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What’s the Best Way To Control Your AV Gear?

What's the Best Way To Control Your AV Gear?
Guest contributor Robert Spivack gets into the nuts and bolts (or should we say "wires and protocols"?) of automating your home entertainment and AV equipment with a programmable/universal remote control.

If you have a traditional AV setup, you probably have a TV connected to a cable or satellite box…or maybe an over-the-air antenna. Controlling things might be very simple—you just turn on the TV and control everything else using the remote provided with your cable or sat box. If you’ve done a little bit of setup, the cable box remote can turn the TV on and off and change the volume too. That way, you don’t even need to use the remote control that came with the TV.

The Control Challenge

But life is usually not that easy. Many of us have a stereo receiver, or audio/video receiver (AVR), to enjoy better sound than the built-in TV speakers can offer. If the TV is more than a few years old, you likely have a separate streaming box (Apple TV, Roku, or a game console) connected so you can watch the cool stuff on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other video services. And maybe you have a large DVD or Blu-ray movie collection on discs, so add a DVD or Blu-ray player to the equipment shelves too. This doesn’t even get into music CD changers, soundbars, separate audio pre-amps or digital signal processors, Sonos speakers, and more.

To control all this equipment—which is guaranteed to not be from a single manufacturer—you may have a collection of different remote controls on your coffee table, side table, or lost somewhere in the seat cushions of your couch. We all long for the days of yesteryear when watching TV meant simply flicking a switch to turn it on and nothing more.

Remember when your grandmother, your child’s babysitter, or a house guest could turn on the TV without a 30-minute lesson on which sequence of buttons to push on which remote? Now it typically goes something like this:

  • Turn on the TV power with the TV remote
  • Power up the Amplifier with the AVR remote
  • Turn on the Cable box with the Cable box remote
  • Set the TV to HDMI input 1 if you want to watch network TV
  • Set the Amplifier to xyzzy settings (whatever it requires)
  • Find the show you want to want (various controls and commands)

If something doesn’t work, you need to figure out what they did, what’s currently on, off, or set wrong, and how to fix it.

So Begins the Saga of the Universal Remote

The purpose of a universal remote is deceptively simple: It’s a single device that controls everything and makes watching a movie or tv show as simple as it used to be. Solving this problem is the holy grail of the AV equipment and installer industry.

We’ll skip most of the history of remote control technologies that led to the invention of the programmable, universal remote. But it’s worth noting that the unsung hero of this industry is Steve Wozniak. Yeah, that Steve—the guy who co-founded Apple computer and changed the world of personal computing. This issue so bothered Wozniak that he started a new company and built a product in 1987 just to scratch his own itch and fix this problem.

CORE product box, still shrink wrapped, contains one of the first universal remote controls

The CORE (controller of remote electronics) was not a commercial success. But it paved the way for others to build on what he created—a universal remote you could teach how to control other devices…even ones it had never seen or heard of before.

Remote Control Basics: The Interface

In a nutshell, a remote control sends commands to the TV (or other equipment) instructing it to do something like turn on, turn off, adjust the volume, change the channel, etc. The magic that’s needed is combining multiple commands for multiple devices into sequences so a single “Watch TV” button will fire off 5, 10, or 20 individual commands to change all the devices to the proper settings.

There are different approaches to doing this technically and for controlling things (buttons, voice, mobile phone apps), and each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Comparing all the different schemes is a project for another day. But all remotes share one thing in common: for consumer convenience, they communicate with devices using some kind of wireless technology. Because there are so many types of equipment and manufacturers with constantly evolving technology, multiple communication methods are still in use, and no single method prevails.  

Widely Used Hardware Interfaces

IR, invisible to the eye infra-red light, was the original and is still the most common communication method for consumer remotes. The biggest drawback is that it is one-way communication with no feedback from the device. But IR is inexpensive and pervasive—just about everything nowadays will have an IR remote. Sometimes it’s unreliable, and its range is limited to a single room. But when it works, it works very well.

RS-232 serial communications is a wired connection used widely by computer and industrial equipment. The modern USB interface on our laptops, cellphones, and computers is a derivative of this rock-solid communications hardware. RS-232 can be finicky to install, but it’s incredibly flexible. It encompasses synchronous and asynchronous communications, hardware or software handshaking, and direct or modem control signals. It requires a lot of homework to get things wired up properly, but once it is, it’s reliable and dependable.

RF (radio frequency) wireless technology has become very popular. Many newer cable TV and satellite boxes have a remote that, in addition to traditional IR, will work using RF. RF does not require line-of-sight, so you don’t have to point the remote directly at the equipment. And it will work through walls, doors, and windows, and over longer distances. Both standardized and proprietary RF systems exist out there. Cable and satellite boxes use proprietary RF controls, while the Apple TV and some video game consoles use industry-standard Bluetooth. But that’s really a red herring. Almost every remote control has its own set of device codes, commands, and sequences. So even if the underlying physical radio is a standard chip, it’s still effectively proprietary.

IP (Internet Protocol) is a data communications standard used for networking. In typical home use, wired Ethernet or wireless Wi-Fi create a local area network to reach throughout the home. IP is the newest method for controlling AV equipment. It’s convenient because it’s already built into most computer equipment, cellphones, and tablets. A well-designed Wi-Fi network will have a much greater range than RF or IR. Plus, it doesn’t need the wires of an RS-232 connection.

Any Color You Want As Long As It Is Black

Unlike the original Ford Model T, there are more than aesthetic reasons for having multiple connection technologies. No one method is ideal, and no single method is always the best. Thus, the choice of control technology depends upon each installation’s needs.

The installer—that’s you if this is a DIY project—should start with a spreadsheet or chart. List out all your equipment, the capabilities of each, and the desired control method and system. Then look for the common elements amongst them.

Challenge #1: No Single Hardware Solution. Although tons of equipment have IR support, it is not on everything. Some popular devices, like Google Chromecast for example, do not support IR. The Amazon Fire TV streaming stick only has Bluetooth (some other models of the Amazon Fire devices do have IR). Entry-level stereo receivers only have IR and maybe IP but don’t offer RS-232. Only larger, more expensive models have RS-232.

TVs are a hodgepodge. Many only have IR, a few have IP, and even fewer have RS-232. A notable exception, the newest TVs from LG include a more advanced remote that functions like a mouse pointer. It uses both IR and Bluetooth radios.

Apple TV uses Bluetooth as its primary interface, but it fully supports IR for 3rd party control. And recently Apple has given select 3rd party companies access to a private IP interface too!

DVD Players and other devices will usually just have IR, but some might also have RS-232 or IP. The only way to tell is to carefully read the detailed specifications, as manufacturers don’t typically highlight this information in the marketing or advertising write-ups.

Challenge #2: Discrete Versus Toggle Codes. Turning an AV device’s power on or off is unfortunately way more complicated than it should be. Early on, devices only had a power toggle command. This command tells the equipment to switch the power—if the device is off, it will turn on; if the device is on, it will turn off. This works easily enough when a human is pressing a button on a remote, but it’s a nightmare for automated programming. It’s too easy to get out of sync. If someone manually turns the power off for the stereo, then the control system will be turning it off when it should be turning it on and vice-versa.

A simple solution was invented—adding command codes that specifically send “power on” or “power off” commands. It sounds silly, but even today there are many devices that do not yet have these discrete power control commands available.  

Challenge #3: Buggy or Incomplete Commands. Unlike cellphones and computers, most consumers don’t replace AV devices all that often, and manufacturers don’t update them enough. Many devices have terrible software bugs and problems with their programming code. They might have a command available to control it, but the command simply doesn’t work. Worse, the same command may only work via different transmission methods.

Challenge #4: Fake Power Off. Many devices now have a fake “power off” mode—they sleep or go into a low power mode, but they never actually power off. DVRs are notorious for this since they’re designed to record TV shows for you even when you’re not actively using them. It’s a sad fact that you will most likely need to fully power off (or “hard power cycle”) most of today’s modern devices at some point to properly reset them. This problem is only exacerbated when the physical button just puts the device in sleep mode and doesn’t actually turn anything off.

Instead of crawling behind cabinets or shelves, or reaching into the rat’s nest of wires on the floor to pull out the other end of the power cord, consider using a smart power plug to get around this. At least with a smart plug it’s easy to power cycle any device from an app on your phone or tablet. Satellite and cable TV boxes are some of the worst here, so avoiding the headache later is well worth the investment in a smart plug.

Challenge #5: Time-sensitive Command Sequences. Almost always with IR control, and often even with IP or RS-232, not only do you need to send the right commands, but you need to send them with the right time delay between them. Compared to our modern cellphones and laptops, the microprocessors inside most consumer electronics are woefully underpowered and sluggish. When you send multiple IR commands to a TV or amplifier without any delay, it will simply not “see” a lot of the commands.

It’s a balancing act: If you slow everything down to work reliably, it can take several minutes to turn on all the equipment and be ready to watch TV. If you shorten all the delays to a minimum, you can end up with intermittent problems where your spouse yells “Yeah, but it doesn’t work for me!” resulting in never-ending tweaking and adjusting.

Challenge #6: All Mouth No Ears. IR remotes are one-way devices. The remote transmits commands to the TV or device, but nothing gets sent back. IR remotes do not have any way to receive commands and devices do not have an IR transmitter to send them. Combined with the above-mentioned time sensitivity issue, this creates lots of opportunity for flaky or buggy operation.

When we control our TV and entertainment system manually with multiple remotes, our eyes and ears are providing silent feedback. When you press the Channel Up button three times, if you land on the wrong channel because the cable box actually received 4 Channel Up commands, you compensate silently by seeing the wrong channel and simply pressing the Channel Down button once.

But a control system does not have eyes. It has no way of knowing the command didn’t work or was “off by one.” Without any direct feedback or status from the device, control systems operate by taking a “shot in the dark” and assume it works. Most professional installers add ample delays and pauses. The automated control takes longer, but it will be reliable.

The newer technologies of IP control via Wi-Fi or Ethernet (and sometimes RS-232) can be a little bit better. Initially, many IP devices and drivers were only one-way. The engineers that designed those systems took a shortcut and just re-used the existing IR control commands by sending them over a different physical transmission…but nothing else changed. But some have added bi-directional communications that can provide status and feedback.

Generally, only well-designed devices like AVR equipment, professional gear, and some RS-232-capable products have true bi-directional communication with feedback.

Challenge #7: Model Year Differences. Often times, it’s not enough to know the brand name and model number of the product you wish to control. Even within a specific brand and model, manufacturers make subtle changes every year to the commands and features…and bug fixes.

If a command works on a specific TV, don’t assume it will work on all similar models. Oftentimes the same model manufactured a year earlier or later will work differently.

How To Choose a Programmable/Universal Remote Control System

So based on everything above, here are some tips that will help you narrow down the choices when you go shopping…

If you only have a TV and a receiver, try programming the remote that came with them. Or use the remote from your cable or satellite company. You may find it has just enough capability to do the job. Sure, you may have to look up individual model numbers and codes, but it can get the job done.

Decide If You Only Need IR Control. If IR control is reliable and suitable for your needs, you’ll save a lot of expense and complexity. Most of the independent programmable remotes you’ll find online or at retail stores only work with IR control. The difference between the cheap unknown brands and the good ones is the quality of the materials and the depth and breadth of the software and programming support.

Logitech has become the king of programmable remotes with the Harmony line. Logitech has a huge database of just about every device known, and its software and programming is very capable.  

Don’t Be Afraid To Get Help. Most manufacturers claim their products are easy to use. But you’ll need to be comfortable with multi-step setup and configuration procedures. You’ll also need to take the time to learn how to do it. These systems can be daunting to set up.

If you’re really stuck, first reach out through the remote manufacturer’s support channels. And if that doesn’t help you through it, you may want to consider hiring a home tech professional to assist.

The Real Cost Is Time Spent Programming, Debugging, and Troubleshooting. No system is perfect. From a $100 entry-level remote to a $1,500 luxury system, they all take time to install, configure, and adjust. Weigh carefully the features and capability of the equipment. It might be a better choice to not buy the cheapest hardware if you’re trying to configure complex devices.

Even if you’re setting things up yourself, your time has value. Depending on your situation, the cost of those extra hours of installation or configuration time might have been better spent on more expensive gear up front!  

Tread Carefully with the Larger Systems. Many of the prosumer or professional systems are incredibly powerful but also incredibly complex. Some of the products on the market have been around a long time. They often rely on older, Windows-style programming that requires a laptop or computer. They can be confusing at first!

The biggest systems (Control4, Savant, and Crestron) and some mid-range systems are only sold through dealers. These cannot be purchased or installed directly by consumers. These systems often require days or weeks of training to learn how to properly configure and install.

Don’t Confuse Home Automation with AV Control. This may be a lost cause. Every AV control company has jumped into home automation and smart home systems, so it can be very confusing. Are you buying an AV control system that has some smart home functions or are you buying a home automation system that has some AV functions?

This is not a rhetorical question. There can be huge differences in these systems depending upon whether they’re AV or home automation focused. If you’re spending $1,000+ on an AV or automation system, you should probably consult with an expert to guide you through the process.

What About HDMI-CEC Control? Many newer TVs, Sound-bars, and stereo receivers include a feature called HDMI-CEC. It has different names from each company, but they are all implementations of the industry-standard Consumer Electronics Control (CEC) protocol. This is a new interface standard that sends commands bi-directionally over the existing HDMI cables that connect devices. It solves the problem of avoiding additional wiring or wireless equipment. It also includes both command transmission and status reception to fix the “shot in the dark” challenges.

But HDMI-CEC is largely limited to controlling power and adjusting volume levels. Although it can be useful if you have all modern equipment that supports it, HDMI-CEC can also be problematic. Like most tech from the TV industry itself, it has a reputation of being flaky, unreliable, and not fully compatible between the different manufacturers’ equipment.

If you’re lucky enough to have the right gear and can get it working, then, by all means, try it. All the major control systems and most installers, however, will strongly recommend you turn it off, making sure you completely disable it in every piece of equipment you’re using. It often causes too many problems for too little benefit.

Does your TV mysteriously turn on in the middle of the night or when you turn off your Apple TV? That’s probably HDMI-CEC acting up, as it is prone to do!

Give It a Go! This article should arm you with the information you need to plan, purchase, and set up the programmable remote control system that’s best for you and your household. Good luck…and hopefully you will be able to “take control” of your TV and AV equipment.

Robert Spivack is a Smart Home Specialist who uses his home automation and problem solving skills to help customers create smarter homes. You can receive more information about his business and get in-depth information like in this article at www.DoItForMe.Solutions.