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While remote controls are one of the greatest inventions ever, that pile of them cluttering up your coffee table is an example of home automation gone awry. There are myriad options for those who just want a solution to remote population control, but the dynamic duo of Universal Remote Control's MX-980 remote and MSC-400 master system controller ($1,198) is reserved for those wanting to go beyond simple consolidation. The beauty of this combination is that it's actually smart enough to control your entire system without you having to even touch the remote.
The MX-980 offers an incredible array of programming and customization options. With the ability to personalize screen appearance by adding graphics, animated GIF files, and WAV sounds to buttons, it features nearly all of the programming coolness of the MX-3000 touchpanel I reviewed in September 2006 (review also available on our Web site). The MX-980 is really only limited by the programmer's time and imagination. In fact, it and the system controller are so powerful and complex that you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't have an installer program the system for you.
Activities are divided into two categories - Watch and Listen - though any activity can be placed under either heading. For example, Watch can turn the TV on, while Listen will turn it off (or leave it alone). This is great for activities that could go either way - say, when listening to digital music channels from your cable provider. (Sometimes I like to listen with the TV on to see the program information, while other times I just want music without having to fire up the set.)
The MX-980 would be a capable remote on its own, but its real power is unleashed when you mate it with the MSC-400. Together, they produce a more reliable and ultimately more enjoyable experience.
The MSC-400 is easy to install in a standard A/V rack and it gives you RF (radio frequency) control of your system. (It comes with one RF receiver, but two more can be added to extend coverage in large homes.) Not needing to point the remote at your gear means you can control components even if they're behind cabinetry or in another room. The MSC can also control components using RS-232, which works more reliably than IR and often provides additional command capabilities.
The MSC also lets you use sensors to confirm your system's power status. Basically, this means that the system will always respond correctly and won't get out of sync if something gets turned off when it should really be on. Bottom line: you won't have to worry about getting calls at work when other family members can't figure out how to turn on the system. Using these sensors in combination with URC's powerful programming logic allows the system to act with intelligence bordering on self-awareness.
At 9¼ inches, the MX-980 is on the largish, longish side. Fortunately, all that space is put to good use, beginning with the bigger-than-normal 21⁄2-inch color LCD screen. Below the screen you'll find virtually every "hard" button you'd need for daily use, all logically arranged and well spaced. Backlighting makes the keys easy to read in the dark. Along with lighting up whenever you press a button, the MX-980 also has a motion sensor that turns on the backlighting whenever the remote is picked up or moved.
One of the coolest features is the Sensor Triggered Macros. Because the MSC can tell whether components are on or off, it can execute commands if a component's power status changes. For example, a baby- sitter turning on the cable box can trigger the complete Watch TV macro, while your toddler can turn on the system by simply placing the disc in the DVD player's tray.
Event Timers are another powerful feature. These let the remote trigger the MSC to fire off macros at specific times, whether every day, once a week, or once a month. You can use this, for instance. to create a "lived-in" look while you're away on vacation. This is the kind of power and automation that you'd normally only find in remotes costing thousands of dollars.
The MX-980 comes with a lithium-ion rechargeable battery and a docking/charging stand. The remote lasted about 2 to 3 days off the cradle with medium use before the "low battery" indicator came on.
Is $1,200 a lot to spend on a remote? Yes! But if you have a sizeable investment in your A/V system, this URC combo will make it easier and more fun to use. The remote worked flawlessly, and the Sensor Triggered Macros give your system the smarts to work even without the remote. Buying this intelligent remote might be the smartest decision you'll ever make.
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