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Best universal remote of 2020

From Harmony to Caavo to, well, other Harmonys, these are our favorite clickers, hubs and screens for controlling a cabinet full of gear.

If you've got a serious home-theater system -- or even a semiserious one with three or more components -- a universal remote control is an amazing device to own. The best universal remote can unify all your clickers -- sound bar, Apple TV, surround speakers, Blu-ray player and so on -- into a single wand with buttons in a way that can feel almost magical. All the best universal remote options have superior ergonomics, more intuitive buttons and a better feel than standard remotes. Many remote controls have apps to ensure they work with your mobile device whether you have an Android, an iPhone or other smartphone. A universal remote can also work with smart devices and voice systems such as Google Home ($99 at Walmart) and Amazon Alexa.

My family and I have used many of the smart remotes on this list as control devices for my main home-theater system for months or years at a time. At various points, multiple remotes on this list have been used to control my TVs, AV receiversgame consoles, Blu-ray player, Roku streamers, and even a cable box DVR. My family uses the system as much as I do and my main criteria in a smart universal remote or universal remote app is making it simple enough for a kid to operate, even with all those buttons.

Here are my choices for the best universal remote control currently available, in ascending order of price.

Read more: The best Google Assistant and Google Home devices of 2020

Logitech Harmony

Logitech Harmony wrote the book on the universal remote control devices and these are the most basic clickers I can recommend for a smart home. The main appeal over a cheaper, non-Harmony-based smart remote controller, or the device that comes with your set-top boxes, is the activity-based control. Press the "Watch TV" to use as a TV remote or "Listen to Music" buttons and the Harmony remote controller turns on all the relevant devices (such as your smart TV, blu-ray player, and AV receiver), switches to the right inputs and maps the keys to that activity: Volume to the receiver and Channel up-down to the box, for example.

Unlike more expensive Harmonys, which use a universal remote control app on your phone for setup and control, you'll have to use Harmony's Mac- or PC-based software to program the remote (needless to say, a remote app is more convenient). The 650 and 665 also rely on IR (infrared) codes emitted from the front of the device -- if you want point-anywhere convenience, you'll have to spend up for a system with a hub.

The 665 is the only smart remote currently listed on Harmony's site but the 650 is identical (aside from color and number of devices each can control) and can often be found for less, especially refurbished. Read our Logitech Harmony 650 review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Caavo's Control Center is one of two non-Harmony smart remotes on this list and is also the second-cheapest device at $59, but there's a catch. To get Caavo's advanced features, you'll need to shell out for the service fee. It costs $4 a month, $40 a year or $160 for the lifetime of the remote.

Unlike Harmony, Caavo Control Center includes an HDMI switch in addition to the smart remote. You plug your stuff into the switch and it handles the rest, including automatically recognizing your gear during setup. Caavo has its own smart voice control system and onscreen display to help you find stuff to watch on your streaming devices. The universal remote control device itself is simple and elegant and the remote finder is gold. Like the hub-based Harmonys below, Caavo doesn't require line of sight (the switch acts as the hub) and the remote control will also work with a voice command from Alexa and Google Home speakers in homes with multiple devices. Read our Caavo Control Center preview.

The Hub is the only remote control device on this list that doesn't actually include an actual physical remote device or buttons. Instead, you control everything using the Harmony app for smartphones (Android or iOS) -- or by talking to your Amazon Alexa or Google Home speaker. The smart hub itself nestles deep in your AV cabinet, blasting out Infrared, Bluetooth and Wi Fi network signals to your equipment. This Harmony smart control is a great system if you prefer the Harmony app, but for most people, investing in a real smart device (maybe one with a smartphone app) is worth the extra few bucks. 

Sarah Tew

My pick for the best universal remote for the money is the Harmony Companion, a real remote tied to a Harmony Hub. Since the Harmony Hub handles the actual command sending, you don't have to aim the smart device and risk one of your devices missing a command -- which leads to confusion and delay. The Harmony Companion doesn't just handle your entertainment devices, the smart remote can also communicate with some home automation devices such as Philips Hue lights. The device is slick and easy to hold and the battery lasts for months. In my years of using the Harmony Companion at home, the main things I missed are backlighting behind the buttons and a remote finder. Read our Logitech Harmony Companion review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The wacky Cube is a mashup of universal remote controls, the Fire TV 4K streamer and Amazon Echo speaker, making it the king of your smart home devices. It comes with a device but its buttons are sparse and rudimentary: real device control happens via your voice. The Cube has an IR emitter to control your gear and a mic sensitive enough to hear your commands over the blare of music. On the downside, you'll need to keep your old remotes (even ones that aren't smart) around for many functions.

This controlling universal remote is often sold for as little as $80 or less, so definitely wait for a sale on this device -- or Prime Day -- before buying it. Read our Fire TV Cube review.

Now we're getting into big spending universal remote control territory. The main draw of the Elite remote control over the Harmony Companion is its screen and for most users it's just not worth it. The touch screen makes this remote control more versatile than cheaper models with buttons, especially for calling up favorite channels or the Roku app, plus the full backlighting is great. Unfortunately, the touch screen and backlighting suck a lot of battery power so you (and your family) will need to remember to park the smart remote in its dock regularly. Read our Logitech Harmony Elite review.

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