Remotes don't control until users learn them

Complexity: The versatility and sophistication of the devices is wasted and frustrating until you know what all those buttons do.

April 03, 2000|By Paula Felps | Paula Felps,Knight Ridder/Tribune

A scant two decades ago, remote controls were a novelty just beginning to catch on. Today, many people wouldn't dream of turning on the television without one.

Although remote controls have been available for TVs since the 1950s, they didn't take over American viewing habits until the 1980s. Now they run our lives.

"They can do anything you would want to run from the chair," said Neal Koch, a sales associate with Ed Kellum & Son Appliance Co. in Dallas. "People have them to run the TV, the stereo, tape deck, VCR, CD player, cable box and the satellite dish. Everything is done by remote now."

Although remote controls are designed to simplify things, that isn't always the case. Although it may sound tantalizing to have the world at the push of a button, there's a bit more to it than that, Koch cautioned.

"Most remote controls have a lot of features that you won't use every day, and it takes some practice to see what you can really do," he said. "It's a lot like having a computer: You can get the most powerful machine out there, but if you don't know how to work it, it doesn't matter. That's what frustrates a lot of people. They don't take the time to learn what all the remote control can do."

For the casual browser who will use the remote only for watching television, channel surfing and programming the VCR, Koch recommends sticking with the remote that came with the equipment.

"The manufacturers do a really good job of making sure you have everything you need," he said. "Some of them have options that you aren't going to use very often, but you don't want to get rid of that remote because the one time you do need it, you won't be able to do [that function] with another remote."

He believes that much of consumers' frustration comes from not knowing what they're getting and then not realizing what they have. Unlike the three- or four-button remote controls of decades past, today's products are frequently as complex as the objects they operate. Often, the various features on the remotes are not explained properly at the time of purchase, and the consumer ends up confused. As with any electronic equipment, contemporary remote controls require time, patience and, to the chagrin of many, reading the manual.

"Using it on a regular basis, practicing the different features -- that all plays a part in how much you can do with it. No matter how simple or sophisticated it is, it's worthless if you don't take the time to learn to make it work," Koch said.

Those who learn how the individual remotes work may choose to use separate controls for each piece of equipment to take advantage of features offered by each one. That means having a coffeetable littered with control pads, something that drives many consumers right back to the electronics store to buy a universal remote.

Ranging from $8 to $300, universal remotes come in many styles with a dizzying array of features. They make it possible to operate all the televisions, cable boxes and stereos in the house with the same remote that opens the drapes, closes the garage door, turns on the lights and fires up the Jacuzzi.

The only type of remote control that can provide all the functions is called a learnable, and you won't find it shrink-wrapped in the $10-or-less section of the discount store.

The majority of universal remotes sold are preprogrammed and can be adapted to specific equipment when the consumer punches in a code listed in the owner's manual. A learnable, on the other hand, can take the place of virtually every other remote in the house if the consumer takes the time to program it.

While the process is relatively simple, it can be time-consuming and must be learned by everyone in the house for it to be effective. That alone explains why 80 percent of the market is composed of preprogrammed remotes.

More sophisticated versions of the learnables include LCD readout displays, which tell the user what function is being performed each time a button is pressed. That eliminates the need to memorize all of the options, but that raises the price. Some have back-lit screens, ergonomically designed control wheels and other options that make them more consumer-friendly.

Still, such features pale in comparison to many coming attractions. Concepts include remotes with their own charging stands, miniature TV screens built in to preview channels, and touch-sensitive control pads.

History of the TV remote control

More than 99% of all TVs are now equipped with remotes. Some steps in the evolution of channel surfing:

1950

Lazy Bones: A cable from the remote controlled a motor in the TV; could switch channel up or down one at a time, and turn the TV on and off

(not pictured).

1955

Flashmatic: The viewer used a directional flashlight to activate photocells in the corners of TV cabinet.

1956

Space Command: This remote sent high-frequency sounds to a microphone in the TV, which switched the channel; despite extra cost, more than 9 million were sold.

Early 1980s

Infrared: A chip in the remote sends low-frequency light beam that is read by a receiver inside the TV and activates the command; viewer can now move to any channel.

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