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John Sciacca Writes...

Features, Reviews and a Blog by John Sciacca

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Farhad and Sciacca...once more into the breach!

Posted on April 2, 2011 at 4:13 PM

It has been practically two months since I launched into my little Farhad Manjoo remote control rant. At the time, I felt that I had said everything that needed to be said on the topic. To recap, Farhad went and wrote an article for The New York Times saying that all universal remote controls were lame and sucky and no-good-doody-heads. (I’m sure that he used far more eloquent phrasing and multi-syllabic words filled with allegories and hyperbole and what-such being that he is an official technology columnist for Slate and graduated from Cornell.)

 

I, on the other hand, took the position of, “Hey some remotes are pretty sucky but at the same time, some ARE good, in fact pretty damn good!” and went through his story line-by-line decimating his points and ultimately felt that his story was one-sided, poorly researched, completely off-the-mark and, well, lame.

 

Ultimately, he said his piece, I said my piece, and the whole episode felt very Macbethian: “What’s done, is done.”

 

But when I finished that piece, I actually had a moment of reflection pondering WHY Farhad might have written what he did. I was in my back yard pondering the leak in my pool, looking into the water and just letting my mind wander. It was a very Zen moment. And in that moment, I reached out, like with The Force or something, to try and understand Farhad. And I came up with a few reasons postulating why he might have written what he did.

 

1) He’s a lazy journalist. Doing research can be tough and doing a full compare on a bunch of remote controls isn’t something that you throw together in a quick afternoon. It takes time to learn the programming construct of each model, program, test, tweak and then evaluate each remote. That’s why remote control reviews normally take place one at a time over a period of a couple of weeks or so. This would certainly explain why he would only look at 4 remote controls and then base his entire article on such a small, sample batch of information. Also, he might have waited until the very end of his deadline and then just had to rush out and snatch up whatever remotes he could get his hands on. Or he might have only Googled “universal remote control” or just walked down to a Target or Wal-Mart or Best Buy and grabbed the first four that caught his eye.

 

2) He just isn’t very tech savvy. Programming a smart remote control really isn’t that tough, especially the lower-end models that Farhad selected for his “story.” (I was thinking air-quotes right then, but remembered I could go with actual quotes. Please insert your own bit of Sciacca snarkasm when you read the word “story." ) But doing it RIGHT is a bit of a skill that can take some time to develop. In our company, only half of the people do programming, and of those three people, we each have models that we specialize in; one of us does URC jobs, another Control4 and a third Crestron. They all program differently and repeated exposure to each model allows you to master its idiosyncrasies and pull off the best job. This isn’t something you decide to just pick up on a Thursday before deadline. Also, given the fact that he couldn’t even get the Harmony ONE to properly work, a remote that I have quite a bit of personal experience with, I’m wondering if maybe he just didn’t know what the hell he was doing. Possibly he didn't realize the amount of cusomization and tweaking that were available to correct the problems he was having. Also supporting this claim was his comment, “Unfortunately, I found it too much of a hassle to set up these macros.” (Though I guess you could say not enduring the “hassle” was also an argument for the lazy journalist claim, so file that where you will.)


3) He really just doesn’t know this industry that well. I mean, with a title of “Technology journalist” maybe we are assuming too much of Farhad’s actually intimate knowledge of all the ins and outs of this side of the industry. I mean, I write about technology too, but I don’t really know too much about computers and cell phones and Web tablets and such. Farhad might very well be a superstar Rain Man when it comes to that stuff. For him, maybe this really was the best thing that he thought was available. He didn't know about the better URC models, or offerings from RTI, Crestron or Control4.

 

4) He was just looking to cause a stir. I actually think this might be closest to the mark. Why? Because well, deep down, I want to believe in the good of people I guess. I want to believe that a journalist for the New York Times isn’t lazy. I want to believe that a technology journalist *actually* really understands technology. I want to think that a journalism degree from Cornell still means something. I think he was looking to be sensational and looking to get a rise and in that case, Mission Accomplished, Farhad! (I'm certainly not saying that he's a bad writer. While his topics have pissed me off, I've found them interesting to read and well-written. In fact, perhaps if Farhad had written a expose on single-malt Islay scotch-making, I might be telling you about something great I read. But, I digress...)

 

But, it seems that it is time to once again to revisit this topic. On April 1 – and this was not, as far as I can tell, some part of an April Fool’s gag! Though, if it was, well-played, Farhad! You totally got me, man! – Farhad posted an article at Slate.com titled “The Remote Future.” About remote controls. Really? We’re talking remotes again? I thought we a totally non-verbal, bro-a-bro agreement to just let this drop... (Granted, we’d never exchanged so much as a single direct communiqué prior to yesterday so Farhad was in all likelihood totally oblivious to this remote amnesty.)




So Farhad starts his latest anti-remote tirade with this: “Earlier this week, I looked into why home theater systems are so insufferably annoying. They're hard to set up, and with their many incompatible remotes, they're hard to control. Worst of all, there's no sign than any of this is getting better.

 

Oy vey! Here we go again! Now I’m by no means going to proclaim that I’ve read everything that Farhad has written about technology, but I have gone and read a several other things that he’s written, and I have to say, I’m honestly not sure that this guy even LIKES technology. Now, he might like computers or cell phones or maybe have a special soft-spot in his heart for a particular flatbed scanner, but when it comes to home theater related technology I never saw anything that was positive. Many of his comments are something totally negative about it. It’s too hard, it’s impossible to enjoy, it’s annoying, it’s chaotic and cutthroat, when you leave for work it might sneak in and try to bang your wife, etc. Someone that has taken the mantle “tech journalist” should really kind of embrace and love technology at its core and not constantly gripe and bitch about how tough it is. Because, you know, when you’re *really* into this stuff, it’s not all that tough... Read through my 400-plus blog posts. (Please! You know I would totally love you to!) You’ll never once read about how hard it is to operate my system or how I think home theater is annoying or whatever. Generally its about how I’m loving the *experience* it provides. Maybe that’s a fundamental differences in our approaches to this. I’m also kinda thinking that Farhad is a little like Johnny Depp’s *new* Willy Wonka. He has a candy store, but he doesn’t really like kids. Or candy.


Farhad cited a recent article he wrote, “The Future of Home Entertainment: When will we get all of our devices to play nicely together?” in which he starts: “A few months ago, I tested a bunch of the snazziest universal remote controls on the market. [The story that caused my initial ire.] I found all of them lacking. Even the best of the bunch, the much-acclaimed Logitech Harmony One, was more trouble than it was worth...The problem was that the Harmony One didn't really ‘know’ what was going on with my home theater system. It was merely guessing. If the DVD player had already been turned on, hitting ‘Watch DVD’ would actually turn it off. Why did this happen?


OK, I’m going to postulate a couple of reasons as to WHY this was happening.


One: You didn’t know how to program the remote correctly. Many modern devices have a discreet code for both power ON and OFF instead of a more generic (and lame) power toggle. That way they DON’T turn things off when they aren’t supposed to. Even when they don’t have a discreet ON, there is often a programming work around (like pressing PLAY) or something. Again, poor programming isn’t the fault of the remote, just like poor software isn’t the fault of the hardware.


Two: Your equipment is really low-end and doesn’t have a good way to integrate with. Sony, Pioneer, Marantz, Denon, Harman Kardon, Onkyo, Oppo...they ALL have discreet power commands on virtually all of their gear and have for years. Lower end sets that have names you’ve never heard of or that you pick up at the grocery store...maybe not so much. So, yes, it IS possible that you have a component that is just not made or is difficult to integrate well into a system.


Three: They DO make systems that ‘really “know”’ what is going on with your system. They use power sensors to tell if a device is on or off and then respond accordingly. Granted, these solutions aren’t $100, but they exist. I know; I’ve got one.


Further Farhad’ing: “Why couldn't the remote, the DVD player, and the TV tell each other to all get into the correct mode? More importantly, why did my TV have to be in any ‘mode’ at all—why couldn't it recognize when I pressed play on the DVD player and automatically begin displaying the image from that device? I don't have to put my computer into ‘YouTube mode’ when I play a Web video, after all.”

 

OK, I’m going to skip over the first part because, well, I think I’ve beat the “THE REMOTE CAN DO IT!!!” drum to death. My arm is tired, and my doctor says I should rest my shoulder anyhow. Regarding the second sentence, they DO have a provision for this in the HDMI spec called CEC, Consumer Electronics Control. (Here’s a Wiki link to it.) Though, admittedly, I don’t know how well this has been integrated or how well it works from brand to brand. Generally one of the first things we do on an install is turn this feature OFF so the system isn’t trying to override the programming we put into our remote systems. And I’m not sure what analogy he is drawing when he means by having to put his computer into “YouTube mode.” I mean, you don’t have to put your A/V system into a special “mode” to play anything either. But it DOES need to be set up correctly to work. Just like you need to open your preferred Web browser, navigate to YouTube and select a video to play. That sounds *kinda* similar to switch to the correct TV input, navigate to the DVD input on your receiver, and press play.


And when I plug my digital camera into my PC, it automatically detects the device and asks me whether I want to import my pictures. Why are home theater components so much dumber than computers?


OK, I think I can actually see where he is going here... Farhad would like for all of his disparate A/V components – TV, cable box, Blu-ray, receiver, etc. – to all communicate over some kind of USB-type bus where they would all just “know” what they were supposed to be doing. Power on your Blu-ray player and it would automatically turn on the TV and receiver and flip it to the correct input and start playing. Except for when I want to power on my Blu-ray player to listen to a CD and I DON’T want the TV on. Or when I’m powering it on to just eject the disc. Maybe I don’t want everything cutting on all the time.


So, since I didn’t really agree with what Farhad had to say about my industry, I posted a comment on his wall. And, Farhad replied. Below is our back-and-forth. You can keep up with the comments – in case Farhad decides to respond any further or take me up on my offer to help him – at this link to the Slate.com story.:

 

jmdls

Farhad, respectfully, I wrote a lengthy post in response to your original article on smart remote controls.


I'm not sure how you could feel that you did the world of universal remote controls justice by broadly chastising an entire industry by looking ONLY at the incredibly low-priced models that you did. No one -- NO ONE -- in the consumer electronics industry would consider the Harmony ONE a high-end model.  

 

I wonder if perhaps you just lacked the tech-savvy to fully pull off the programming...

Today, 12:57:24 PM

 

Farhad Manjoo

JMDLS, I read your argument. It basically boils down to: 1) I didn't spend enough on a universal remote control, and 2) I didn't bother to get my remote control professionally programmed.  

 

Respectfully, that's not a solution most people are looking for. I don't want to spend many hundreds of dollars extra on equipment and professional installation of a universal remote system. And I wouldn't have to if home theater technology itself was better to begin with.  

 

I understand you make your living on custom installation. I'm happy for you. But your industry is not for everyone. It's not even for most people.

Today, 1:56:17 PM

 

jmdls

First, appreciate the reply...and that you took the time to read my spin on your story. And that you -- hopefully -- weren't TOO offended by it. :-)  

 

Having said that…

 

The crux of my criticism with your story was that you lumped ALL universal remote controls under the, umm, "moth-eaten, smallpox infested blanket" (I believe that's how I said it) of being "not remotely possible." Had you at ANY point acknowledged that there is an ENTIRE other world of remotes out there -- costing more, requiring a professional to set up -- I would have given it a pass. Had it been a blog or just a personal post or something it would have been a WHOLE lot different than something written for The New York Times.  

 

Again, I believe my exact words were, "So if Farhad’s article had instead been titled, 'Buying a cheap, piece of garbage remote that you try and program yourself results in a totally lame experience! Instead, save your money, buy a ‘real’ remote and have it professionally programmed!' I’d be like, “Rock on, Farhad! You get it, bro! Now, let’s go drink some beers!”  

 

And I totally agree, it isn't a solution most people are looking for, but you didn't even offer it AS a possibility. Once people are presented with the option, and explained the alternative -- a lot of the issues you experienced -- many of them agree that investing in a component that is going to GREATLY improve their usability and enjoyment of their system is totally worthwhile.  

 

Also, I'm still not totally sure you had your Harmony programmed dead-on perfect. There are a lot of discreet codes (power on/off) available within their database and timing changes and sequence adjustments that can be tweaked by an experienced programmer. Or, your equipment might be just be especially difficult to integrate with. (Vizio TVs are notoriously difficult with their LAME IR codeset...)

Today, 2:18:52 PM

 

Farhad Manjoo

Let's just set our terms here. The Harmony One is nearly $200. You call that cheap. A lot of people in your industry call that cheap. Most Americans? Not cheap!  

 

You can get a 1080P LCD these days for $700. A Bu-ray player is $100. 5.1 channel surround speakers, $200. So for $1000 you have a home theater. Is it top-of-the-line? No. But for most people it's pretty good; it's miles and miles beyond what you could have purchased for $1,000 five years ago.  

 

But you want me to spend at least several hundred dollars more to get all this stuff working well? And if I don't, it's cheap?  

 

Let's agree you and I are living in different universes, and most of America isn't living in yours. In the computer business tech gets better, easier, and cheaper over time, such that we can all expect convenience at low prices soon enough. I'm hoping that economic model takes hold in home theaters, too. Your industry is predicated on the idea that spending $200 -- $200! -- on a remote is too little. Forgive me if I find that hard to swallow.

Today, 2:31:19 PM

 

jmdls

(Grrr...I exceeded max message length... So here is part one of my reply...)  

 

First, let's use the $170 number from your story and not the "nearly $200" your citing now. You know, for continuity.  

 

Second, I'm calling that "cheap" in relation to other options out there. It's all relative. My Toyota is "cheap" at $18,000 compared to a Mercedes or a BMW. Doesn't mean that I think $18,000 is "cheap" for a car.  

 

I think that you're still missing my point though... You say ALL remotes are bad. I say NOT all remotes are bad. You say systems are TOO HARD to use. I say when installed and set up properly they aren't. You say that NO remote control reliably works. I say I have hundreds of clients that would disagree. You say that the Harmony ONE is the Benzo of remotes. I say you don't have a clue what you're talking about. (With love...)  

 

My biggest beef with your story -- again -- is that you didn't offer the alternative. That's it. Again, you say "most Americans." OK. Fine. Maybe most of them would never consider it. I would never consider buying a Ferrari but I'm not going to completely ignore their existence if I'm writing a story covering cars. What about the others that maybe *would* consider a solution? You just wrote off EVERYTHING and everyone to the possibility of a better option. You could have said, "Sure, if you wanted to spend close to $1000 and have a custom programmed model, you could get it to do everything perfectly but obviously you, poor reader, would never fathom doing that so I'm not even going to discuss those models..."  

 

If I ONLY got my tech news from you I would just assume that all home theaters are impossible piles of junk, buying a smart remote control is only slightly less wasteful than sending two Franklins through a shredder and that my entertainment system is only there to make my life sad and miserable until one day when I mercifully pass on from this existence. (Continues...)

 

jmdls

(The exciting conclusion...)  

 

Look, I do this for a living. I see people EVERY SINGLE DAY that will never understand the multiple steps required to get a picture to appear on their TV. (TV on, TV on right input, receiver on, receiver on right input, cable box on...) or the prospect of using more than one remote to do something. That is mind-boggling to them. I might as well ask them to explain string theory. (Which, to be fair, I wouldn't understand either. I dropped out of high school calculus and, contrary to what Mr. Fee prophesied at the time, is a decision I do NOT regret.) I see people that create these insane flowcharts trying to figure out and explain how to watch TV. It's insane. But, if you have committed to spending the $1000 for an entertainment system (and, seriously, save up your money until you can budget more than $200 for your ENTIRE speaker package...please!) then spending a percentage of that in order to actually be able to USE and ENJOY the system is totally worth it.  

 

We sell Harmony remotes. HUNDREDS of them. I have never -- NEVER -- had a client come back and say, "John, this remote is awful! I hate it!" Never. Again, probably because I am a (way) better programmer than you. (Hey, you've done one or two, I've done one or two hundred.) Also, my control solution IS probably overkill for many people. And I'll totally admit that $1200 for a control solution is A LOT of money to spend. But you know what? It accounts for maybe 1.5% of my theater system, it is the component I use the most, and it makes it easy enough for my entire family to enjoy. Worth it? Absolutely. Regret buying it? Not for a second. But, the controller that my company sells the most (a URC model MX880 and MRF-350) sells for about $650. Cheap? Hells no. Ever had someone say it was a poor investment? Nope.  

 

And, just to be clear, I am in South Carolina. Please don't think that I'm installing multi-million dollar systems in Manhattan or Bel Air. This isn't that kind of town. I don't think our universes are that different... We just look up and see different possibilities.

 

Farhad Manjoo

OK. Point taken. I should have said, "You can spend $1,200 more and never worry about this problem again. If you don't want to do that, you're stuck with this problem." I can see why that would have made you happy -- but honestly, it doesn't make me happy.

 

jmdls

See...was that so hard to say? :-)  

 

Seriously though, I am betting that YOU aren't one of those people whose ENTIRE home theater system cost $1000. (If so, seriously, let me know. I will get you in touch with some manufacturers to help you out. You're the tech columnist for Slate...you should have something at least kind of decent...) So why would you limit yourself to only looking at some of the least expensive options? Obviously the control system is important...look how riled up you've gotten over it not working.  

 

And I'm gonna add three more things..,

 

1) I bet I could make your Harmony work better. If you still have it, I'm volunteering to look at your programming and see if I can tweak it for you. No charge and no joke.  

 

or  

 

2) I bet I could "train" you to use it better. Generally the Harmony's biggest shortcoming is it uses IR to control everything. When something goes awry, its often because the user isn't pointing the remote the entire time or that some of the components aren't picking up the commands. (That is a GIANT reason why the radio frequency URC model is a better performer -- it takes the human element out of it -- and why it is more expensive...)  

 

or  

 

3) If you'd have an open mind to the experience, I say we get you set up with a decent URC model (in the $650 range) to see if that would change your mind to what a decent, mid-level remote can do. You might STILL say it's too expensive, but I bet it would eliminate the "all remotes suck" stance you have.  

 

You game?

Categories: April 2011, Electronics, Rants

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4 Comments

Reply The Darryl Wilkinson
10:17 AM on April 4, 2011 
Excellent post on Farhad's remote control review's shortcomings. I
didn't realize that the NY Times demographic was so dirt poor. A subscription to
the Times costs around $300 per year. A digital subscription is $455/year. I
gotta think that for "most people" that's out of their range.

It's obvious he's a computer guy who has no idea of what home theater is. Also,
prices have come down and the performance has improved - much like in the
computer industry. It's just the lack of a specific feature that he wants for
next to nothing. Like I want a Windows 7 upgrade for $10, but I don't think
Microsoft is going to do that anytime soon.

It'll be interesting to see if he takes you up on your offer. I doubt it.
Reply Seth Gatewood
11:29 PM on April 5, 2011 
Go get em' John... great points. The guy is obviously clueless and it doesn't appear he's taken your offer. HIs loss! I'm an industry guy who's programmed hundreds of remotes myself and I very much know my way around a computer. Point being there... computers piss me and often does YouTube. I guarantee my remotes cause less problems for my clients than they computers do.

You know, it's not only the non-manhattanite type with "decent" money that's been purchasing our remotes, $500+ components, CONTROL SYSTEMS (such as Control4), etc. There's more and more customers who I would categorize as a "simple" middle class type. I mean come on, track homes are being wired Audio / Video.

Furthermore, I'm sure the average American wouldn't do too well installing a $200 security system on their own. Does that mean alarm systems can't protect your house? Personally, I think Farhad should stick to cell phones, $1 Iphone apps, and robot vacuums. He really has no place when it comes to audio / video and home control.

Great blog!
Reply John Sciacca
10:58 AM on April 6, 2011 
Thank you, Seth. I'm not sure why Farhad seems so anti this industry. His stance seems to just be a blanket: expensive equals bad or wrong or something.

I'd also agree that computers cause people WAY more frustration and aggravation than A/V systems. It's pretty much a running joke that you HAVE to replace your computer every couple of years because it becomes so corrupt or bogged down or outdated or whatever. I would be bankrupt if I tried to keep that pace with my A/V system!

I think the biggest problem is trying to get someone to have a mind-shift in their thinking..if you think about it solely as buying a $650 remote -- especially compared to his hypothetical $1000 total system purchase -- then of course it sounds outrageous. But if you think of it as a part of your entire system purchase price -- the part that makes it actually user-friendly and enjoyable -- then it is just another factor in the overall cost.
Reply I_Love_Audio
3:16 AM on July 28, 2011 
I was going to say that I can't believe a tech writer finds setting up an A/V system to be difficult. (He wrote somewhere that setting up these systems was difficult.) But then I realized something. I think Farhad may be from the MP3 generation, and so has not been setting up "stereos" his whole life. Didn't cart one off to college, etc.

As for his menu button that didn't exist on the remotes, can't the two higher end ones he tested learn a code and assign it to a key? Surely the $170 one could... ?

I have a Phillips Pronto; got it when they first came out in 1999 or so, and it still works great. 'Course I programmed it to my liking. I'm bummed that they don't make that kind anymore. I'm sure mine won't last forever.

Farhad does have a point though, with the "devices should know what to do and switch on accordingly". It sounds like that protocol you mentioned, CEC, (PDF whitepaper can be found on this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AV.link ) is exactly what he wants, and would be great. If you walk up to your Blu-Ray player and press Play, on the front panel, the TV should turn on. And if there's a receiver in the path, that should switch on and choose the appropriate input. The capability is all there, why aren't manufacturers using this??