The Best Universal Remote ControlsBy Michael Desjardin, April 04, 2019
In an episode of the comedy series Peep Show, one of the show's main characters, Jeremy, suggests that he and his roommate, Mark, tidy up the apartment before having company over. One item in particular needs to be dealt with: four remote controls, each for a different device, crudely taped together for easy access.
"The Megatron?" Mark asks, dejectedly. "But, no..."
Jeremy insists: "It smells wrong," he says.
You probably don't have a Megatron of your own—if you do, much respect—but there's a good chance you have more remote controls than you'd like. Me? I've got a remote control for my TV, one for my sound bar, another for my streaming box, and a fourth for my Blu-ray player. My coffee table basically looks like the Clicker Committee is holding an important meeting at all times.
The point is, we could all use some decluttering now and again, and the coffee table is a perfect place to start. We put several of the most popular universal remote controls to the test to figure out which were qualified to serve as Chief Clicker of the living room.
After testing several of the most popular universal remote controls, our pick for the overall best goes to the Logitech Harmony Companion (available at Amazon for $105.00), which strikes the best balance between cost and functionality. When used in conjunction with the Harmony app, the Companion simplifies home entertainment while simultaneously expanding its possibilities.
We also tested a few basic, budget-friendly universal remotes that function more traditionally. These remotes won't connect to an entire suite of smart home devices, but they'll probably work with TV add-ons like DVD/Blu-ray players, select sound systems, and cable boxes.
Here are all of the universal remotes we've tested, ranked in order:
Logitech Harmony Companion
Logitech Harmony Elite
Caavo Control Center + Universal Remote
Updated April 04, 2019
Logitech Harmony Companion
Logitech Harmony CompanionBest Overall
Our pick for the overall best universal remote control is the Harmony Companion from Logitech, a hub-and-remote system that works alongside an official app to produce a seamless, smart home-integrated experience that won't break the bank.
Here's the basic gist of how it works: The Harmony Hub is a small, puck-like device that lives somewhere near your TV and connects to two IR mini-blasters that can be placed in convenient spots within a short distance from the hub. The system communicates with other devices via WiFi, Bluetooth, and IR.
The Harmony app—where you'll be doing most of your initial and long-term customizations—can be accessed from a host of supported devices including smartphones, tablets, and computers. The app can be used to add up to eight separate devices, and these devices can be programmed to run customizable "activities." Activities can be as simple as starting an application or as complex as starting an application, dimming your smart lights, and turning on a soundbar—all with a simple command. The hub also supports Alexa and Google Assistant.
The remote control itself is powered by a small, CR2032 lithium battery. The buttons respond quickly and with satisfying clicks, and the back of the remote is wrapped in a soft, grippy texture. Since the battery compartment is relatively small, there don't appear to be any hinges that would otherwise break easily.
Because the Harmony Hub and Companion support so many devices and offer such a wide range of features, setting everything up can be a long, finicky process that might scare some people off. It's also worth noting that, whether you're customizing activities, adding new devices, or mapping your Companion's buttons, you will end up spending a good amount of time focused on the Harmony app. In fact, there's no easy way to add new devices without it.
If you don't plan on getting knee-deep in the Harmony Hub and Companion's advanced features, there's still a lot to appreciate about the Harmony experience. It comes at a cost that's significantly higher than traditional universal remotes, but it's as close as I've come to an ideal universal remote experience for a modern, heavily networked lifestyle.
How We Tested
Since our home theater lab is typically stocked with the TVs we happen to be testing, it was the perfect place to test universal remote controls. That said—as you'll soon learn—not every universal remote we tested is the same in terms of its initial setup process and, crucially, its overall functionality.
Our first assessment was simple: How easy is it to set up the remote? Is the initial setup process one that most people could undertake, regardless of their technological prowess?
Next we tested the remote's ability to function... well, universally! Each remote control was assessed within the bounds of its functionality—which is to say that we did not dock basic, entry-level remotes simply because they lacked the features of high-end remotes with smart features.
In addition to testing the basic features and performance of each universal remote, we also considered the build quality of each remote. For example, how responsive are the buttons? Does the remote seem durable, or is there reason to suspect that it might not hold up over time?
How Do You Program A Universal Remote?
Programming traditional universal remotes is relatively straightforward, but instructions vary slightly from model to model. Whatever you do, do not throw away any of the instruction manuals inside the packaging of your universal remote. It's typically tempting to toss these things in the trash, but in addition to basic instructions, these pamphlets probably contain code lists that you'll need to reference in order to pair your remote with multiple devices.
For traditional universal remotes (the type most folks are familiar with), the programming process involves inputting a series of codes that correspond with the manufacturer of your TV and peripheral devices.
For newer, "smarter" universal remotes like the Caavo Control Center and the Logitech Harmony series, the setup process is more intuitive, albeit longer and more in-depth.
Where Can I Find My Universal Remote's Code List?
If you accidentally threw out or misplaced the paperwork included with your universal remote, the information you need is probably online somewhere. We recommend doing a Google search for your remote control's model name plus the term "code list" or "instructions." In all likelihood, you'll find the manufacturer's instruction manual—sometimes on the manufacturer's own website.
Other Universal Remotes We Tested
Logitech Harmony Elite
Logitech Harmony Elite
If you're willing to spend a little more dough for a more elevated experience, the Logitech Harmony Elite offers all of the functionality of the Harmony Companion with better hardware and a few added bonuses. Basically, if the Harmony Companion does it, the Harmony Elite can do it, too—and probably better.
The Harmony Elite—in conjunction with the included Harmony Hub—supports up to 15 devices in total, which is seven more than the Harmony Companion. Like the Companion, the Elite's supported devices cover everything from basic TV add-ons (like Blu-ray players) to smart home devices (like smart lights and smart appliances). It also supports Alexa integration—just like the Harmony Companion.
Unlike the replaceable-battery-powered Harmony Companion, the Elite is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and its upright in an included (but optional) charging dock, which is powered by a USB cable. The docked remote control can also be connected via USB to a computer for advanced configuration.
The remote itself feels sturdy and the buttons respond with assured clicks, but I must admit that I prefer the contours of the Harmony Companion. The first thing you're likely to notice about the Harmony Elite remote is that its top half is dominated by a full-color touch screen, making programming and day-to-day use a little easier, especially if you intend on adding more devices as time goes on. The touchscreen is especially effective when it comes to handling tasks that Harmony Companion users might otherwise rely on the Harmony mobile app for.
So why do we recommend the Harmony Companion over the Harmony Elite? It's simple: The Harmony Companion is significantly less expensive, and the difference in price is harder to justify for what we expect most people will ultimately need. The Elite's touchscreen expands the remote's functionality, but most people won't miss it.
I do feel more in control when I use the Elite, but its premium price tag makes it more suited for folks who are looking for the most amount of control over not just their home theater, but their entire home.
Caavo Control Center + Universal Remote
Caavo Control Center + Universal Remote
The Caavo Control Center+ is an interesting entry in our universal remote round-up because, in addition to a universal remote control, the control center's hub and its software also functions as a media organizer. I promise this isn't as confusing as it sounds, so allow me to explain.
The Caavo Control center is a box that connects to your TV via HDMI cable. This box also includes four HDMI ports for your connected devices. This means if you own a Roku, a Playstation 4, an Apple TV, and a Blu-ray player, simply plug them into the Caavo Control Center instead of the TV itself. Caavo will then recognize each device and and pair the Caavo remote with each one. The device supports 4K, HDR, and Dolby Atmos, so it's well-equipped to handle most of the highest-quality content available to consumers right now.
The Caavo Control Center's bread and butter, however, is its software, which allows users to control not only their physical devices, but also the apps and media found within. For example, if you use a Roku streaming box to access Netflix but you also own a library of media on Apple TV, the Caavo Control Center gives you the ability to search and access content from both platforms, provided you've paired your apps and devices ahead of time. Additionally, the Caavo Control Center can be paired with Alexa and Google Home for voice commands.
First, let's talk about the remote itself: The Caavo remote is slender, sleek, and simplistic, looking quite modern next to traditional universal remote controls. Its buttons are well-spaced and organized neatly. Overall, the device feels durable despite its premium outfit, which should entice folks who might be searching for an aesthetically pleasing universal remote that'll stand up to kids, pets, and rowdy houseguests.
The control center itself is equally as chic. Its aesthetics match the remote and will probably blend in with just about everyone's home theater set-up without taking up too much space.
Setting up the Caavo Control Center is a complex affair. Some tasks, like pairing the remote to the TV, couldn't be easier—since the control center connects directly to the TV, you'll be able to follow along in real time with on-screen instructions that walk you through the process. Other tasks, like pairing your apps and smart home assistant, will add to the total setup time. Unfortunately, because the Caavo Control center is an advanced multimedia device, its setup process is equally as advanced.
Using the Caavo Control Center is mostly a breeze thanks to the clean user interface and snappy, responsive controls, but it wasn't without its drawbacks. For instance, because the control center "lives" on one of your TV's inputs, the Caavo universal remote control won't be able to control anything other than your TV's power and volume until you switch over to the HDMI input that your control center is connected to. This shouldn't be much of an issue if your TV remembers which HDMI input it was tuned to when the TV last powered off, but if you have a TV that presents a default home screen when you power it on, you'll have to switch over to whichever HDMI input is home to your Caavo Control Center in order to take full advantage of the remote control.
I found that, for the most part, the Caavo Control Center's integrated search feature worked surprisingly well, but it often presents search results in a way that prioritizes rentable content over, say, the content you've got stowed away on a media server. That said, the remote control's voice recognition is a blessing.
Additionally, because the Caavo must pass through a TV's HDMI port in order to work, apps that are built into a smart TV's localized software cannot be incorporated into the control center. This means that the folks who stand to gain the most from the addition of a Caavo Control Center are people who access content from external devices, be them streaming boxes or video game consoles.
And then there's the fact that the Caavo Control Center requires either a recurring subscription plan or an additional surcharge, depending on what you choose. You can either pay a hefty "lifetime service fee" upon purchasing the Caavo Control Center and never worry about getting charged again, or you can opt into a recurring fee, which comes out to $2 a month indefinitely or $19.99 for a year.
Here's the bottom line: The Caavo Control Center is a media device first and foremost and a universal remote control second. While its base price is reasonable for what it does, the Caavo's total functionality will only appeal to people who have several external devices, a media server, and/or smart assistants. The added payment plan is a bummer, too.
All of this is to say that the Caavo Control Center is a solid device for what it does, but what it does is not for everyone. It is a media simplification device that is anything but "simple."
Unlike the aforementioned universal remotes, the GE 33709 is a traditional, run-of-the-mill universal remote control designed for basic AV devices capable of receiving an IR signal—there's no WiFi or Bluetooth functionality here. It runs on the back of two AAA batteries.
That said, for its intended purposes, the GE 33709 is a decent universal remote. You obviously won't be getting the expansive functionality of a Logitech Harmony remote or a Caavo Control Center, but it's capable of controlling up to four devices as long as those devices are equipped to receive an IR signal.
Programming this GE remote is as simple as inputting codes from a master code list included in the packaging. The process requires a little bit of concentration since there's no display offering real-time points of reference, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the button layout before typing the sequences required to set up the remote.
The GE 33709 is pleasantly thin and not particularly flashy, making it a sensible—albeit nondescript—candidate for coffee table domination. The buttons respond with a soft click, too, so there's never any doubt when about whether or not I've actually pressed a button all the way.
My biggest issue with the GE 33709 is its lack of illumination. Not only is there no backlight, but the buttons don't so much as glow in the dark. While it's true that most contemporary TVs don't even ship with self-illuminating remote controls, it is a feature I would appreciate seeing on a remote control that I've set out to buy of my own accord.
The GE 33709 is as simple as remote controls come—but that's exactly what I like about it. Its low price tag makes it a minor investment from a financial standpoint, but a relatively big investment when it comes to convenience. This is the best option for folks whose idea of a universal remote doesn't involve WiFi, smart home integration, or someone named "Alexa."
The RCA RCRN04GBE is a traditional, entry-level universal remote available at a very low cost. This particular version of this remote supports up to four external AV devices, but is limited to devices with an IR receiver, like DVD/Blu-ray players, satellite TV/cable boxes, and the TV itself.
This RCA remote relies on two AAA batteries. Programming the remote is relatively easy, but requires users to reference a list of manufacturing codes during the setup process.
Unfortunately, this is the worst universal remote we tested in terms of look, feel, and overall functionality. It's an unusually tall, chunky remote, and its buttons just don't feel right. Some of the buttons—like the volume and channel controls—feel sticky when pressed. Other buttons on the remote aren't sticky, and in fact, offer different tactile responses, as if they belong on a different remote altogether.
I did, however, appreciate this RCA remote's optional backlight. It's not very bright, to be clear, but it's a nice option to have if you find yourself in a dark living room.
The RCA RCRN04GBE is priced affordably, but we still prefer the GE 33709 when it comes to basic, entry-level universal remote controls.