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Remotes Are Out of Control!

Manufacturers are trying to simplify these maddening gizmos. Will Apple come to our rescue?


As I sit in our family room, I count the remote controls: One for the TV, another for the DVD player, one more for the cable box. Then there’s the remote for the room’s ceiling light and fan; if it ever gets lost, there will be no way for my husband or me to turn either one on or off. There’d be another remote if I hadn’t tossed the tiny clickers that came with the LED candles, deciding they were just plastic clutter.

And that’s just one room of our house.
 
The sheer number of remotes is just one reason why I so heartily dislike them. Here are others:
 

  • There are too many buttons.
  • I don’t know what half those buttons do.
  • The tiny print identifying each function is impossible to read.
  • Each remote works differently, so I can never remember the right buttons to push; I eject a DVD when I mean to pause and start over when I mean to fast-forward.
  • Coordinating between the various remotes to control different functions is unnecessarily difficult.

(MORE: Will There Be a Robot Helper in Your Future?)
 
“Remote controls are an absolute disgrace,” Gregg Davis, president of Design Central, an innovation consulting organization in Columbus, Ohio, told me when we were chatting for an earlier Next Avenue blog on the aggravating small print on products.
 
‘Total Chaos’ of Remote Controls
 
In fact, remotes are one of Davis’s biggest pet peeves (mine too). “There are 50 buttons and no hierarchy to help determine which are more important than others," he says. "It’s total chaos.”
 
Davis explains that remotes are developed as afterthoughts to the electronics products they accompany, and their designs are often relegated to junior-level designers. But “a remote is the entire heart of an electronic unit — if you can’t figure it out, you can’t use it,” he says.
 
Indeed, that’s what happened when the sister of one of my friends came to dog-sit at her home while my friend was on vacation. Before leaving, my friend showed her sister how to use the three remotes to watch TV and DVDs. “When we came home, she said watching TV turned out to be too complicated because the remotes utterly defeated her, so she read books for the entire week,” my friend recalls.
 
How We Got Here 
 
Why have remotes become so complicated?
 
Blame it on competition, says David Pedigo, senior director of technology for the Custom Electric Design and Installation Association, which represents companies specializing in home-theater installations. “Every manufacturer is trying to add features that will sell the product," he explains, "and to use those features, you need the remote. So most manufacturers are not about to sit down with others to figure out what’s the best way to make it easier for consumers to use remotes.”
 
That’s why ElectronicAdventure.com sells more than 300,000 remote models, mostly for home-entertainment products, says senior vice president Dan Ruback. “There’s one remote that, if you happen to be watching TV through your bathroom mirror, has a button that will flip the TV picture so you don’t see it backwards," he says. "Now how often would you use that? I just want to sit down, turn on the TV, change channels, adjust the volume and watch.”
 
I’m happy to tell you that in the course of reporting this blog post, I learned that some manufacturers are beginning to address remote confusion. They’re developing systems that rely on cursors, voice commands and hand movements (which lets you change a channel by waving the hand) so anyone can figure them out. At least that’s the idea.
 
The New, Simpler Remotes
 
I visited my local Best Buy to check them out and was pleased to find that the new-fangled remotes are small and uncluttered. Most of the models I saw in the store had only a handful of buttons, which were easy to differentiate. Unfortunately, I couldn’t test them because none had been programmed to work with the TVs on display. (Note to Best Buy: It’s the consumer, stupid!)
 
(MORE: Why Appliances Need Repairs So Often)
 
But I gathered from the salesperson that in order to get these remotes to work properly, you need to do a lot of set-up programming.
 
Consumer Reports just tested several of the newer remotes for its September issue: Samsung’s Smart Interaction, available for its ES7500 and ES8000 LCDs and E800-series plasma TVs; LG’s Magic Remote; and Panasonic’s touchpad remote for its new VT50 plasma.
 
Sadly, CR's assessment wasn’t very encouraging. “We did get frustrated trying out these new controls in the test lab," the report said. "It takes awhile to get used to saying, ‘Hi, TV’ to get things started. And waving your hands at the screen can get tiring. The special remotes are helpful for Internet features, but for most TV watching, regular remotes work better.”

The Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg just tested the Samsung smart touch remote for the ES8000 model and voiced similar concerns, calling the remote and its voice-command interaction "disappointing."
 
What the Future Holds
 
Caroline Park, senior analyst at the research and consulting firm Strategy Analytics, suspects that future remotes are “likely to be linked to smartphone/tablet devices, where the users can download apps for each of their devices.” This is already possible with the DVR controller apps from DirecTV and AT&T, as well as Apple TV’s remote control app.
 
Apple may hold the key to a remote remedy, according to experts. Pedigo says all the chatter among the tech cognoscenti about a new Apple TV is not about the TV itself, but “how consumers interact with the TV.”

When Steve Jobs's biographer Walter Isaacson interviewed the Apple co-founder for the book and asked about a new Apple TV, Jobs said he'd "licked it," adding: "There's no reason you should have all these complicated remote controls."
 
Even so, Pedigo suspects the old-fashioned candy-bar shaped remote will be around for a while, particularly for the older generation.
 
But Davis is optimistic that remotes as we know them will become “a vestige of the past.” More manufacturers, he predicts, will figure out how to filter out the extraneous complexities built into today’s remotes.
 
As that happens, you’ll find fewer buttons and be able to manage your choices as you need to make them. Davis’s remote forecast: “You need to turn the TV on, you turn it on; there’s only one choice. Then you decide whether you want to watch TV, play a game or surf the Internet. You’ll get options, but only one or two at a time.”
 
“The company that figures out how to make a consumer-friendly remote will win the hearts of all consumers,” Davis says.
 
I’ll click to that.

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