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Best universal remotes of 2020

by Augustus Helena (2020-03-05)


id="article-body" class="row" section="article-body"> A universal remote control is an amazing device to own if you have a serious home-theater system -- or even a semiserious one with three or more components. The best universal remote can unify all those different clickers into a single wand with buttons in a way that can feel magical. All of the best universal remote options have superior ergonomics, with a better feel than standard remotes and more intuitive buttons. And many a universal remote control has app features that ensure it works with your smartphone (iPhone, Android phone or other smartphone) or smart devices and voice systems like Google Home 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, they've controlled multiple devices including my TVs, AV receivers, game consoles, Roku streamers, Blu-Ray player 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 is making it simple enough for a child to operate, even with all those buttons.

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

Logitech Harmony 650/665
Logitech Harmony Logitech Harmony wrote the book on the universal remote control devices, and these are its most basic clickers I can recommend. 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" or "Listen to Music" buttons and the 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 (below), which use a Harmony universal remote control app on your smartphone 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 one currently listed on Harmony's site but the 650 is identical (aside from color and number of devices each can control) and Middle East University can often be found for less, especially refurbished. Read the Logitech Harmony 650 review.

$50 at Best Buy Read more: The best Google Assistant and Google Home devices of 2020

Caavo Control Center
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 bank for the service fee. It costs $4 per month, $40 per year or $130 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 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 will also work with voice commands from Alexa and Google Home speakers. Read the Caavo Control Center preview.

$59 at Amazon Read more: Best streaming device of 2020: Roku, Apple TV, Fire Stick, Chromecast and more

Logitech Harmony Hub
The Hub is the only device on this list that doesn't actually include an actual device or buttons. Instead, you control everything using the Harmony app for smartphone (Android or iOS) -- or by talking to your 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 device (maybe one with a smartphone app) is worth the extra few bucks. 

$110 at Amazon Logitech Harmony Companion
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, it can also communicate with some home automation devices such as Philips Hue lights. The smart 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 the Logitech Companion review.

$110 at Amazon Read More: Best smart light bulbs (plus switches, light strips, accessories and more) 

Amazon Fire TV Cube
Sarah Tew/CNET The wacky Cube is a mashup of universal remote controls, Fire TV 4K streamer and Amazon Echo speaker. 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 device is often sold for as little as $80 or less, so definitely wait for a sale -- or Prime Day -- before buying it. Read the Amazon Fire TV Cube review.

$100 at Amazon Read more: Best AV receivers of 2020

Harmony Elite
Now we're getting into big spending territory. The Elite's main draw over the Harmony Companion is its screen, and for most users it's just not worth it. The touch screen makes it more versatile than cheaper models with buttons, especially for calling up a favorite channel or Roku app, and 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 on the reg. Read the Logitech Harmony Elite review.

$270 at Amazon Logitech Harmony Express
Sarah Tew/CNET Logitech's newest all-in-one remote control is its most voice-centric yet. Like the Caavo, you can use voice commands to control stuff by talking into the smart control, but unlike Caavo, the Express can talk back in Alexa's voice. It's like having a miniature Alexa speaker in your hand. After a couple months as my family's main remote I find myself wanting actual buttons -- you have to say "Turn on the TV" or "Watch Netflix" or even "Turn off the TV" to get stuff to happen -- but my main quibble is its high price. As Harmony's only remote with a finder function, however, this is still the one I'd get if money wasn't an object. Read the Logitech Harmony Express preview.

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