In fact, Philips took it one step further: the PDA-sized RC9800i takes the frustration out of remote setup by asking you, in plain English, what you've got and what you want to do with it, and it all takes place right there on the remote's own screenno PC needed. Once I was through with the wizard, the device sure enough could control all of the stuff in my home theater.
Instead of choosing something like my cable box or DVD player, I simply press "Watch" then decide on a DVD or cable TV. The remote turns on all necessary devices, including the TV and the audio receiver. And because of a detailed Q&A process I went through during setup, it knows that when I press Volume Up, I want it to turn up the volume on the receiver, not the TV or cable box.
It goes beyond that. When you register on the Web, you can identify your cable or satellite TV carrier and the remote's internal Wi-Fi will go download a schedule of upcoming shows. Also, the Wi-Fi can be used to stream music from a computer on your home network. The remote's dock can be connected to a stereo input of your audio receiver or boom box. If you install the included Media Manager software on a PC that has a lot of MP3s, you can dock the remote, pull up songs and play them. When used in conjunction with a product like the D-Link MediaLounge or Philips' own Wireless Media Adapter, you can conduct music through your house while sitting on the couch.
Although I loved the comprehensive yet easy-to-follow setup, I wasn't as blown away by the remote in action. Buttons were not always grouped perfectly; I sometimes had to jump around to find the commands I needed. Worse, my Scientific Atlanta cable box frequently requires the use of selection buttons labeled A, B and C, and those buttons did not translate to the RC9800i. There is a way to add the commands, but they wouldn't appear where I want them, and wouldn't be labeled correctly.
There are two more activity-based universal-remote options that every home theater junkie should know about. One is the newest Logitech Harmony (logitech.com/harmony), the 880, which at $250 is no lightweight. Its PC-or-Mac-wizard setup isn't as smooth as the Philips, but the results are even better: as luck would have it, the Harmony did know about the A, B and C buttons my cable box demands. A richer alternative is the Nevo SL from Universal Electronics Inc. It lists for $800. Though it's sold through custom installers, its programmability is not beyond patient, slightly geeky do-it-yourselfers. And the payoff is great: since it's 100% customizable, I was able to design my own cable-box control page complete with color-coded A, B and C buttons and everything.