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While learning capabilities and eight-device control were previously the exclusive domain of high-end remotes, RCA's RCU811 universal remote supports both features--and it's widely available for less than $40.
The RCU811 is long and thin, with an array of 52 keys of varying shapes and a small, two-line LCD screen at the top. The size, labeling, and arrangement of this sea of keys can be confusing, and the small typeface of each key label is difficult to read even in the best light, much less in a dim room. You can illuminate the buttons in a bright aqua blue, but you'll have to squint to read the labels. In the middle of the remote are two similar volume and navigation key arrays that are easily confused.
Programming the codes for your devices is relatively easy, but in our tests, the RCU811 often didn't map all the functions. For instance, when we fed it the codes for different Scientific-Atlantic cable boxes, the RCU811 mapped only channel and power functions. It failed to map any of the menu or electronic programming guide (EPG) navigation functions, despite the fact that there are Guide, Menu, Info, and directional keys on the remote. For our Sony TV, it mapped the Sleep but not the Menu function. When we programmed the CD player, the LCD displayed "AUD"--even though there is a separate Audio device button.
The RCU811 isn't recommended for users with A/V receivers. You can program audio system codes, which gave us volume control over our receiver, but you'll have to program the three extra keys for any other receiver function, such as switching inputs. You can't punch through--enable specific keys to function in the same way no matter which device is selected--your receiver's volume control. (Only the TV volume can be punched through.)
You'll also have to manually teach the device all of the controls for devices for which the remote isn't preprogrammed. For instance, no Gateway A/V products are included in the code listings. The learning feature also proved to be a bit crankier than those we've found on other remotes.
You can program up to three macros of up to six steps each, which should be sufficient for most users. But activating each macro is actually a two-step process: pressing the macro key, then the 1, 2, or 3 key to indicate which macro you want activated.
There's an internal clock in the RCU811, which is used in conjunction with event timers that allow you to power on (or off) one of your devices at a time. If paired with macros, this could have been a compelling feature--enabling timer recordings in your absence with a VCR, DVR, or DVD recorder that doesn't have cable-box control, for example. As implemented, however, it's nothing more than a glorified wake-up timer.
For $40, we weren't expecting the world from the RCA RCU811--and we didn't get it. It will cover the basics for a small system (TV, VCR, DVD), but those looking for a universal remote for a serious home-theater system should look elsewhere.