Pros: Flexible design, hard buttons accommodate novice users, powerful transmitters and activity based (sort of)
Cons: Not truly activity based software design, steep learning curve for programming
Universal Remote Control (URC) has a reputation for developing top of the line universal remote controls. I spent several hours combing through online reviews to learn the pros and cons of the available remotes out there prior to purchasing my MX-700. Here was what I was looking for:
(*) more hard buttons: my wife absolutely hates my current universal remote, an HK Take Control TC1000 because it has 5 hard buttons and the balance of the controls are accessed through a programmable touch screen. The calibration on the screen does not seem to work very well for her, so the remote has got to go.
(*) activity based remote: I have been spoiled by my TC1000 - it is a wonderful activity based remote (ABR). For those of you unfamiliar with ABRs, a typical universal remote looks like any other remote except that it has a series of buttons that allow you to change the device that the remote controls. When you press one of the device buttons, the IR codes associated with each key are changed to control the device that you have selected. Therefore, when you want to turn on your TV, you press the TV button which switches IR codes, and you turn on your TV. Not a problem if you are only controlling the TV, but if you are like most people, your sound is piped out through your surround sound system. When you want to adjust the volume, you need to press the Audio button to switch IR codes, then alter the sound level. Now you need to change the channel again, you need to flip back to TV and issue the channel codes. It can get annoying if you swap between components frequently.
Enter the concept of ABR. Instead of laying out the keys by device, an ABR lays out the keys by activity. The ABR sets up like any other remote, learning the codes of all your devices and assigning them to the appropriate keys. However, the ABR adds another concept to the remote, "Activities". When you have a "watch TV" activity, you select what devices are controlled by the buttons on the remote for that profile. So when you are watching TV, the channel up and down buttons control the TV while the volume up and down buttons control your stereo. This is a very cool idea that minimizes the frustrating action of swapping between device profiles.
I was exposed to this concept with the TC1000. Though the TC1000's hardware was lacking, it executed the concept of the ABR perfectly.
(*) computer interface: I don't see how ANY remote priced over $70 can come without a serial interface these days. If the remote did not have a computer interface where I could layout and test a configuration then it was out of the running.
(*) decent battery life: Though I love my TC1000, I must admit that it is terrible when it comes to battery performance. I use a rotation of rechargeable batteries and I have to change them out about once a month. Any remote that I will consider has to do better than that - I expect at least 3 months on a set, preferably 6.
(*) good end user reviews: I was not willing to accept any remote that did not score 4 out of 5 stars or above in the user forums. When you are talking about spending 100 or more bucks on a universal remote, it had better work really well.
(*) well established user base: I was hesitant to go after any new remotes that were not thoroughly vetted which would provide an extensive database of reference posts on the web.
SELECTING A REMOTE
I used several websites to narrow down the candidates. I was interested in SONY's offerings, Logitech's Harmony remotes and Universal Remote Control's line. Harmony quickly fell out of contention due to a series of poor end user reviews. Sony dropped out because they did not offer a PC interface. That left URC. Based on the user reviews that I read URC's remotes fit the bill.
Now it became a choice of which one: the only remote in my price range that met all the criteria was the MX-700. The MX-500 is a capable remote at a bargain price, but it does not have a PC interface. The MX-800 is a step up from the MX-700. The MX-800 offers RF capabilities which means you don't have to have line of site to your components. A very cool feature, but it's not worth the price.
The MX-700 lists for $350 while the MX-800 lists for $500. Seems expensive, but you can get the MX-700 for about $170 at a wide array of online retailers. The MX-800 is only available from high end stereo specialists, and there is little to no discount on the list price. That made the decision easy, the MX-700 was the way to go.
Out of the box, this is a very impressive remote. It looks great. It is well balanced and the buttons have a slight "click" to them. They don't actually make a noise, but you can definitely feel when they have been fully pressed. They are definitely not "mushy".
The unit comes with a serial cable (that's right, an ancient DB9) that connects to the remote with a 3.5 mm headphone-like connector. You have to download the software from URC's site.
The IR emitters on this thing are quite impressive. I read in one review that there are 4 of them behind that smoked plastic shield and I believe it. This remote can easily handle all my devices from the other side of the house. I can stand in the kitchen over 30 feet away and control the entertainment center without any issues. I can even "bounce" the IR signals off the wall so I don't necessarily need direct line of site. VERY impressive.
The unit has a customizable LCD panel that displays 5 digit alpha-numeric labels for 10 customizable buttons. This is a very flexible design that really boosts the functionality of the remote. The only drawback is that you are limited to 5 characters for the label.
The remote has a really cool lighting system. You press the backlight button on the side and all the hard buttons light up. They are very bright and very easy to read. The LCD backlight is a little funky - it is hard to read at dusk when the room is getting darker and you need a backlight, but there is still just enough background light to drown out the inverted LCD light. Anyhow, not a major problem.
The coolest part of the lighting system is the blue ring around the 5-way navigating disk. It is really cool, though it does not add a lot of functionality.
The button that triggers the light has an awkward feel to it. It's the only button on the device that I don't like. When you press the button it occasionally makes a loud 'click' and it feels like you may have broken something. I found a way to press the button so that it would not make this sound, but it would be nice if they changed the design of this button.
Another design element that I did not like was the location of the IR transmitters and receivers up front. My TC1000 had the transmitters on the front and the receivers on the back of the remote. This cool concept allowed you to aim the remote that was emitting the code that was to be learned at the back of the universal unit. It was quite comfortable and felt much more natural than the way the URC's remotes work. Since the receivers and transmitters are up front, you have to aim the remotes at each other. I did not think that this would be a big deal, but it was a little awkward since I had to teach the URC so many codes.
However, this is only a minor annoyance for me since I am programming it while it is attached to my PC and sitting on a desk. You might want to think more about this design if you opt for the MX-500 which does not come with a PC interface.
Most of the reviews that I read raved about the functionality of the software. I was eager to get started with the remote and when it arrived I dove right in with the configuration. I was quickly disappointed with the design of the interface.
The program is very powerful, allowing you to customize the remote and access an extensive library of IR codes. However, the design of the UI was not very intuitive and it required about 2 hours to get up to speed and several hours of experimenting with different configurations before I had my base configuration right.
Though the MX-700 is billed as an activity based remote, the application UI is not geared towards establishing devices and activities. Essentially, everything is a device. The first step that I took was to setup my devices - this took a while since my exact devices were not in the database so I had to experiment with a variety of generic options and learned codes before I had all the correct codes established.
After the devices were setup, I then created additional "devices" that were really activities. I then linked the appropriate buttons to my real devices so that I had the right mix of devices for each activity. Though the software is powerful, a better design would definitely streamline the setup of the remote and make for a much more pleasant experience. If I had written this review while I was trying to figure out the software I would have been much harder on URC. This software package is not designed for a true activity based setup like the TC1000 even though most people say it is. This may due to URC's desire NOT to sell directly to end users. They prefer to work through dealers, so a cumbersome interface makes having an expert around more worthwhile. That's simply my guess, but I can't imagine why they would not introduce the concept of activities into the software that configures their 'activity-based' remote.
Once you overcome the hurdle of activities and devices, the rest of the setup is a piece of cake. URC has given you plenty of screens for 'favorites' macros that allow you to program macros to setup your favorite channels. This is great if you have cable or satellite service where you have hundreds of channels - no need for everyone in the house to remember the channel number, simply enter the name of the channel and the appropriate numeric sequence and you are off and running. Great for surfing and for letting members of the house have a 'page' of 10 favorite channels built into the remote.
The URC MX-700 is a very capable remote that is extremely customizable and very well designed. It has a nice balance and the respond very well. The LCD screen and its 10 programmable buttons are versatile. Overall, this is a great remote at the price ($180 street), but I would not purchase it at list ($350). I just don't feel that this remote can command that price given the alternatives out there.
Hopefully URC will correct a few design flaws in the unit in the next release - these flaws are summarized below. Though I noted more negatives (-) than positive (+) comments below, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Overall, I would endorse this remote as a great addition to your home theater.
(+) Great design with plenty of hard buttons.
(+) Small LCD preserves battery life while maintaining functionality. I'll have to update the review in a few months to summarize true battery performance.
(+) PC interface! I would not want to program a remote any other way.
(+) Incredible range. Drives my devices from over 30 feet away. Easily bounces signals off walls so you don't necessarily need a direct line of site.
(+) Substantial installed base and online community. Great for swapping tips and IR codes.
(-) DB9 connector on the serial cable. Come on, graduate to USB already. It?s been many, many YEARS since USB came out. Let go of legacy connectors.
(-) LCD backlight is not that great.
(-) Poor backlight button - when I press it I sometimes think it is going to break off.
(-) IR receivers are on the front of the unit. It would be easier to program the remote if they were on the back.
(-) Software is not truly activity based.
(-) Steep learning curve for programming the unit