The Remote Control Conundrum: What To Choose For Your Home Theatre PC

The Remote Control Conundrum: What To Choose For Your Home Theatre PC

So you’ve got yourself a kickass, play-everything home theatre PC, but you’re not so keen on controlling it from your couch with a mouse and keyboard. I get that. I’m a media centre enthusiast, so I’ve tested practically every remote option in my lounge room. Here’s how to wade through the sea of remote controls out there and pick the perfect one for your PC.

I’ve found four different kinds that work best, but each has its own pros and cons. All of my testing has been done with XBMC, but many of these findings should apply to other media centre programs too, like Plex.

Option One: A Windows Media Center Remote

lotPhoto by ryaninc

Pros: While each third-party MCE remote has its own little quirks, they should be mostly hassle-free, letting you plug it in, perform a tweak or two, and get straight to viewing. Some remotes work very differently on Windows and Linux, so you’ll want to pick the right one for your OS (see below).

Cons: Not all MCE remotes are created equal, and some will take more tweaking than others to get working properly. Make sure you do your research before buying one, and find out which works best with your OS and media centre software. Some will work out of the box with no extra tweaks; others require some work on your part. The obvious disadvantage is that none of these remotes are universal, so they can’t control other devices like your speakers and TV — they’ll only work for your home theatre PC.

How To Set It Up: The best thing you can do with the MCE remotes is to read XBMC’s wiki page on remotes, or the corresponding documentation for your media centre software. It will tell you how well each specific model works out of the box, as well as detail any tweaks you need to perform to get them working (such as changing a key in the Windows registry). Be sure to find instructions specific to your operating system.

Option Two: The Logitech Harmony Series

Harmony 300iHarmony OnePhoto by bfishadow

Pros: The Harmony software, while not perfect, is very easy to set up, and gives you a fair amount of control over what you want each button to do. You can control all of the devices in your living room, from your TV to your speakers to your DVD player and home theatre PC. When it comes to programmable universal remotes, this one’s at the top of the heap.

Cons: The Harmony series has an awful lag that, for some people, makes it near unusable, particularly when browsing through media centre software. A call to customer service suggested I change the “Delay” setting on my buttons to 1, cutting the lag nearly in half. I’m not impressed that I had to call customer service to get my problem half-fixed, but it at least made the remote usable.

How To Set It Up

Option Three: Other Programmable Universal Remotes


Pros: This option lets you use any remote you want, whether it’s a $10 cheapie, a high-end universal remote, or even the Apple Remote that comes with Macs and Apple TVs. It also lets you assign the buttons to nearly any action you can think of, meaning the customisation options are endless. This option gives you the most control (no pun intended) over your media centre, so if you’re the kind of person that likes everything just so, this method will make it happen.

Cons: It takes a stack of work to set up your remote with this method. You’re going to spend a lot of time fiddling with the remote, getting your PC to recognise it, and assigning each button an action, and doing it all over again when something goes wrong. And there will be other issues: one of my remotes, for example, would occasionally register two button presses even though I only pressed a button once. Sometimes you can fix quirks like this, but it’s a crapshoot, and it takes another couple of hours out of your day.

How To Set It UpEventGhostLIRCour guide to setting up LIRC

Option Four: Your Smartphone or Tablet

Pros: These apps are designed to work with your specific media centre software, so there’s no programming needed — every button will be mapped to the correct function right away. And, since it doesn’t use infrared, you don’t need to buy a receiver. Plus it works on any operating system, and does so without any lag or other quirks whatsoever. You can even choose your movies right from the remote and play them on your screen, instead of clicking through menus. It is the most hassle-free way to control your media centre from the couch, hands down.

Cons: It can’t control any of your other devices, and it requires you to turn on and unlock your phone every time you want to use it. Furthermore, you can’t feel the buttons when you use your smartphone or tablet, so you have to look at the remote whenever you use it, which can get annoying.

How To Set It Upusing DHCP reservations

These aren’t your only options. The Apple Remote works out of the box on OS X and the Apple TV, and can work under Windows and Linux using option 3 above, and if you can get your hands on an Flirc receiver, you can make nearly any remote mimic your computer keyboard. But the four options we’ve discussed are the easiest to come across and there’s plenty of online support to get you started.


    • Perhaps you forgot about the first sentence of the article: “So you’ve got yourself a kickass, play-everything home theatre PC, but you’re not so keen on controlling it from your couch with a mouse and keyboard” 😛

  • Harmoney Remote is by far the best all in one solution.
    I have a myriad of devices (TV, HTPC, HDMI Switch, Speakers and Amp) and they are all turned on and changed to the correct channel with my harmoney remote.

    The ONLY downside is the lag you mentioned above, but i can live with that for the convenience of having just 1 remote for everthing.

  • Harmony remotes are over rated IMO. Tried the supposedly all singing all dancing Harmony One, and it tries to take control of everything. I prefer the ‘Universal Remote Control’ brand, all though they are American, they give you just the right mix of macro and device selection. If you can get a hold of one, I thoroughly recommend the ‘X850’ or the newer ‘URC-R50’ simply brilliant, and not power hogs either.

      • It’s not the king, as you put it because it’s so good. The thing is designed for people who either don’t like the hassle of setting up a decent remote, or are too silly to try. Google ‘remote control’, and pretty much the only result you get is Harmony One. You have to ask a specific brand name to see anything else. This is because Logitech have done a brilliant job of advertising, not because it’s the best. It takes away deep macro control by telling you what it wants to do, not letting you create them yourself. Plus the touch screen is shit. You have your opinion and now you know mine!

  • I love the XBMC iphone/ipad app. works great. What about the universal remote accessory and apps for the iphone? i havent researched them much but wouldn’t they be a good option for someone using iphone as a remote?

  • Heavy XBMC user myself, I’ve tried all the above mentioned remotes and have decided to move away from them all. Using a Logitech K400 wireless keyboard with trackpad built in. All of a sudden one device can do everything from playing media to system changes, updates, playing MAME games, browsing the web. It is amazingly light, build quality is excellent, and it’s affordable at ~AU$45

    • I’ve got a Logitech DiNovo Mini, which is the only keyboard I’d consider for a remote control. Anything else is just too bulky.

      However, since converted to the official XBMC Android app. Remote access to the library is just divine.

  • I’ve had a media centre PC for about 10 years, running Media-Portal, and I’ve tried all the options above. I ditched them all and now I use wireless game pad (

    I use the analogue inputs to control the mouse pointer, and all the other buttons to do various media functions… plus shortcuts for windows fuctions…. and it kicks ass when surfing the web from my couch! 🙂 highly recommended.

  • Although these are good ideas, all i did was just buy one of those logitech keyboards with a laptop touch style mouse built in, yes i did read the line about the mouse and keyboard but i think this is a much better idea

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