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
Windows Media Center's popularity and ease of use means there are a lot of remotes out there designed specifically for it, and a lot of them work well in XBMC as well. It's hard to find Microsoft's official remote these days, but you can find a lot of good off-brand ones for a low price, and many come with their own IR receivers. Photo 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
Logitech's Harmony series is an extremely popular line of universal remotes. What's great about them is that they're easy to configure: Instead of laboriously typing in codes that match your gear, you plug it into your computer, tell it what kind of TV and peripherals you have, and assign the functions you want to the available buttons. They also come in many different price ranges, from the $40 Harmony 300i to the $230 Harmony One. Photo 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: First, you'll need to buy an IR receiver for your home theatre machine. I purchased one that came packaged with an MCE remote (since it already worked with Windows' existing drivers) and tossed the remote. Then you'll need to program the Harmony to interact with it. If you're on Windows, you'll want to program your Harmony remote to act as a "Microsoft MCE Keyboard" and assign buttons to the keyboard shortcuts of your media centre software. On Linux, you have to set it up as an MCE Remote, after which it will mimic the functions of one of the MCE remotes described in Option One above.
Option Three: Other Programmable Universal Remotes
If you don't like the Harmony, you can use nearly any other universal remote, but it will take a lot more setup, and there's no guarantee that it'll work perfectly. You'll need to use software like EventGhost on Windows or LIRC on Linux to program everything. It may be tedious, but if you already have a favourite remote, this will get it working with your media centre.
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 Up: Again, you'll need to buy an IR receiver and find the right software. Windows users will need EventGhost, which can detect button presses from your remote and let you assign them to any action you want. Linux users will need to install and set up LIRC, a command line program that lets you assign actions to button presses on your remote. LIRC has support for a few popular remotes built-in. Check out our guide to setting up LIRC for more info.
Option Four: Your Smartphone or Tablet
I know what you're thinking: using your phone as a remote is lame. I used to think so too, until I actually tried it. After futzing with universal remotes for nearly a day, dealing with double-button presses and unusable lag, I tried the official XBMC remote for iOS and was very pleasantly surprised. It may just be a smartphone app, but it works fantastically well -- no lag, no mapping buttons to specific actions, and it only takes a few seconds to connect to your HTPC.
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 Up: First, you'll need to enable control of your media centre from other sources. In XBMC, you can find this under Settings > Network > Allow Control of XBMC via HTTP. Give it a username, password if you like, and a port. Then, download your media center's remote on your phone or tablet, type in those same credentials, and the two should connect. Then you should be able to control your HTPC from anywhere in Wi-Fi range, as long as they're on the same network. I recommend using DHCP reservations on your media centre so its IP doesn't change, and you don't have to regularly repeat this process.
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.