What Is an IR Remote Control?

Learn how that TV buddy works to your advantage

An infrared (IR) remote control uses light signals sent from a transmitter located at one end of the remote to a receiver in another electronic device.

These devices include televisions, stereos, DVD players, game consoles, and more. The basic operation of an IR remote control is a bulb or set of bulbs at the end of the remote that sends instructions to remote electronic devices using an invisible (infrared) light.

There are different types of IR remotes, from the least expensive with only one IR transmitter to higher-end units that feature several IR transmitters. Electronic devices compatible with IR remotes feature sensors on the front that can detect infrared light and decode the instructions.

Image of a man using an IR remote control

Rob Lewine\Getty Images

How IR Remote Controls Work

The transmitter at the end of the remote transmits an electromagnetic signal with a wavelength that's somewhat longer than visible light. The IR remote control pulses this "invisible" light in binary code.

Each "command" has a specific code. These command codes might include:

  • Power on
  • Volume up or down
  • Channel up or down
  • Opening and navigating on-screen menus

The electronic devices receiving the signal have sensors to detect the IR light. These sensors transmit the code to the microprocessor inside the electronic device. The microprocessor then interprets the code and translates it into the appropriate instructions to perform.

Limitations of IR Remote Controls

While IR remote controls do let you control electronics without having to get up from your chair, there are a few limitations.

Since infrared signals are light, the signals are easily blocked. Any object, like a chair or cabinet door, can easily interrupt the remote control from working. The signal requires an open path to transmit properly between the remote control transmitter and the sensor on the electronic device. The overall range of these remotes is about 30 feet.

There are a few ways IR remote control manufacturers have developed to get around this limitation.

More expensive remotes include more than one transmitter, usually between two to four. This allows the remote to send the IR signals at multiple angles so you don't have to point the remote directly at the electronic device for it to work. This will fill more of the room, but it doesn't entirely overcome the line-of-site problems.

Other solutions for the line-of-site issues include:

  • Separate IR Receivers: You can buy an IR receiver that you can place outside of cabinets so devices inside can receive the IR remote control commands even while stored inside the cabinet. The IR receiver recasts the same IR signal inside the cabinet to the device.
  • RF Remote Controls: Radio-frequency (RF) remote controls transmit the commands as a radio wave to a base unit at the electronic device. The base unit converts this to an IR signal and transmits this to the device. RF remotes can transmit signals into other rooms since radio waves are not limited by line-of-site issues.

Programmable IR Remotes

Another common problem with remote controls (not only IR remotes) is they're often misplaced. To replace these, you can purchase a programmable universal IR remote control. You can download the appropriate set of IR codes for the electronic device from the device manufacturer's website, and upload these to the remote.

Some of these remotes also come with preprogrammed code sets. All you have to do is enter a code for the make and model of your electronic device and the remote will program itself with the appropriate IR codes.

  • What is an IR blaster?

    An IR blaster is a small device that works like an IR remote to send IR signals and commands directly to other gadgets. For example, the Logitech Harmony Hub can use Alexa to control numerous other devices like TVs, soundbars, and gaming consoles.

  • What is an IR extender cable?

    IR extender cables are connecting cords that attach to an IR device on one end and use an IR transmitter on the other end to help extend the IR signal to another device. Xbox gaming consoles and streaming devices such as the Amazon Fire TV Cube come with or are compatible with IR extender cables.

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