps outlined in the user guide, without the need to actually enter the needed code.

How Universal Remote Controls Work

The Logitech Harmony Elite Remote Control System
The Logitech Harmony Elite Remote Control System. Logitech

In addition to programming, a universal remote control needs to communicate given commands to a target device. This can be done via one or more of the following methods:

  • IR: This is the most common method that remotes use to control devices. Each time you touch a button on the remote it sends out a specific series of infrared light pulses to a sensor located on the front of the TV or other device. The device then executes the command. This requires clear line-of-sight between the remote and the device. If that is not possible, accessories such as an IR Repeater or IR extender can be placed between the remote and the target device, retransmitting the pulses using its own IR beam or electrically via a cable connected to an IR sensor input connection.
  • RF: As a solution to the line-of-sight limitation, some universal remotes incorporate an RF (radio frequency) transmitter. Although this allows you to control devices that are placed inside cabinets or otherwise obstructed, not many controllable devices have RF receivers that can be used with an RF remote. One solution is to transmit the RF commands to an external RF receiver, with the receiver then resending the signal in infrared from the receiver to the device. For additional flexibility, many RF remotes also incorporate an infrared option.
  • Wi-Fi: If a universal remote control incorporates Wi-Fi, you can control some smart devices through a home network. Using a variety of apps, this type of remote can control both device functions and content access, such as streaming audio and video. This is more commonly available with smartphones in conjunction with Wi-Fi supported TVs, home theater receivers, or hubs that receive Wi-Fi signals and then relay the command information via IR to the device. However, there are also handheld remotes that can be used in conjunction with an external control hub to relay commands from the remote through infrared and RF in addition to Wi-Fi.
  • Bluetooth: Some universal remotes incorporate control via Bluetooth. This is mostly applicable as an option for controlling Roku streaming devices, as well as some video game consoles. This means that some universal remotes may have the ability to use Bluetooth for controlling some devices, and IR or RF to control other devices.

Types of Universal Remote Control Commands

Man watching TV using remote control
Robert Daly / Getty Images

All universal remote controls can perform simple tasks, such as raising and lowering the volume, changing channels, selecting inputs, and other simple tasks. Some more advanced remotes offer control of sound, picture, and device settings.

Some remote controls can also perform groups of tasks (referred to as Macros or Activities). For example, you may be able to execute a task with one button push or touchscreen press, such as turning on the TV, selecting the input for your DVD or Blu-ray Disc player, and automatically playing the disc loaded in the player.

A more complex activity or macro task might be to turn on the TV, select the input that your home theater receiver is connected to, turn on a home theater receiver, turn on a specific source connected to the receiver, start the source playback, lower your room lights, and adjust the thermostat—all of this accomplished by the push of a single button or icon on a touchscreen.

Alternatives To Universal Remotes

Voice and HDMI-CEC Control Options
Logitech and Samsung

Although a universal remote is the most common way to get rid of remote control clutter, there are some interesting alternatives that can be used to enhance or limit the need for a hand-held universal remote.

  • Voice Control: With the growing popularity of voice assistants, such as Google Assistant and Alexa, some devices can be directly controlled via a Google Home or Amazon Echo-type device (look for devices that state "Works with Google Assistant" or "Works with Alexa"). Alternatively, you can send your commands through a Google Home or Amazon Echo, and the Echo, in-turn, will communicate with a universal remote to execute the control commands. An example of this is the Logitech Harmony Elite, Companion, and Pro series remotes.
  • HDMI-CEC: If your TV and the rest of your components are connected via HDMI cables, HDMI-CEC may be used as an alternative to a universal remote. This allows control of basic functions by using a universal remote or the non-universal remote control that came with your TV. For some HDMI-enabled TVs and devices, HDMI-CEC is automatically enabled, so you can use it without further setup. In most cases, however, you will need to activate it from an onscreen menu.

The Bottom Line

Logitech Hamrony 950 Universal Remote

A good universal remote control can go a long way in making your home entertainment setup easier to use, but it is not always a complete replacement for the original. Some universal remotes may only control some basic functions, while others may provide access to advanced picture and sound adjustments, as well as other features.

Never toss out your original remotes. While you may not use them for months at a time, keep them all together in case you need to access functions that the universal remote cannot manage. Having that original remote will also come in handy if you sell any of your equipment.

Before you purchase one, consider the following:

  • How many devices you need to control.
  • How many programming options you may need to access.
  • How extensive the control options are.