URC Digital R50 review: URC Digital R50

URC Digital R50

John Falcone

John Falcone

Executive Editor

John P. Falcone is an executive editor at CNET, where he coordinates a group of more than 20 editors and writers based in New York and San Francisco as they cover the latest and greatest products in consumer technology. He's been a CNET editor since 2003.

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6 min read

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With a wide range of ever-improving offerings, Logitech's Harmony line of PC-programmable remote control have gobbled up a large share of the universal remote-control market in recent years. Still, there are plenty of people who just don't like the fact that you need to do the bulk of the setup duties for those units while they're tethered to a computer. For that crowd, the URC Digital R50 will be a breath of fresh air. (URC is short for "Universal Remote Control," the aptly-named company that also makes remotes under the Home Theater Master brands, as well as many of the "generic" remotes that are packaged with cable boxes and other devices.)


URC Digital R50

The Good

Controls 18 devices; easy, wizard-based programming using built-in screen--no need to connect to a PC; capability to learn from other remotes; large, superbright screen with eight contextual hard buttons; backlit keypad; multidevice macro programming.

The Bad

No rechargeable-battery option; button layout is good, but could be better; some programming functions could be more straightforward; costs almost twice as much as similar, competing models.

The Bottom Line

The URC Digital R50's successful combination of good ergonomics, solid design, and easy programmability makes it a good alternative to Logitech Harmony universal remotes.

The Digital R50 combines a color information screen with a standard control wand full of DVR-friendly buttons, and uses a built-in programming wizard that makes it fairly straightforward to replace the remotes of up to 18 component devices. It is 9 inches long by 2.25 inches wide; once you load the 4 AA batteries (included), it feels substantially solid in your hand. It has 44 hard, rubber keys, plus a five-way directional pad. The top quarter of the unit is a 2-inch, 176x220 color screen flanked by eight contextual buttons, the functions of which change depending upon what's on the screen (the bottom two are usually "page back" and "page forward," allowing you to move between multiple screens). Screen brightness and resolution is excellent, and the unit's device icons and channel logos look great.

The screen is bright and detailed.

Below that are the volume and channel controls. The directional pad dominates the center of the remote; it's encircled by DVR-friendly "guide, "menu," "info," and "exit" keys. Below that are the video-transport controls (play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind, as well as dedicated "skip back" and "skip forward" buttons). The bottom quarter of the remote is a standard 12-digit keypad. (DTV fans will appreciate that there's a dedicated "dash" key, perfect for punching in digital channels.)

In a perfect world, we'd prefer the video-transport controls to be closer to the center, and we wouldn't have gone with the hourglass key layout that pushes some keys too far to the periphery. But all in all, it's a good key layout--better than the Philips Prestigo SRU8010, which made the mistake of isolating the video-transport keys at the bottom. All of the R50 keys are also completely backlit--just click the button on the remote's right-hand side, and the resulting amber glow provides easy visibility, even in complete darkness.

The "main" key underneath the screen could be better called "home." Press it for 5 seconds, and you'll enter the setup mode. Main options include basic and advanced setup, as well as favorite channels and preferences, which are the user settings, such as screen brightness and low-battery warning settings. Using the basic setup option, you can get most of your devices programmed in rapid succession. Follow the onscreen prompts, and the built-in wizard guides you straight through the process. Most mainstream devices will be built into the Digital R50's internal database. Once you choose a device button on the screen (up to 18 devices can be controlled), pick the type of device (TV, audio, DVR, VCR, and so forth) and the manufacturer, and the remote will automatically begin cycling through the codes. Once the device powers off, it asks you to double check the codes, and you can lock them in or try again. We tried several products--TVs, AV receivers, iPod clock radios, and game consoles--and the Digital R50 nailed every one without a problem.

Button layout is good overall, but different shapes would've helped delineate some keys by feel.

If you've got something a bit more obscure, though, you can use the R50's learning function. Take any existing remote, and you can teach its function to the R50, one button at a time. Likewise, if you've added a device and need something more specific than the default options, you can add a specific function with the learn command as well.

Adding favorite channels is just as easy. The Digital R50 can hold up to 48 favorite channels (eight screens of six each). There are 60 icons from which to choose, including some generic colors. That's not nearly enough for the 2,000-channel universe, but the inclusion of such familiar channel logos as NBC, CBS, Fox, USA, and VH-1, and the capability to add your own labels (on the keypad, a la cell phone text messaging) go a long way.

For those who just want the basics, that will pretty much cover things. But the URC Digital R50's advanced menu offers two other key functions: punch-through functionality and macros. Punch through refers to the capability to take some key functions--volume, channels, video transport, menus (menu, guide, info), power--and have them assigned to specific devices, regardless of what's active. For instance: You can assign volume up, down, and mute to always activate those functions on the TV--or the AV receiver--even if the VCR, game system, or cable box is the current active device. Or, for instance: Most folks would assign channels and menus to the cable/satellite box, or video transport to the DVR. URC calls this "cut and paste," and the screen prompts make it pretty easy to "cut" the volume function from the TV and "paste" it to all devices (or just individual ones).

Macros are multistep actions that you can program into the remote. The Digital R50 lets you program more than 800 macros of up to 255 steps each. The macros can be multidevice, as well. Just start the macro "recorder," and punch in the functions you want in the order you want. So, if you'd like to set up a macro that prepares your home theater system for watching a DVD--for instance, powering up the DVD player, TV, and AV receiver; flipping the latter two products to the right inputs; and setting the TV to "cinema mode"--you can do it.

It's not called "advanced" mode for nothing, however--beginners will probably want to steer clear. Macros work better with premium devices, such as TVs and receivers that have discrete inputs, and the more elaborate ones take a lot of knowledge and patience to get working correctly. That said, the only problem we had was in not knowing how to program pauses (to allow a TV some power-up time before switching inputs, for instance). As it turns out, you just tap the pause button while in program mode for a half-second delay (5 seconds equals 10 pause commands). But that wasn't clearly explained in the Digital R50's quick-start guide.

The other problem we had was that you can't create a new soft button (onscreen) while in macro mode. Instead, we had to create a fake device or function first, and then assign the macro to it thereafter. The fact that we had to hack that process together was an oversight in the R50's otherwise-straightforward setup routine.

So: Is the URC Digital R50 worth buying? Certainly, there's a lot to like here, and the benefits easily outweigh the few quibbles we had with the unit's design and ergonomics. We'd place it somewhere in between the Philips Prestigo SRU8010 and many of the Logitech Harmony models. But that's where preferences and pricing will begin to play a big role. We generally prefer the task-based control options and PC-programming offered by the Logitech remotes--many of which can be had for less than the URC Digital R50's $150 asking price. Likewise, TV-centric users looking for more flexible channel-favorites options (separate fave lists for each family member) and who are willing to sacrifice more advanced macro-programming capability will probably find the cheaper Philips Prestigo the better buy. Conversely, if you want a powerful remote that's well-designed and easy to set up--without the need to connect your computer--the URC Digital R50 is a great choice. We'd just like to see it priced closer to the $99 level.


URC Digital R50

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 8