Who needs a universal remote?
If sitting down to watch TV or a movie requires shuffling between several remotes, switching inputs, and powering multiple components at the same time, then a universal remote is for you. Though a bad universal remote simply combines the functions of several remotes into one device, a good universal remote not only eliminates coffee table clutter and the remote shuffle but also eliminates button pushes by combining multiple actions into one button press.
For example, instead of having to push separate buttons to turn on your TV, switch HDMI inputs, power on your AV receiver and change inputs there, turn on your Blu-ray player, and then—finally—press the play button to get your movie started, a good universal remote can reduce all of that to one command ("Play Movie") that you can access at the touch of a single button. Though this functionality used to be reserved for high-end professionally programmed systems, these days a few relatively inexpensive remotes can do the same complex jobs.
How we picked
Something from Logitech's Harmony lineup is your best option for a universal remote control these days.
A universal remote control has to be universal, meaning able to control all the components an average audio/video enthusiast could throw at it. A typical system will have five or six devices, including a TV (or projector), DVD/Blu-ray player, DVR, surround sound receiver, and maybe a media player (such as a Roku or Apple TV). It might also include a game system or two. A remote that can juggle eight devices at once will cover most systems. And because most devices rely on IR (infrared) control, an IR remote will be sufficient for most people.
The remote should also have a well-organized button layout or on-screen display, with the most important buttons (such as volume, pause, and play) easily accessible. An activity-based design, as described above, is also preferred. Finally, we wanted a remote that was easy to program. If you need a certificate in C++ to program it, that's too difficult.
If you scan Amazon and other online retailers for universal remotes, you'll find a lot of low-end replacement remotes. Philips used to sell a series of programmable remotes called Pronto, and Sony previously offered a couple of nice, now-discontinued universal remotes. The company called Universal Remote Control used to lead the pack with remotes like the URC-R40, but the company now focus almost exclusively on control systems for professional installation. We also tried out two app-only remotes, but concluded that a dedicated handheld remote works better for everyday control than a smartphone or tablet app. These days, selecting the best universal remote seems largely a matter of choosing the best Logitech Harmony device.
We can't find anything that beats the Harmony 650 in capability or user friendliness in this price range.
The Logitech Harmony 650 can coordinate the functions of up to eight components, is relatively simple to program using its MyHarmony software, and uses a smart, activity-based interface that simplifies control of your whole home theater. It can control IR (infrared) devices only, but it can't communicate over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, so it isn't compatible with some recent devices.
Although the competition among good universal remote controls is relatively nonexistent, two of the key features that put the Harmony 650 above its challengers are an easy-to-read, backlit, color display and a built-in Remote Assistant function for troubleshooting. The display tells you what activity mode you're in (such as Watch TV, Watch Blu-ray, and Listen to CD) and displays icons for your favorite channels, so you don't have to remember the channel number every time you want to watch SyFy. The Remote Assistant feature is like a built-in help desk. If the remote fails to perform a task you expect it to (such as turn up the TV's volume), you can follow the Remote Assistant's guided suggestions to quickly resolve the problem.
For complex setups and non-IR devices
The Harmony Companion is for more advanced home theaters.
The Logitech Harmony Companion (previously called the Harmony Home Control) is a little harder to set up and use than the 650 due to its lack of an LCD display or backlit buttons, but it offers Wi-Fi and Bluetooth control (which many newer devices like Sonos wireless speakers and Amazon's Fire TV use) plus infrared blasters so you can hide your components in a cabinet and still control them. You can also use a smartphone or tablet app to control your system.
The Harmony Companion is made for tech-savvy people, and you can integrate it with several do-it-yourself home-automation hubs and smart devices, such as lights, locks, thermostats, and motorized shades, which is something few other universal remote controls can do. Further, the Harmony mobile app on a smartphone or tablet provides remote control and access to your system and smart devices from anywhere via the Internet. No other remote control we can find offers this much control, connectivity, and compatibility for the money.
For theater enthusiasts and serious smart-home tinkerers
The full-featured Harmony Elite.
The Harmony Elite is Harmony's flagship remote, and its standout feature is its built-in color touchscreen. Instead of pressing hard buttons for movies, TV, or music, for instance, you scroll up and down on the screen for your activity and tap that. The screen then switches to pages customized for that activity, and the control options can go satisfyingly deep. And you can even customize all the activity names. This is also the remote for you if you have a lot of gear—it can control up to 15 devices, potentially replacing up to 15 other remotes.
Although the Elite is a pleasure to use, it also costs around $200 more than the Companion. It's the king of do-it-yourself remotes, but it comes with a kingly price.
A cheap universal remote
The Harmony 350 controls eight devices at a cheaper price than the 650.
We think the 650 is a great value for what it offers, especially for something you'll be using multiple times per day, every day. If its price is too much of a stretch, the Harmony 350 also controls eight devices and is very similar to the 650. However, the loss of the screen means it isn't as simple to use. Plus, its buttons aren't backlit and it also lacks the interactive help feature.
This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.