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Product Review
 

Home Theater Master MX-500 Programmable Universal Remote Control

October, 2002

Colin Miller

 

 

 

Specifications:

● LCD viewscreen design with joystick control
● Controls up to 10 components
● Preprogrammed with over 1,000 A/V codes
● Learns up to 530 functions via your infrared remotes
● Extensive Macro Control and Punch Through Operations
● 26 Pages LCD screens with customized text
● Backlit LCD screen and GemStone™ buttons
● MSRP USA $189

Universal Remote

http://www.universalremote.com

Introduction

As our group's designated control freak, it came to me, Home Theater Master's MX-500 universal remote control that is. To be honest, as I work with AMX and Crestron systems on a daily basis, a handheld remote that spits out IR codes one at a time in a fixed sequence at its best isn't something that really gets me excited. I've become spoiled by two-way RF communication, logic capabilities limited more by the creativity of the programmer than the programming language, and the ability to talk to A/V equipment as fast as the equipment can listen, and in some cases reply.

When I pick up an IR remote, it's usually just to copy and modify the codes (strip the carrier for example) if need be. If I have the option, I'd prefer to run everything without a command ever seeing open air, where infrared noise from halogen lamps, florescent lights, or sunlight can make operation less than guaranteed. For most, my control requirements are extreme.

The toys I play with during my day job are only suitable for commercial applications or as luxury items for the severely rich. I think they're worth the thousands to tens of thousands that the control portion requires, but it's still pricey for those that haven't done extremely well for themselves or as in my case, have the opportunity to take such work home with them. The equipment isn't only expensive, but the installation and programming required is usually extensive. For the "rest of us," a relatively simple all in one product like the MX-500 is the best solution to a coffee table of separate remotes.

The MX-500 can learn up to 530 different IR commands, expected battery life is 6 months with average use, and it can accommodate up to ten different components. While there's no guarantee that the MX-500 will work with absolutely everything, it claims to be able to operate anything that takes InfraRed codes, and so long as the remote isn't using some strange arrangement of difficult data or an off-standard carrier frequency, it can probably operate everything in a typical home theater, including IR-controlled lighting systems, such as Lutron's Graphic Eye.

It also has a built-in library of preprogrammed devices. That is, you tell it what you've got, and it'll assign a set of IR codes to corresponding functions. This is handy if you don't have the original remotes, or just don't want to take the time to capture codes from your own remotes. You can either enter a number referenced in the manual for the brand and type of equipment you want to control, or scroll through all of the devices stored in the remote until you find one that works, apparent because it'll turn off the device in question.

The second option is really handy if you lose the manual, but then you still need to remember how to get into that programming mode, which isn't extensive, but difficult if you've completely forgotten that pressing down the "Main" button and the "Enter" button for a long time gets you into the setup menu. From there, it's intuitive enough to eventually figure out, but I recommend not losing manuals of equipment in general. There is a catch to this that I just recently discovered while indisposed.

Using the preprogrammed IR codes requires a simple process. One of these steps is to select a table from which the IR codes can be selected from, for example, a CD player table, or a Tape Deck table. If the first thing you do is enter the pre-programmed codes, this isn’t a problem, as the display shows you the table type choices. However, as the MX-500’s display is editable, including the components displayed on the Main Menu page, and the Main Menu text is displayed on the table selection section, if you edit the text on the Main Menu, you edit the text on the table selection page. However, the respective tables don’t change for those buttons, and so if you happen to change the types of devices associated with those buttons from the Main Menu and the text to suit their description, you best look at the manual and the original text labels to find out which buttons access which tables.

All in all, the preprogrammed IR codes can be convenient. The negative of using the preprogrammed IR codes is that while it very well might work fine, these days, it's common for many devices to have non-standard commands, or at least functions that have very different names, particularly with DSS receivers and devices such as TiVos, Replay TVs, etc. Learning the commands yourself lets you put things were you want them, and you know it from the get go.

Something worth considering is initially setting up the remote with the preprogrammed route, testing each code to verify that it does what you think it should, and modifying the setup by learning individual buttons as you like. You save time, and get what you want. If you want to use the preprogrammed method, also keep in mind that the ID associated with your make and device may not be what it's supposed to be.

For example, I tried the MX-500 with my parents' AV system, and the IR code ID designated for my parents Quasar TV wasn't under Quasar, but Panasonic. I happened to know by the TV's setup menu that the TV was a Panasonic OEM, but this could be potentially frustrating, although the scrolling ID search, designated as "Auto Scan," provided by the MX-500 would let you try every model with relatively little effort, even if the time might be excessive. In that case, though, it might be less frustrating to learn the codes manually. In my parents' scenario, the preprogrammed "Input" function did nothing, but the "T/V" function performed the input toggle. Many IR codes taken from a generic source may not work. On the other hand, you might just luck into a particularly useful code, such as a discrete input command that the original remote didn't have.

In terms of how to operate your system with the MX-500, once you've got the IR codes into each respective component section, you're ready to roll if all you need is less table clutter. From the Main Menu, select the component you wish to control via the buttons next to the LCD display, and remote functions are now as if you were holding that component's remote control, with buttons next to the LCD display performing their described task. For each component, there is a second page, accessible by pressing the "Page" button, to store ten more commands within the LCD side buttons. That means that in addition to the "hard" buttons such as the cursor, numeric keypad, etc., each component can store 20 IR commands with names you can customize with LCD text. Not bad for the asking price. It's not as flexible as a full-blown touch screen, although I must admit that most of what you'll ever need you can put on the hard buttons, and the more standard buttons for channel up and down, volume control, menu navigation, etc., are far easier to use than the most elaborate touch screen if you don't want to have to take your eyes off the television. Sometimes a lame sitcom really is that important. While fancier touch panels are nifty, in that they allow you to have any interface you can dream of in terms of functions and layout, there is a very real value in tactile feedback.

Pressing the "Favorite" button allows the user to access programmable channel presets. For instance, the Fav button pressed from the DSS component menu will bring up pages for your favorite channels, and pressing the LCD side buttons will execute a key sequence to bring up the desired channel, for instance "2", "0", "2", "Enter." This is quite handy if you've got a bunch of channels. There is a 10 command limit to these sequences, which should be fine for most applications. To exit the "Favorites" section, press the "Main" button. To then return to the main menu, press again. The favorite stations themselves are global. For instance, if you've got CNN, you've got that label on every favorites page, be it accessed through the DSS or the tuner on your VCR. The key sequences, however, are device specific, so that your VCR can go to cable channel whatever, and your DSS can dial into a different numeric sequence.

One thing that I thought some people might be interested in is the robustness of the IR output. I bounced the IR codes off my booklet, into the wall behind me, and then back at the TV 20 feet away, and it worked without failure. Keep in mind that the range will vary with the receiving device, but the manual specs a range of roughly 40-60 feet. I didn't have 40-60 feet, but I did my best.

MACROS!

No, not Robotech. Ideally, an A/V system can be turned on and set up for use with the press of a single button, and completely shut down with the same amount of effort. This is the primary goal of most macro use. A macro in this context is simply a sequence of events triggered by one, particularly a button press or hold when it comes to the MX-500. The "Favorites" functions are macros with up to 10 commands. The Macros referred to in the MX-500 documentation as such are just bigger and more extensive than the favorite channel key sequences.

With the MX-500, macros can incorporate up to 20 steps. Steps include every button press, be it a command, or a button press to navigate back to a control section. Delay, incremented in 0.2 seconds per step, can also be applied. This can be useful if the equipment needs a little time between commands to make sense of it, but should the macro require substantial delay, such as 4 seconds after the TV is turned on to select the appropriate input, the steps required will exceed the 20 step limit quickly, so that macros will have to be broken into sections. If discrete (non-toggling) power and input codes aren't available for the controlled equipment, and there's no work around, some manual operation will always be required. With my Crestron or AMX systems (costing much, much more), should we lack the discrete codes, we can tell the processor to check to see if a VCR is sending a video sync, or if a TV is drawing more than X amount of current, to make a decision as to whether sending a power code is appropriate for the task at hand. In this case, and all products of this kind, you may still have to use your noodle, just a little bit.

The "M1," M2," "M3," "Power," and "System OFF" buttons will access a macro immediately, though I recommend NOT using the "Power" button to access a macro unless you then have no need to use that button to operate the on/off status directly of each component, as any macro stored on the “Power” button will override the individual command. These macros can be applied however you like. The MX-500 can also perform ten other macros, accessed by holding down one of the component selection LCD buttons for a couple of seconds.

All of the LCD text display pages - be it the Main page, the component control pages, or the Favorites pages - can be edited, much like using the numeric keypad on a cell phone. I found it a bit tedious, but if you only did this kind of thing occasionally, or were a poor typist anyway, I can see putting up with it.

A feature I thought pretty cool for a remote in this category was what they called "Punch Through" functions. That is, you can selectively make certain buttons- the volume control, Ch+/Ch-, and transport functions, operate to control a particular component, such as an A/V receiver, even if it's on the page of a different device, such as a DVD player, but leave it as is when it comes to the TV. This is invaluable if you don't want to have to navigate back and forth through the remote options just to navigate a source and make a few audio adjustments.

There's also a feature on the MX-500 to clone it's programming to another remote. Most users won't get any real value out of this, unless they've got multiple identical systems or just want redundant remotes. The custom installer, however, can make great use of this if they deal with more or less very similar systems, programming the "master" remote for themselves to accommodate the largest, most extensive scenario they commonly implement. They can then clone a copy for the customer, make minor modifications to meet the specific needs of the client, and hand it off with a minimum of fuss. I didn't have two remotes, but the manual claims 7 steps and about 40 seconds are all it takes.

A button on the side of the remote provides a backlight of the hard buttons, as well as an inverted glow of the LCD characters, allowing a user to make adjustments after the feature presentation has already begun. The time out for the light is adjustable, as is the contrast of the LCD display. I very much did like the way the remote used the backlight. Easy to see, but not a spotlight to distract the rest of the audience.

And we're done!

Well, I know that a remote isn't exactly the most exciting toy to an A/V enthusiast. We generally obsess about silly things like equipment, and in the extreme circles, tweaks and accessories to leach out every aspect of audio or video performance. However, something like the MX-500 can be of great benefit when it comes to enjoying your system. Many of these setups can get fairly complicated, and control is essential for those who actually want to use these wonderful toys housed in various boxes. If it's not easy, it can very easily lose any fun factor, particularly if others in the family don't know how to use every remote, don't want to learn, and hold you accountable.

In terms of practical answers to such ordeals, the MX-500 is a valid contender. It's not going to challenge serious control systems anytime soon, but could just as easily be used as part of one by learning particular IR codes, at which point the ergonomic design of the MX-500 makes it a winning interface. The Macro capabilities, by themselves, are a little limited when it comes to implementing longer delays, but dividing macros into groups, such as a Macro to power up the system, and a separate Macro to select a source and get it going, can get around that problem should the need arise, and some components will wake up and set their inputs with a single command, such as some of the newer Sony A/V receivers. The "Favorite" pages are pretty convenient (my dad likes it for multiple sports games, as he doesn’t have PIP), a feature I hadn't seen on units in this price range before, though to be fair, I don't normally look at anything this inexpensive, so there may be others that offer similar functionality.

As I mentioned before, ergonomically, I think the MX-500 is a champ. It fits nicely in the hand, and the most common buttons are located within easy access of the thumb. The LCD buttons allow labeling unique functions, and the backlight feature makes their use feasible in the dark.

While I don't think that the MX-500 will put me out of a job as an integrator, it's a practical and potentially very convenient alternative to an array of plastic clickers. It might even improve the SAF of an A/V system to the extent that when it comes to choosing components, you can get what YOU want. I'm an optimist }>)

I shouldn’t imply that the capabilities need end with the A/V system. You can use it for lighting or with some IR accessories, such as a Xantech IR repeating system and a Xantech CC-12 IR controllable relay, your sprinklers as an example. Next time the neighbor's dog gets into your back yard, you can zap him from the couch without missing a subtitle.

I give it a well-deserved "Way to go!"
 

- Colin Miller -

 
 

© Copyright 2002 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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