5 Reasons Your Universal Remote Is Not Working Correctly

Becky Worley

A universal remote should save time and frustration, consolidating all the device commands into a few button presses. But many universal remotes have performance issues, connectivity problems, or just don’t work right. Good news: you can fix five of the most common problems yourself. 

There are three significant makers of universal remotes: Phillips,Universal Remote Control, and Logitech. I have a Logitech Harmony remote, so Iasked Ian Crowe, a senior manager at Logitech, to help me troubleshoot the most common mistakes people make with their universal remotes. 

Problem 1: During Set-Up, “Close” Isn’t Good Enough

Most of the lasting problems with universal remotes stem from mistakes made during set-up. Ian explains that even within the same brand, line, or even model, there are extreme variances in the codes these devices use to perform actions on the device. If you input during set-up that you have a Sony BDV-300 home theater, but you actually have a BDV-300a, most of the functions may work perfectly, but some may fail. 

Ian also explains that the command codes stored by universal remote companies when a new component is first released may have slight errors. And again, a small error may lead to a big problem. Solutions: Check that you’ve entered the EXACT model numbers for the devices you’re trying to control. Then try updating your universal remote’s stored codes.  With computer- and software-based universal remotes, this means plugging them into your computer via USB. With other brands, it might mean checking their website for updated command codes. 

Problem 2: Which Wireless Frequency Do Your Devices Use – RF or IR?

Audio-video components are factory-set to receive commands from their own, dedicated remote via one of two types of signals: Infrared (IR) or Radio Frequency (RF). Out of the box, my new DVR was set to receive RF commands from its remote - but my universal remote was programmed to send IR. So of course the DVR didn’t recognize any of the commands coming from the universal remote. Solution: If one of your devices does not respond to your universal remote, check that the device is set to receive the same kind of signal your remote is sending. In my case, I dug into the settings of the DVR and switched it to receive IR commands.

[Related: Can You Fix a Scratched DVD with a Banana?] 

Problem 3: Is The Signal Reaching The Device?

Whether you have all your AV components out in plain sight or hidden behind a cabinet, it’s hard to feel confident that the invisible wireless commands from the universal remote are actually hitting the receivers on the devices.  In my AV cabinet, I have IR blasters – these are repeaters that take the signal aimed at the TV area and broadcast it inside the cabinet.  But whenever I’m having trouble with the universal remote, I always think the problem is how I positioned the blasters. And so I’m always trying to futz with them. But according to Ian,  “Other than extreme distance, or an extreme acute angle between your remote and the device, or inthis case, between the blaster and the device, it’s generally not a problem.“  That said, he confirms that that certain devices, like the Xbox, are picky – the IR blaster needs to be right in front, not at a rakish angle. Solution: If you have one device that’s behaving badly, it’s worth checking its pathway to the signal. 

Problem 4: Human Error – Interruption Of Signal

A successful universal remote issues the right commands in the right sequence and with the right timing. You wouldn’t hit “change the input on your TV” before you hit "power on." And you may have to wait afew seconds for the TV to actually turn on and warm up before the input command works. Universal remotes take this timing into account. But this can also lead to a common problem – especially with infrared remotes, which require line-of-sight communication with the devices: If, for example, you hit the “watch TV” command and the sequence starts, then you turn your back on the TV, remote in hand, to walk back to the couch and sit down, the remote loses line-of-sight connectivity with the devices, and some of those commands in the sequence are never received.  With infrared remotes, you need to keep the remote pointed at the devices or IR receiver until all devices are functioning properly. With an RF device, line-of-sight is not needed and you can bop all over the place during the sequence. How do you know what type of remote you have? Put your hand over the front of the remote and push a button to issue a command. If it doesn’t work, you have IR; if it does complete the command, it’s RF. 

Problem 5: Gremlins – or Conflicting Commands Caused by HDMI CEC

This is the geekiest of the common universal remote problems that Ian helps me solve.  The problem arises when I issue a command on my universal remote and it does all the things I ask it to, then it’s like a gremlin decides to turn something else on all by itself. I have noticed that this only happens with components that are connected together with HDMI cables. Ian explains it’s a feature of HDMI that is intended to act as a smart controller of the connected devices, but can screw up a universal remote.  “Because the devices are telling each other what to do, that can conflict with what the remote is telling the device to do.” Solution: Dig into the settings of your TV and home theater, and turn off HDMI CEC. Depending on your device, this could be called Anynet+ (Samsung), Aquos Link(Sharp), BRAVIA Link and BRAVIA Sync (Sony), HDMI-CEC (Hitachi), E-link (AOC), Kuro Link (Pioneer), CE-Link and Regza Link (Toshiba), RIHD (Remote Interactive over HDMI) (Onkyo), RuncoLink (Runco International), SimpLink (LG), T-Link (ITT), HDAVI Control, EZ-Sync, VIERA Link (Panasonic), EasyLink (Phillips), and NetCommand for HDMI (Mitsubishi). 

What issues have you had with your home theater? Any “aha” solutions? Feel free to tweet them to me. I’m @bworley on Twitter.