Acoustic Research ARRU449
The universal remote market is primarily dominated by Logitech's Harmony line, but there are plenty of people who--for one reason or another--don't like the Harmony's PC-programmable clickers. So it's nice to see some decent competition in the form of the Acoustic Research Universal Smart Remote (model number ARRU449). The Smart Remote--available online for about $200--attempts to expand on the Harmony's winning formula by adding Wi-Fi support for TV schedules and other information to be displayed directly on its built-in color screen. Unfortunately, Acoustic Research missed an ideal opportunity to incorporate the Wi-Fi support into the remote's setup and programming process. As a result, the Smart Remote is a more confusing, less easy-to-use device. In the end, it's a respectable entry in the universal remote category, but it simply does not trump the seamless experience one gets from using a Logitech Harmony.
The Smart Remote certainly has an interesting and unconventional design. At 9 inches by 2.5 inches by 1.25 inches, it's much bigger than we would have liked--almost to the point that the remote actually feels awkward in your hand. Because of its size, you'll definitely find yourself regripping the remote just to reach certain buttons. DVR owners should take special note that the play/pause, stop, rewind, and fast-forward buttons all rest at the very bottom edge of the device; reaching them sometimes becomes uncomfortable. While the buttons have a nice tactile feel to them, the majority are placed a bit too close together. On the remote's right side is an all-but-useless headphone jack (for the remote's tones that you'll want to switch off anyway) and a backlight button (the screen and all the hard buttons are backlit). On the left side is an AC port for the rechargeable internal battery, but we recommend using the included charging cradle.
What separates the Acoustic Research Universal Smart Remote from the average Harmony is its capability to connect to a Wi-Fi signal. With Internet access, the remote can automatically download TV listings in addition to sports, news, weather, and even Amazon.com's most popular products lists using the embedded click365 service. While the first remote we were sent had severe issues connecting with a WPA-encrypted Linksys and Belkin router, we were pleased to see the replacement model we were sent had no issues connecting whatsoever.
After you choose your TV provider and enter a few details about your location, the click365 service delivers customized information to the remote. We actually preferred browsing TV listings on the remote than doing it on our TV screen--it was easily the greatest advantage of the Wi-Fi feature. Most of the other features--sports scores, weather--felt a bit tacked on, but maybe that's because we've always got a Web-connected laptop or smartphone nearby. We also noticed an apparent software lag while navigating through the click365 services. Also, switching from the click365 features to "remote" mode caused the device to chug along. But, hey--if you happen to get bored with all of the click365 services, you can also play a round of Minesweeper, as it's preinstalled on the remote, as well.
Where we really began to miss our Harmony remote was when we set up the Acoustic Research Universal Smart Remote with our devices. The lack of any external software makes adding devices more of a chore as you must manually input the brand name using the remote's number pad (similar to texting on a cell phone's keypad). Once you enter the brand name, you must then manually cycle through a seemingly limitless number of possible device codes until you find the specific set that works with your device--and that can often be a long list. It's here that the Wi-Fi feature would have really shined. Entering a model number and having the remote download all of the IR codes for each specific device would have been a great way to compete against a remote that requires a separate software installation to do the same thing.
After you've added your devices you're going to want to set up activities. Harmony users will find the term familiar, as it implies the same idea. However, the way the Acoustic Research remote turns on multiple devices and switches inputs may frustrate some users. The activity mode has you manually interject, requiring you to hit the input button until you get the source you requested. We recommend skipping this and opting for the "edit" option so that you can manually add a direct input command (if your TV/receiver/etc. supports one) to the activity. While customizing each activity can become a grueling task, we are confident enough to claim that the remote does offer enough customization options for you to have each mode act exactly the way you want it to. The remote also has the capability to learn IR commands, as well, so there won't be a situation where you are left out of options.
Once you've trudged through the customization process, you'll actually find that the remote performs well. We liked the quick response time we got from each button pressed, something a few Harmony models have issues with. We were happy with the remote's battery life, as it lasted long enough for us to perform all of our testing on a single charge. The display will dim and eventually shut off if not used for a few minutes. Occasionally we did have to "wake" the remote by placing it back in the cradle, but it never went dead.
We'd recommend the Acoustic Research Universal Smart Remote only if you are really drawn to the idea of having your program guide displayed directly on your remote control. However, the painstaking setup and gimmicky Wi-Fi features hinder the overall experience. If the remote used Wi-Fi for device codes, or was considerably cheaper than the average Harmony, we'd have an easier time recommending it. While Harmony remotes do have their faults, there is currently no replacement for their software counterparts that make setup an overall more pleasant experience.
Editor's Note: The first remote we received from Acoustic Research had difficulties connecting to a Wi-Fi access point, specifically a router with any security encryption. After receiving a replacement unit from the company that had no issues connecting, it was our determination that the first remote we received was defective and thus have raised the overall rating of the product accordingly.