written by Mike Shea on 8 March 2003
The remote is one of the forgotten components of a good home theater system. Professional installers know how important good control is, and regular users do too. Too often good home theater systems have a pile of remotes that only the purchaser understand. They have to press 30 different buttons on four different controls to get the whole thing to work right. Home theater usability is in a sorry state, but a solid remote control can help significantly. The Home Theater Master MX-500 universal remote can radically improve your home theater system assuming you are willing to spend $120 and a good couple of hours programming it. Once the pain in the pocketbook and the headache of initial setup is gone it fits perfectly into a good easy to use home theater environment. I would recommend the Home Theater Master MX-500 for any home theater system.
The MX-500 has all the features you would expect for a good remote control. It has excellent ergonomics (more about this later), programmable macros, preset codes, learning on any button, 16 custom buttons per device with five letter labels, and a simple uncluttered design with good tactile buttons.
My previous remote control was a Philips Pronto. Because of its ability to be programmed through a PC, it was as universal as a remote could get. It had a couple of problems, however. One, it was missing the tactile feedback you get from a hard-buttoned remote. Two, it was very complex to set up. When people consider the flat custom touch-panel model of a remote like the Pronto, what they don't recognize is how much easier it is to use a remote where you have the feedback of touching a real button. I can recognize the stop, play, pause, forward and back keys without looking. On a touch panel this is impossible. Having a remote that is too customizable could end up taking hours of time to set up an unusable screen design. People have the urge to set up a "cool" interface instead of an easy one. The MX-500 has a lot of features but not so much that you forget its a remote control and not the bridge of the USS Enterprise. The MX-500 costs 1/3 the price of a Pronto.
Setup is probably the hardest part about owning a universal remote. In order to set up a universal remote properly one must have a detailed understanding of each component, some technical knowledge on the system specifics, and a basic sense of usability.
The most important thing when setting up this remote is to read the manual. Really read it. There are two ways to set up the Home Theater Master MX-500. Per device or per function. I found a functional design to be far more usable, setting up the remote per task instead of device.
Setting up the remote takes a few steps. The first is to select your device from a preset list included with the remote. This gives you about 90% of the device capabilities without having to do any learning. Step 2 requires learning individual presses for those functions you couldn't get from the preconfigured settings but still need. Step 3 requires setting up custom commands and macros.
There were a couple of tricks I found out while setting up my remote. First, I set up a new device that was actually all the basic commands for all my devices. This let me put the most common commands onto a single screen including aspect ratio switching, receiver input switching, receiver volume, DVD basic controls and menu, and system power. This way I could control all common aspects of my whole system without jumping from device to device. Another trick was to fake dedicated power on and off for my DVD player by using "play" instead of on, and "play, pause 5, power" to fake a dedicated power off. My TV and receiver had dedicated power on and off buttons.
Macros are the real power of a good remote. Setting up a "power on" macro that will turn on your display, amp, and DVD player and then switch to the right inputs on all devices, right modes on the amp, and start playing the DVD. This can be done with the MX-500 without much work. The on-screen menus and prompts help a lot with internal programming.
With all of this power comes a difficult level of complexity. While I was able to set up the remote in an hour to control my whole system, someone without all of the understanding I have may have a hard time. The key seems to be gaining that understanding and working with the manual to get the result you want. Right now the only way to not have to be an expert and still have a usable system is to hire someone to do it for you. This causes a lot of bucks. The only advice left is to simply learn as much as you can.
Within daily operation is where this remote shines. With solid macros and a good setup the remote becomes transparent. Powering up and down the system, navigating pain-in-the-ass DVD menus, and performing basic functions on a complex system becomes easy. The remote's ergonomics, including the powerful backlight, are very good, allowing you to easily control your system even without the lights on. Good control requires a good easy setup, but once it is set up well, the remote is as good as you could want.
The Home Theater Master MX-500 has become a staple for any home theater recommendation I make. For $100 to $120 one can get a remote with every capability they could need. It is a big step towards making a system easy to use. Unfortunately, another required step is to become an expert in your own theater so you know how best to use this tool. That takes something more than money, it takes time. If you are a fan of movies and are willing to spend the huge amount of money a home theater costs, you should also be willing to sacrifice that time as well. The Home Theater Master MX-500 is an excellent product.
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