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 a remote control. Usually, the remote can only operate one device. Some TV remote controls can control other devices within the same brand. For example, most LG, Samsung, and Sony TV remotes can control Blu-ray Disc players of the same brand.

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

What Is a Universal Remote Control?

A universal remote control operates basic and, in some cases, advanced features of home entertainment devices from several product brands.

GE, Logitech, and RCA universal remote controls

The types of devices that a universal remote can control include TVs, CD/DVD/Blu-ray Disc players, home theater receivers, soundbars, cable and satellite boxes, video game consoles, and streaming devices, such as Roku and Apple TV.

Additionally, most universal remotes require you to press buttons. However, some feature a touchscreen, like on a smartphone. A growing number of universal remotes provide access to and control of smart TV features.

Although the word universal implies that this type of remote controls everything, in reality, each remote has different levels of universal control.

Remote Control Programming Options

For a universal remote to operate different brands and device models, it needs to be programmed to recognize the device it will control. Universal remotes incorporate one or more of the following programming features:

  • Pre-programmed (also called multi-brand): These remotes can be used with a limited number of devices from select product brands without further programming.
  • Learning: The remote learns the 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: Program the remote control by entering a special code designated for specific brands and devices or by connecting the remote to a PC via USB and inputting the code from a special website.
  • Programmable without a code: Most programmable remotes include a feature that scans for a code via a series of steps outlined in the user guide, without the need to enter the code.
RCA universal remote direct code entry example


How Universal Remote Controls Work

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

  • IR: This is a common method that remotes use to control devices. Each time you touch a button on the remote, it sends a series of infrared light pulses to a sensor located on the front of the TV or other device. The device executes the command. This requires a clear line-of-sight between the remote and the device. If that isn't possible, place accessories such as an IR repeater or IR extender between the remote and the target device, retransmitting the pulses using its 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. 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 resending the signal in infrared from the receiver to the device. For additional flexibility, many RF remotes 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 feature is commonly available with smartphones in conjunction with Wi-Fi supported TVs, home theater receivers, or hubs that receive Wi-Fi signals and relay the command information via IR to the device. However, some handheld remotes can be used with an external control hub to relay commands from the remote through infrared, RF, and Wi-Fi.
  • Bluetooth: Some universal remotes incorporate control via Bluetooth. This is an option for controlling Roku streaming devices and some video game consoles. This means that some universal remotes can use Bluetooth for controlling some devices and IR or RF to control other devices.
The Logitech Harmony Elite remote control system

Types of Universal Remote Control Commands

All universal remote controls can perform simple tasks, such as raising and lowering the volume, changing channels, and selecting inputs. Some 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 a DVD or Blu-ray Disc player, and playing the disc loaded in the player automatically.

A more complex activity or macro task might be to turn on the TV, select the input that a 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 the 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

A universal remote is a common way to get rid of remote control clutter. Still, some alternatives can enhance or limit the need for a handheld universal remote.

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

The Bottom Line

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

Logitech Hamrony 950 universal remote

Never toss out your original remotes. While you may not use a remote for months at a time, you may need to access functions that the universal remote cannot manage. Having the original remote also comes in handy if you sell your equipment.

Before you purchase a universal remote control, consider the following:

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