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We want better remote controls!

Consumer Reports News: June 25, 2010 12:08 PM

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I usually turn off the lights when I settle down for some serious TV-watching and then find myself fumbling in the dark for the fast forward or pause button on the remote control. Those keys aren’t easy to find by touch alone, unlike the distinctive volume up/down button.

It’s not a huge problem. The remote for my Scientific Atlanta cable box is otherwise pretty good, with a comfortable shape, logical grouping of keys, and color-coding. It’s much better than the remotes for my TV and disc player, which are basic black bricks with tiny keys and hard-to-read type. Fortunately, I spend most of my time watching recordings on the cable-box DVR, so I don’t have to deal with the drawbacks on the other remotes too often.

But I’d love it if remote controls in general were designed with usability in mind, so the keys you use most were unmistakable, even in the dark—illuminated, bigger, shaped differently, clearly separated from the rest. The remote is among the many factors we assess when testing TVs and Blu-ray players (Ratings available to subscribers).

I’m heartened to see some new remotes with clever designs that make them friendlier than the typical controller. Backlighting is a huge plus, but it’s still fairly uncommon, often limited only to pricier sets. And in most cases, you have to find the tiny button to turn on the lighting. Not a good idea.

A contoured shape is nice too, making the remote much more comfy in your hand than a plain old rectangle. LG has a particularly nice design on some remotes, with commonly used buttons raised up in the middle, so you literally can’t miss them.

We also like bigger keys with differing shapes to identify the function. Lettering you can actually read is a plus as well. Color, too, helps with identification, at least in a lit room.

Vizio’s addition of a pullout keyboard, like the ones on some cell phones, is a great idea if you’re going to be ordering movies online, among other things.

Sometimes, though, style wars with function. Small and sleek are in, and that doesn’t enhance usability. For instance, we’ve long admired Samsung’s remotes, but for their high-end TVs, they took a step back in the interests of looks, replacing the raised keys with flat, hard to find ones. They look slim and stylish, but come on….

Of course, the design of the TV remote might not be a big deal for you if, like me, you tend to use the remote for your set-top box most of the time. But we’d love to hear your pet peeves, as well as praise for the standouts. Let’s hear ‘em.

Eileen McCooey

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