If you have a serious home-theater system — or even a semi-serious one with three or more components — a universal remote control is an amazing device to own. The best universal remote can unify all those various clickers — soundbar, surround speakers, Apple TV, Blu ray player, and so on — into a single wand with buttons in a way that can feel downright magical. All of the best universal remote options have superior ergonomics and 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 iPhone, Android phone or other smartphone. They can also work with smart devices and voice systems such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home.
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, Blu-ray player, game consoles, Roku streamers, 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 or universal remote app is making it simple enough for a kid to operate, even with all those buttons.
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 can often be found for less, especially refurbished. Read the Logitech Harmony 650 review.$50 AT BEST BUY
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 in homes with multiple devices. Read the Caavo Control Center preview.$59 AT AMAZON
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 Amazon 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 AMAZONLogitech Harmony Companion
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
The wacky Cube is a mashup of universal remote controls, Fire TV 4K streamer and Amazon Echo speaker, making it the king of your smart home devices. 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.
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 favorite channels or the 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.$250 AT AMAZONLogitech Harmony Express
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 and watch your favorite channels 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. My main quibble is that 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. Read the Logitech Harmony Express preview.