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TV remote controls

Your remote control really is central to making it easy to watch TV - and never more so than with digital. You use the remote to navigate a host of features - a good design can make all the difference. If you can, try to see and use a product's own remote control before you purchase. See below for information on what features to look out for in a remote control

A selection of remote controlsIf you find your remote to be too complicated or fiddly, it's worth considering buying a simple remote. We tested a range of alternative remotes, including products with just a few basic buttons. See our remote control reviews for the two remotes we recommend as the easiest to use.

Other people may simply want to control all of their digital products from a single remote. Some of the products (often the more expensive ones) have a remote that allows you to control other digital products. For example, you can use the digital TV recorder remote to control the TV and DVD player as well. Alternatively, you can find 'universal remote controls' in most electrical stores. These can be programmed to control a number of products. They vary in price and complexity. Many cheaper models can't operate Freeview products, so you should check this before buying. 

If you regularly use subtitles, a direct access button on the remote is very useful. If your remote doesn't have one, you may be able to replace it with a universal remote control that does.

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What to look for in a remote control

Features of remotes

  • A well-designed remote will have the important buttons grouped together in easy reach and set apart from the others. In fact, some of the best controls can be operated with one hand without looking at them. Definitely try holding and using the remote before you buy.
  • You use the four arrow keys to move around different on-screen menus - and this can work really well. If the remote is well designed, each key's purpose will be so logical that you will be operating them without having to think about it.
  • A centre button is then used to select the programme, page or feature you have arrived at. A few manufacturers put this button somewhere else on the control - we can't imagine why.
  • Some manufacturers also use the arrow keys for volume and channel change. It works quite intuitively, though most manufacturers still favour separate volume and channel controls.
  • Different shaped buttons are easier to find by touch and different colours can be helpful, especially for the record and playback buttons on digital TV recorders.
  • All digital TV remotes should have four different coloured buttons in a straight line. These match options on the screen for interactive features, so they need to match both colour and order.
  • It's useful for the set-top box or digital TV recorder remote to have at least a TV on and off and volume control, and possibly a button to select one other device - such as TV or DVD recorder. You will need to programme the new remote to recognise your model of TV.
  • A separate button, to switch on subtitles or audio description, will help anyone in the household who needs them.
  • Using the remote control single handed, it should feel comfortable and balanced, and the main navigation buttons should be within reach of your thumb. For two-handed users, the keys should be easy to locate and hit with a finger.

Checklist for buying a remote

Whether you are buying a simple remote control or one to replace the three or four that operate all of your digital TV kit, there are worthwhile checks you can make before you buy.

  • Will it control the brands of products you have?
  • Will it control your range of products - set-top box, digital TV recorder, TV, hi-fi?
  • Will it control the digital box and the digital features of your TV?
  • Don't be tempted by a control that covers more products than you need - it will probably make it more complicated to use.
  • Consider buying a 'learning' remote control rather than a code-entering one - these should be able to 'learn' any command from any original brand of digital TV remote control, even ones not yet on the market.
  • Check you can manage the programming process - or have somebody who can - and follow the instructions precisely. It can be tedious and tricky - repeating sequences of key strokes on code-entry remotes or accurately lining up the old and new remotes so the new can learn functions from the old.
  • Check for any helplines to get you out of trouble when programming the new remote.
  • Check for illuminated buttons if you plan to watch in a darkened room.
  • Handle the control. Does it feel comfortable and balanced? Are the buttons well spaced and do they have a positive feel when you press them? Remote controls with membrane or LCD touch pads are unlikely to be as easy to use as ones with ordinary buttons.

'Learning' remote controls

With a learning remote, you carefully line it up with your original remote control so they are pointing at each other. Using their infrared signals you can clone functions (such as channel selection, volume and so on) by pressing buttons on the original and then the equivalent buttons on the new remote. You need patience and to follow the instructions precisely.

Last updated: July 2013

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