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Universal remote

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Logitech Harmony 670, a universal remote.
Logitech Harmony 670, a universal remote.

A universal remote is a remote control that can be programmed to operate various brands of one or more types of consumer electronics devices. Low-end universal remotes can only control a set number of devices determined by their manufacturer, while mid- and high-end universal remotes allow the user to program in new control codes to the remote. Many remotes sold with various electronic devices include universal remote capabilities for other types of devices, which allow the remote to control other devices beyond the device it came with. For example, a VCR remote may be programmed to operate various brands of televisions. Because programming a universal remote can be a fairly complex procedure, it is most often performed by technically-minded individuals, although non-technical users can often operate the remote after it has been programmed.



On May 30, 1985, Philips introduced the first universal remote (U.S. Pat. #4774511) under the Magnavox brand name.[1]

In 1985, Robin Rumbolt, William "Russ" McIntyre, and Larry Goodson with North American Philips Consumer Electronics (Magnavox, Sylvania, and Philco) developed the first universal remote control. Shortly after development was completed and patent applications filed, Magnavox initiated the "Smart, Very Smart" campaign, coining the "smart" axiom. McIntyre has claimed that the primary design challenge was fitting the well-crafted, tight code into an extremely limited memory space.Template:Citation needed At least two subsequent patents followed: US Pat. 4703359, on November 20, 1988 and US Pat. 4951131, in 1989.

In 1987, the first programmable universal remote control was released. It was created by CL 9, a startup founded by Steve Wozniak, the inventor of the Apple II.[2]

In March 1987, Steve Ciarcia published an article in Byte Magazine entitled "Build a Trainable Infrared Master Controller", describing a universal remote with the ability to upload the settings to a computer.[3] This device had macro capabilities.[3]

Layout and features

Most universal remotes share a number of basic design elements:

  • A power button, as well as a switch or series of buttons to select which device the remote is controlling at the moment. A typical selection includes TV, VCR, DVD, and cable box/satellite television, along with other devices that sometimes include DVRs, audio equipment or home automation devices.
  • Channel and volume up/down selectors (sometimes marked with + and - signs).
  • A numeric keypad for entering channel numbers and some other purposes such as time and date entry.
  • A set button (sometimes recessed to avoid accidental pressing) to allow selection of a particular set of codes (usually entered on the keypad). Most remotes also allow the user to cycle through the list of available codes to find one that matches the device to be controlled.
  • Most but not all universal remotes include one or more D-pads for navigating menus on DVD players and cable/satellite boxes.

Certain highly reduced designs such as the TV-B-Gone or keychain-sized remotes include only a few buttons, such as power and channel/volume selectors.

Higher-end remotes have numerous other features:

  • Macro programming, allowing the user to program command sequences to be sent with one button press[4]
  • Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) to display status information.
  • Programmable soft keys, allowing user-defined functions and macros[4]
  • Aliases or "punchthroughs", which allow multiple devices to be accessed without changing device modes (for example, using the TV's volume control while the remote is still in DVD-player mode.)
  • Infrared (IR) code learning, allowing the remote to be programmed to control new devices not already in its code list
  • PC configuration, allowing the remote to be connected to a computer for easy setup
  • Some universal remotes have the ability to also make phone calls replacing your home phone in that room.
  • Repeaters are available that can extend the range of a remote control; some remotes are designed to communicate with a dedicated repeater over RF, removing the line-of-sight requirement of IR repeaters, while others accept infrared signals from any remote and transmit them to the device being controlled. (The latter are sometimes built as hobby projects and are widely available in kit form.)
  • Some devices, such as some computers and game consoles, use Bluetooth or a similar Radio frequency (RF) protocol rather than infrared as the main transmission form; universal remotes compatible with those designs are available.

Upgradable and learning remotes

Some universal remotes allow the code lists programmed into the remote to be updated to support new brands or models of devices not currently supported by the remote. Some higher end universal learning remotes require a computer to be connected. The connection is typically done via USB from the computer to mini-USB on the remote or the remotes base station.[5]

A group of hackers discovered that universal remotes made by UEI and sold under the One For All, RadioShack, and other brands can be reprogrammed by means of an interface called JP1.[6]

IR learning remotes can learn the code for any button on many other IR remote controls. This functionality allows the remote to learn functions not supported by default for a particular device, making it sometimes possible to control devices that the remote was not originally designed to control. A drawback of this approach is that the learning remote needs a functioning teaching remote. Also, some entertainment equipment manufacturers use pulse frequencies that are higher than what the learning remote can detect and store in its memory.

Touch-screen remotes

These remotes feature an LCD screen that can be either monochrome or full color. The "buttons" are actually images on the screen, which, when touched, will send IR signals to controlled devices. Some models have multiple screens that are accessed through virtual buttons on the touch-screen and other models have a combination of the touch-screen and physical buttons.

Some models of the touch-screen remotes are programmed using a graphical interface program on a PC, which allows the user to customize the screens, backgrounds, buttons and even the "actions" the buttons perform. The "project" that is created is then downloaded into the remote through a USB cable or, in the most recent models, wirelessly by Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

Newer touch-screen remotes include an RF transmitter to allow signals to reach locations much farther than the usual range of IR (approximately 6 meters).

One-For-All reprogrammable Universal Remote Controls

Considerable interest has been shown in the universal remote controls made by Universal Electronics and incorporating the six-pin jp1 socket mentioned above, and, as indicated, it has been shown to be possible to reprogramme these controls and add new remote control protocols and code sets. Many people will not find this procedure to be straight forward. Universal Electronics supplied a previous series of universal remote controls, usually named One-For-All, and typified by the European control called the 'Big Easy'. This control can operate up to four consumer devices, with protocols and code sets normally limited to tv, analogue satellite and vcr. However, some terrestrial digital receivers and dvd players are using old protocols and code sets, typically those previously used by analogue satellite receivers. In one case the Goodmans GDB3 terrestrial digital receiver used a Philips analogue satellite receiver protocol and codes. This means that these old controls can take on a new lease of life in the 21st Century. When extended control features are required, the 'Big Easy' and similar remote controls can have their usefulness extended, and be re-programmed, via the use of what Universal Electronics call 'magic codes'. These three-digit codes can be set down in the form of an algorithm, which can be freely downloaded, and used to find extended control sets. The controls provided by the 'Big Easy', when used to operate a tv, would normally be limited to channel-change and volume increase and decrease, possibility also allowing control of brightness. In the case of a vcr, control would be limited to channel change and tape transport. The use of 'magic codes' can enable the use of such functions as tuning a tv or programming a vcr timer. The 'magic codes' can be entered on the fly, using the 'Big Easy' control key-pad , or can be programmed in to the key-pad on a semi-permanent basis. Remote controls in this product range can normally be identified by the presence of three programming eyelets in the battery compartment. An advantage of the use of these controls, compared to the more modern jp1 type, is that no external equipment is required in order to re-programme the handset - only the downloadable algorithm is needed. One-For-All universal remote controls may also be found badged as Radio Shack.


  1. U.S. patent #4774511.
  2. U.S. Patent #4918439.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Ciarcia, Steve (1987-03). Build a Trainable Infrared Master Controller. Byte Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 3 (March 1987), pp. 113-123. Retrieved citation from
  4. 4.0 4.1 U.S. Patent #6587067.
  5. U.S. Patent #4959810.