How Universal Remotes Work

By: Rachel Oswald  | 
A universal remote can control all of your electronics.

Key Takeaways

  • Universal remotes are categorized into multibrand and learning types, with multibrand remotes being simpler and typically preprogrammed for basic functions like volume and channel control.
  • Learning remotes can capture and replicate the functions of original remotes through infrared signals, making them adaptable to new technologies and more versatile than multibrand remotes.
  • Advanced universal remotes can be programmed via a PC and can execute a series of commands with a single button push. They use radio frequency for extended range.

With home theater systems riding a wave of massive consumer interest, new technology for digital cable, DVR, HDTV, DVDs and CDs continues to proliferate at high speeds. All of these new gadgets come with new devices to operate them -- adding up to three, four, five, even six or more remote controls on your coffee table. These remotes manage a whole host of operations --programming your cable box to record your favorite shows, setting up movie subtitles and controlling CD volume, just to name a few. The possibilities are seemingly endless but so is the potential to misplace a remote or become overwhelmed by all of the programming options.

That's where a universal remote comes in handy -- it allows you to consolidate multiple remotes into one. Universal remotes come in a wide range of varieties -- some have lots of buttons and some only a few. They're usually bigger than your standard manufacturer's remote, so they're not so easily lost between the couch cushions.


But what can a universal remote control? These are some of the electronic devices that can be operated with one high-end model:

  • CD changer
  • Laserdisc player
  • Amplifier
  • Tape deck
  • Game console
  • Computer
  • Light controller
  • Climate controller
  • Cable box
  • Satellite box

[source: Logitech]

Many universal remotes come with some type of glow-in-the-dark feature like luminescent buttons or a backlit screen that allows you to operate the remote even when the lights are turned down low. Some high-end models come with an LCD screen for displaying information, and this feature often includes touch-screen buttons.

Unlike most ordinary remotes, many universal remotes come with a battery backup feature like flash memory that allows you to save your programmed commands in between battery changes. Charging cradles are another option for ensuring that you don't lose programmed memory.

Not all universal remotes are created equal -- some are fairly basic while others are quite complex. In the next section we'll learn about some of the key differences among universal remotes.


Universal Remote Technology

Universal remotes fall into two categories: multibrand and learning. Multibrand remotes come preprogrammed with the codes to operate a number of standard electronics -- this means you don't have to spend time entering a lot of complicated codes yourself. These remotes can typically be used to manage about four electronic devices, and they usually control only their main functions, such as channel turning and volume control.

Learning remotes go beyond multibrand universal remotes. While they also often come preprogrammed to operate a number of popular electronic models, they have the ability to "learn" the functions of the original manufacturer's remote. Simply hold your learning remote head-to-head with your original remote and infrared signals will be transmitted to the learning remote that allow it to duplicate the other remote's commands. If a new high-tech electronic gadget comes out after you've already bought your learning remote, it can still learn all of the devices' new commands. Some multibrand remotes can also be programmed to operate new devices, but it depends on the model.


Learning remotes can operate a much wider variety of electronic devices than multibrand ones, making them the true universal remotes. They also have the capacity to be programmed with "macro" protocols, which we'll discuss in a later section.

Because of their relative simplicity, multibrand remotes are much less expensive than learning remotes. One of the least expensive universal remotes available is the Sony RM-V310 Universal Remote Control. It comes preprogrammed to operate the basic functions of as many as seven electronic devices and costs about $15.

A more expensive model is the Logitech Harmony 670 Universal Remote, which ranges in price from $65 to $150. It was designed especially for DVR users and is PC-programmable. Pricier still is the Logitech Harmony 890 Advanced Universal Remote Control, which costs about $190 to $400. It uses both radio frequency and infrared signals to communicate with electronics from as far as 100 feet (30.5 meters) [source: Hunch].

Beyond the basic categories of multibrand and learning remotes, there are additional types of universal remotes such as RF remotes, PC-programmable remotes and LCD touch-screen remotes. We'll learn about these remotes in the next section.


Types of Universal Remotes

PC-programmable remotes allow you to type in the model numbers of your electronic devices and program how you want to use the remote. All of the required programming commands are then downloaded to your remote through a USB cable. If you have a universal remote that's PC-programmable, it likely has an RS-232 interface that allows your computer to "talk with" and control your remote by way of a serial port or USB port.

WiFi-enabled remotes are some of the newest universal remotes available. These allow you to bypass your cable provider to find out what's playing on TV by using your WiFi network. It transmits the latest sports stats and news updates onto a small LCD screen on your remote.


LCD touch screen remotes have a luminescent LCD screen that's operated by touch. These screens are usually located at the top of the remote and are roughly 2 inches by 4 inches (5 by 10 cm). Some LCD touch screens even allow you to decide which "virtual buttons" you want on your remote and how you want them displayed. But if virtual buttons aren't your thing, there are other LCD remotes that come with physical buttons.

Radio frequency remotes use radio frequency waves to operate electronics that are blocked by obstacles like cabinets or walls. For example, if you're in the kitchen and want to turn on your home-entertainment system in the living room through the adjoining wall, an RF-capable remote could be used to control infrared electronics in the next room. The universal remote broadcasts an RF signal command to an RF extender in the same room as your programmed electronics. The extender then beams out the same command at an infrared wavelength that your electronics can detect.


Programming Electronics with Universal Remotes

As individual home-entertainment systems and electronic device setups differ from one person to the next, so, too, will the commands that you program into your universal remote. Your original manufacturer's remote will have a booklet that contains all the programming commands you need, and these will work with your universal remote as well. And many remote control commands have also been posted online at sites like

One great thing about many universal remotes is that they can be programmed with macros, which enable you to program several commands into one button. For example, you can program a macro that turns on both your TV and satellite dish with a single press of a button. Or you can program your TV and DVD player to turn on at the same time. The instruction manual that comes with your universal remote will contain a list of macro functions for your remote that can be programmed or downloaded from the universal remote developer's Web site.


Now that we've surveyed the introductory issues pertaining to universal remotes, we'll take a look at some of their advantages and disadvantages in the next section.

Pros and Cons of Universal Remotes

While universal remotes have their advantages -- remote consolidation, macro commands, glow-in-the-dark features -- they can also be a real chore to set up. Before you purchase a universal remote, you may want to examine what you hope to get out of the purchase.

Are you looking to simplify your remote control programming but don't know where to start? If so, you may not want to buy a complicated remote with lots of features that can be accessed only by scrolling through multiple menu options. A simple, inexpensive multibrand remote could be a good choice for you. On the other hand, if money isn't an issue, you could pay an installer to program your high-end, top-of-the-line universal remote.


But if you're looking for a universal remote that can operate all of your electronics' complex functions, a basic universal remote likely won't cut it. You may want to opt for a higher-end model with the capacity to store a great deal of programming. But beware of feature overload -- unless you know that you'll use all the functions on your remote, choose one that has only the features you need.

For more information on universal remotes, see the links on the following page.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the range of a typical universal remote?
Most universal remotes use infrared signals with a typical range of about 30 feet (9 meters), depending on the model and any obstructions.
How do universal remotes handle multiple commands at once?
You can program advanced universal remotes with "macro" functions to execute a sequence of commands with a single button press.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Biggs, John. "The Universal Remote Dormant in Your Smartphone." The New York Times. Mar. 18, 2009. (accessed on 12/18/09)
  • Graves, Ralph. "Universal Remotes: Command Central in the Palm of Your Hand." Crutchfield. October 3, 2008. (accessed on 12/15/09)
  • DeLeo, Jennifer. "10 Wacky Wi-Fi-enabled Products." PC Magazine. Feb. 8, 2008 (accessed on 12/18/09),2817,2257195,00.asp
  • Hunch. "Universal Remote Controls." (accessed on 12/18/09)
  • Larson, Travis. "How to Use Universal Remote Controls for TV and DVD." Reader's Digest. (accessed on 12/15/09)
  • Logitech. "See if Harmony supports your Home-entertainment setup." (accessed on 12/15/09)
  • Pollick, Michael. "What Should I Consider When Buying a Universal Remote Control?"
  • "Glossary of Remote Control Terms." (accessed on 12/18/09)
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  • "Tips & Tricks to Learning Infrared Codes." (accessed on 12/18/09)