How Remote Controls Work

Remote-control Features

Samsung 12-device universal learning remote with LCD screen
Photo courtesy HowStuffWorks Shopper

Today's home-theater remotes do a lot more than turn a component on and off and control the volume. Here are just a handful of the features you can find on some of the higher-tech remote controls out there.

Universal capabilities

Different electronics brands use different command codes. Some IR remotes are preprogrammed with more than one manufacturer's command codes so they can operate multiple devices (sometimes up to 15) of different brands. If your home-theater setup incorporates components from, say, three different manufacturers, you can either use three different remotes to operate your system or use one universal remote. To add functions to a universal remote, you need to know the command codes for the component you want to control. You can look these up online or find them in the manual that came with your remote.



A learning remote can receive and store codes transmitted by another remote control; it can then transmit those codes to control the device that understands them. For instance, let's say you have a receiver with its own preprogrammed remote, and you buy a new TV that comes with a universal learning remote. The learning remote can pick up the signals your receiver remote sends out and remember them so it can control your receiver, too. You don't need to input the command codes yourself -- a learning remote picks up and stores the signals another remote sends out. All learning remotes are considered universal remotes because they can control more than one device.

Macro commands

A macro is a series of commands that you program to occur sequentially at the push of a single button. These macros can be anything you want, such as an "activity command." You can set up a macro that lets you push one button to activate, in order, everything that needs to happen for you to watch a movie or listen to a CD. (Some remotes come with "activity commands" preprogrammed, and others let you download macros from the Internet.)

PC connectivity

There are remotes that connect to your PC via the USB port so you can install programming software and download command codes and personalized graphic icons (for remotes with LCD screens).

LCD screen

A remote-control LCD screen may simply display data, or it may be a touchscreen that receives user input.

User interfaces

Most remotes still utilize the simple button-pushing method, but some have more high-tech manners of inputing commands. You'll find remotes that you operate via an LCD touchscreen, a joystick (for directional commands) and even voice commands.

RF extenders

Some IR remotes can send out both IR and RF signals. The RF signals aren't meant to control RF devices (in fact, they can't control them). They're meant to extend the operating range of the IR remote control from about 30 feet to about 100 feet (give or take) and allow the signal to penetrate walls and glass cabinet enclosures. The remote automatically transmits both IR and RF signals for every command. When you hook up an RF-to-IR converter (sometimes included with IR/RF remotes, sometimes sold as add-ons) on the receiving end, it receives and converts the signal back into the infrared pulses the device can understand. Now you've got an IR remote that can increase the volume on your home-theater stereo from your bedroom upstairs.

Remote controls are steadily increasing the number of devices and functions they can manage. Some universal remotes intended for home-theater components can learn commands for wirelessly controlled lights, so they will not only start a movie at the push of a button, but they'll also dim the lights for you. Full home-automation systems let you use one remote control to manage lighting, alarm systems and entertainment components by way of a receiver wired directly into your home's electrical wiring. Chances are it won't be long before you have a single remote control to manage every electronic device in your life.

For more information on remote controls and related topics, check out the links below.

Remote Control FAQ

How can I use my smartphone as a remote?
Many cell phones come with an embedded infrared "blaster" that uses the same technology as remote controls. All you need to do is download a universal remote app like AnyMote or Unified Remote and it'll work. If your phone doesn't have this "blaster", you can buy an external one for about $15.
What is a remote control?
A remote control is a transmitter that sends out pulses of infrared light that represent binary codes that correspond to commands, such as Power On/Off and Volume Up. It "speaks" to the receiver in the TV, stereo or other device, which decodes the pulses of light into data that the device's microprocessor can understand.
Do universal TV remotes work with all TVs?
If your TV was made in the last 10 years, then a universal remote will likely work with it, though it's not 100 percent. Also, low-cost universal remotes tend to only support the most popular TV brands, so keep that in mind if you own an uncommon brand.
Related Articles
More Great Links
  • "Glossary of Remote Control Terms." Remote Central.
  • "How It Works: Remote Controls." Radio Design Group.
  • "Infra Red Remote Controls - How They Work." UW Electrical Engineering.
  • "Inside a TV Remote Control." HowStuffWorks.
  • "Invention of the Remote Control." The Great Idea Finder.
  • "RF Extender." Remote Central.
  • "A TV Remote Control Decoder." ARRLWeb.