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Would you spend $1700 on a universal remote control? Well, how about a neat $1000? We testdrive two impressive handsets from Philips and Nevo.

The area of home cinema system control has become so much more than merely a matter of replacing all your remote handsets with one universal model. Modern system controllers link all sorts of devices, from AV to PC, home automation, communications and security.

But, is there a danger that as the ambitions become more ambitious, the controllers become overly complex? The two models here, from the giant Philips and the lesser-known company Nevo, aim to offer serious system control without introducing terminal user bafflement – so do they succeed?

Philips RC9800i | $999 |  | www.qualifi.com.au
For: Easy to set up and use; comfortable
Against: Onscreen controls a bit small
Verdict: A good controller at a nice price

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It’s fairly certain that you will have heard of one of these manufactures, and not the other; European giant Philips makes everything from DVD players to medical scanners, while Nevo might be an unfamiliar name, though parent company Universal Electronics is responsible for the popular OneForAll remote control range.

It’s no surprise that while the two products have similar aims and in some cases functions, they adopt quite different approaches.

Philips’ RC9800i is designed to be compatible with all infra-red-controlled devices past, present and future. Looking a bit like a pocket PVR, it has a 3.5in LCD touchscreen, and a simple control layout consisting of a cursor cluster, dedicated channel and volume Up/Down buttons, and Home and Back controls. Everything else is handled by virtual buttons on the touchscreen, which change according to function. Connections on the handset include USB for receiving software updates via your PC, and Line Out. The cradle acts as a Digital Music Media Adapter, allowing audio files streamed from a PC to be transferred to non-networked audio devices such as an amplifier. Connection is via an audio extension cable, which is not provided.

The base station acts as a charger for the handset’s Lithium Polymer battery. The handset can be left switched on permanently, as it goes into standby mode after a definable time, and can be re-activated by a tap on the screen. Charging takes about three hours, and in standby mode a charge should last a couple of weeks.

The 9800i has an onboard control code database for over 1100 manufacturers, and thousands of models of DVD player, CD player, TV, amplifier, receiver and other types of AV equipment. Programming the device to control your particular setup is ridiculously easy, as a setup wizard guides you through the task. If you know all your device model numbers or have existing remotes, the RC9800i will skip a lot of the boring bits for you; but if you need more in-depth programming, the facilities are there, and if the device is not in the database, you can teach the RC9800i new commands from the old handset.

We programmed it to control a Pioneer DVD player, Denon amp and Hitachi TV in minutes, without even looking at the manual. Eight user-programmable soft buttons are available for obscure functions.

Devices can be grouped by location, such as Living Room or Bedroom, and integrated Wi-Fi connectivity means you can control AV UPnP-networked devices which are not in line of sight. Both 802.11b and 802.11g are supported, and a blue emitter on the top of the device indicates wireless activity.

‘Activity-based’ multiple commands can be set up to execute with a single button-press, so for instance a ‘Play DVD’ macro could switch on the DVD player, TV and amplifier, set them to the correct inputs and start playback. Main commands for each device will appear grouped together on a combined control screen.

There’s an EPG function which works in conjunction with supplied PC software, and personalised TV listings can be upgraded from the internet, as can the device’s firmware, so it should be future-proof.

If you install the Media Manager software on your PC, you can also use the RC9800i to view still images on the handset itself, or stream them to your TV.

NevoSL| $1699 |   |www.ambertech.com.au
For: Very powerful and flexible
Against: Complex and inconsistent; expensive
Verdict: A powerful device that can come pre-programmed

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NevoSL is a comparable universal controller designed to eliminate multiple remotes and integrate with networked devices, but it adopts a quite different approach to the Philips. For a start, it uses RF and IR signals to operate your kit, not just IR; it looks more like a conventional remote controller, or maybe a Pocket PC. This isn’t too far from the truth, as the NevoSL uses a Windows CE-based operating system complete with colourful icons and file folders. You can download new images, skins and layouts from the website at www.mynevo.com.

Like the Philips, the Nevo has a 3.5in LCD touchscreen, a library of built-in IR codes, and a charging cradle. It supports Wi-Fi (802.11b), and comes with PC Media Manager software to link to UPnP AV devices and manage digital content. Also available is NevoLink, an IP-addressable infra-red bridge that enables IR control of AV devices hidden from view inside a cabinet or located in other rooms.

Apart from soft keys on the LCD, it has a cursor cluster, volume and channel up/down, Return and Mute keys, and four hard user-programmable function buttons, labels for which appear on the LCD. On the side are controls to activate the backlight, and to scroll through onscreen pages. There’s also a USB connector under a cover, and a stylus hidden in a slot on the bottom.

The Windows CE operating system means that the look and feel of the Nevowill be immediately familiar to any PC user, and like the Philips, the Nevo uses a wizard-based system for identifying and installing your equipment, linking with networks and accessing media folders on your PC. We found it all a bit too flashy for our liking – when you just want to get the job done, you don’t need gimmicky graphics.

Conclusion

We liked the RC9800i a lot, finding it easy and intuitive to use. The only real problem is that if you have sausagey fingers you might find the virtual buttons a bit small to operate, and would have to use a stylus. The Nevo is arguably a bit easier to handle from this point of view, and tends to be supplied pre-programmed by your friendly Nevo dealer. The downside, of course, is the cost. Save your dosh – get the Philips and put the cash you’ve saved towards a media PC.


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