There was a time when a single brand dominated the universe of universal remote controls: Logitech’s Harmony. That changed earlier this month when Caavo shipped its second-generation Control Center, which is good enough that we can recommend it as the best mid-priced product in this category. Want something more powerful? That’ll be a Logitech Harmony Elite. Need something cheaper? Buy a Logitech Harmony 665.
Sure, you can still find a sub-$20 “universal remote” if your regular clicker breaks, but those are little more than cheapie replacements, not true universal remotes that live up to the name. There are also uber-expensive remote controls you can buy from customer installers, but TechHive focuses primarily on the DIY market, so we’ll ignore those in this story.
Here are our top picks in three categories, followed by links to all the rest of our reviews of universal remote controls (we’ll update this list as new models come to market).
Best universal remote: High end
With a price tag north of $250, this remote might cost more than some of the components you’ll control with it. And while the learning curve is steep, you can’t argue with its power to up to 15 other devices. What’s more, its built-in touchscreen makes it more intuitive for new users than any other remote on the market.
Best universal remote: Mid-range
The Caavo Control Center + Universal Remote boasts a flatter learning curve than Logitech’s best remote, and it supports voice commands, too. But its HDMI connectivity limits it to controlling just four devices, so it’s not the right pick if your home theater is packed to the gills with A/V components.
Best universal remote: Budget
Just $50 will get you this incredibly capable remote, a standalone model that includes a small LCD that displays contextual information depending on what device you’re using. Can’t remember what you programmed a random button to do? This remote will clue you in.
How to pick the right universal remote
Logitech’s Harmony line can be divided into two camps: remotes that work with a bridge, and standalone remotes that don’t. The bridge–called the Harmony Hub–is a single device that is bundled with remotes across the high end of Logitech’s Harmony line. (Think of the remote as merely an accessory that makes working with the Hub easier.) The Hub plugs into wall power and works as a massive IR blaster. It also relays Wi-Fi and Bluetooth commands, which means you can use Hub-capable remotes to control more than just the gear under your TV. If you want to use your phone as a remote control, purchase a system that includes the Hub.
Caavo is the only other player besides Logitech making a great universal remote.
The standalone remotes are exactly that: You program them via your PC, but they’re just standard infrared remotes on steroids. There’s no way to use your phone or tablet with these remotes.
Note that, whichever of the Harmony remotes you choose, a learning curve will apply. Programming remotes via Logitech’s PC application (or mobile app, in the case of Hub-ready remotes) is easy to get started with, but mastering it isn’t terribly intuitive, and these apps can be slow and sometimes buggy. After changes are made via an app, your remote will then have to be synced with the app, a manual process that can be cumbersome. The bottom line: If a Harmony remote is in your future, be prepared to spend some time mastering it.
So, does a universal remote control really make sense? If your coffee table is littered with hardware for managing your entertainment center, it does—provided you’re ready to accept that no universal remote is truly universal. While almost any function can be mimicked by these systems, some are simply impossible to copy: They can’t fully replicate the Apple TV touchpad, for instance.