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Promise her anything...

15 Apr, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

If there is anything besides equipment cost standing between me and a full-on home theater system, it is the device created to make our entertainment more convenient: the remote control.

Last week the Wall Street Journal's technology columnist, Walter Mossberg, had a column comparing two high-end multi-device remotes. These little controllers can operate a host of devices. They do pretty much everything but tuck you in and kiss you goodnight.

Of course, either one also costs more than both of my DVD players put together. And, no joke, Mossberg also recommended paying a professional to come to the home and program the remote. Apparently journalists in Manhattan make a lot more than they do in Santa Ana.

Now, video rentailers have had a longstanding joke about the Joe Sixpacks of the world, who could never figure out how to program the VCR. (Kinda funny, in a perverse way, that some people will figure that out just as tape gasps its last.) But that was different. Those machines did what they were supposed to, once you figured it out.

This is just another in a long line of technological red herrings, the kind of oversophistication that makes terms like “cable ready” and “universal remote” oxymorons.

I remember the hope of a better world to come. I have a TV that I bought cable ready, for 108 channels. Eighteen years ago.

Cable ready? File that one along with “the check is in the mail.” The equipment manufacturers and programming vendors could never get together on that. The manufacturers and cable companies make too much money selling and renting set-top receivers and now personal video recorders to ever let “cable ready” happen.

The new big lie in home entertainment is the Universal Remote. I have three of them and they are anything but universal. The only one that can operate my satellite system is the one that came with it. The convenient program guide sensor in the TV only works for broadcast and cable systems, so I had to disable it. (Note to R&D at RCA: You would think a company that makes satellite receivers would also make their TV programming guides compatible with them.) The remote that came with my Samsung DVD player has more switches and buttons than a 747 cockpit – just forget about operating any of those features with anything that purports to be universal.

Don't get me wrong, I love my DVDs. I just wish it was easier to operate the little daisy chain of devices involved in watching them. Some days, it's enough to make you (shudder) get up and change channels manually. Or even read a book.

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