Are universal remotes ripe for disruption? Or irrelevance?
Commentary: Harmony still rules the roost, but that can't last forever. Will the category change drastically or just go away?
David KatzmaierEditorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
ExpertiseA 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics.Credentials
Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
I use a $130 Harmony universal remote at home and I tell everyone who has a complex-enough system to do the same. And I've been a happy Harmony camper for more than a decade.
But after spending the last week reviewing
, a $400 universal remote, I've come to view the category in a different way. Yes, Caavo is fatally flawed since it doesn't work with the highest-quality video format available today (HDR), but the real surprise is in where it succeeds.
Watch this: Is Caavo the ultimate high-end universal remote?
Caavo basically makes a new TV home page for all your entertainment gear, one that's simpler to understand and use than a bunch of different menu systems spread across myriad devices.
When I described the Caavo universal remote to Jeremy Toeman, my CNET colleague and former VP of product at Sling Media, he nodded sagely and said "Yeah, that whole category is ripe for disruption." I agree. Harmony has been doing basically the same thing for years, and while challengers like Caavo and the Ray Super Remote have tried to challenge the king, they've largely failed. So far.
I still recommend Harmony to everyone, but I wouldn't be surprised to see that change over the next few years. Here's how.
In this scenario a product like Caavo, or its presumed successor -- one that actually supports HDR and costs less, say $200 -- could become popular among AV enthusiasts sick of the complexity of the various apps, devices and services needed to watch TV and movies today. If you have a bunch of devices and a surround system and a nice TV, that's a small price to pay for a single, simple set of on-screen menus, along with Alexa voice control, to command it all.
Take it a step further and Caavo partners with a real AV receiver maker, say
or Denon, and basically takes over their user interface. I also agree with Dan Jacobsen, who replied to a Twitter thread on my review: Caavo would be better off built into a receiver. That single hub or box would handle all the switching, interface and audio goodness required of a big system.
In the near future Caavo could sell itself to the receiver makers of the world in the same way
appeals to TV makers: We'll handle the software, updates and interface, you stick with the hardware. Roku has been very successful in reclaiming the appeal of
TV, providing as much disruption as that category has ever seen. It's no wonder the company is getting into audio.
If you think about it, a universal remote is just a solution to the problem of home theater gear devices not being "smart" enough in the first place. And by smart, I also mean they should work together in a way that makes sense. But the products are getting smarter, and you need less gear these days to enjoy awesome audio and video.
The less gear you have, the less you need a universal remote, which is why I can see the whole category fading into the niche high-end market (also known as irrelevance) soon enough.
basically mimic a universal remote, allowing control of
and cable boxes for example, and also include a solid selection of streaming apps built-in. Add a nice sound bar, maybe one with surround-sound speakers or Dolby Atmos, and you've got a complete system, easily commanded by a single clicker, that sounds as good as some receiver-based systems.
For more modest systems, Roku's newest streamers, starting with the $50 streaming stick, come with remotes that can control volume and power on a connected TV. If you've cut the cord and don't need a cable box and its requisite remote, you're set. And both Samsung and Roku's systems are easy to set up because, like Caavo, they automatically recognize connected devices and program the remote keys accordingly.
With the increasing popularity of alternatives to cable, including live streaming services such as YouTube TV, Sling TV, Hulu with Live TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now, that cable box remote is becoming less and less necessary for people. You'll still need the TV remote, but you'll be able to turn many devices on and control their volume with protocols such as HDMI-CEC. And really, what more do you need?
Watch out, Harmony
Look, the Harmony Companion remote-and-hub system is still great, and easily worth the money if you have a lot of stuff to control. The alternatives I mentioned above are all more limited, and flawed in their own ways, in comparison.
But recent trends include a renewed focus on ease-of-use (particularly voice control), a move away from cable boxes and toward streaming. These changes, along with the increasing popularity of systems like Roku that focus on affordability and function, could spell the beginning of the end for