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HomeTechTell Review: URC Total Control

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URC has developed quite a reputation over the past few years with advanced remote control aficionados for its Complete Control line of remotes. Granted, Complete Control was designed as a custom installation line, but it didn’t take long for crafty DIYers to get their hands on remotes like the MX-6000 and MX-5000 through the gray market, procure a copy of Complete Control Program, and start designing some truly advanced custom remote interfaces.

I was one of those fans. The MX-5000 has been powering my home theater for several years now, with one-button-press activation of movies and music, and even custom-designed buttons to pull of trickier tasks like letting me selectively fire up the Crowson Tactile Motion amplifier in my Elite HTS recliner when a movie needed a little extra oomph.

Really, though, when you get down to it, even the MX-5000—for all its customizability—was somewhat akin to a much-better-built Harmony remote on some sort of super steroids. That is to say that, although it could branch out and do things like a little lighting control with a bit of arm-twisting, that was never its intended purpose. It’s a home theater controller, and a damn good one at that, but if you wanted to branch out into truly robust home control, you probably weren’t shopping for URC.

The company’s new Total Control line changes everything. Well, almost everything. The aesthetic of its popular Complete Control remotes has remained, but from the ground up, Total Control is a whole new ball game. For one thing, it’s an entirely network-based system now, rather than the IR/RF framework of Complete Control. By moving the brains of the remote into a centralized, IP-based controller, Total Control is infinitely more expandable, way more powerful, and is now capable of reaching every corner of the house. Lighting control? Check. Thermostat control? Yep. Multi-room music? You betcha. In fact, given its network-based functionality, multi-room music may be the one thing Total Control has over even companies that have specialized in whole-home control for years now. You can zap music from room-to-room so easily now, without the need for long runs of speaker cable all through the walls or attic, and even digitize sources like your turntable for CD-quality, latency free, completely synchronized streaming throughout the home.

And that’s just scratching the surface of what Total Control can do.

There’s one caveat, though, that I ought to mention right off the bat. DIYers salivating at the prospect should stop drooling now, or prepare to cozy up with a local custom installer. URC has put the kibosh on the gray market by only providing Total Control components directly to dealers. Every MAC address is also tracked, so if a dealer should try to dump a bit of Total Control stock on Amazon, URC can track them and cut them off.

This is actually a good thing, though, because you really don’t want to program Total Control yourself. Not that it’s incredibly difficult—in fact, it’s probably a little easier than Complete Control in many respects—but there’s so much to keep track of, so much that can go wrong, so incredibly many things that Total Control can do, that you really want to bring in a custom installer, if only to have someone to blame should something go wrong.

If your home network isn’t up to snuff, for example, Total Control can get iffy. And if something goes wrong—which isn’t a common occurrence, but has happened once or twice to me in the past month—troubleshooting gets vastly more complicated. If you really want to get a taste of what programming Total Control is like, you can check out my review for installers, published by Residential System. For you guys, though, I’m going to approach this more as an end user than a programmer.

To minimize such troubleshooting headaches, and to make for a more manageable review, I started off with a rather modest system—none of the multi-room music products that make Total Control such a standout. None of the HVAC control. No lights. Just a core two-room home theater system, with an MRX-10 running the main media room and an MRX-1 powering my bedroom theater system. The remotes are the MX-5000esque TRC-1280 Touch Screen Handheld Remote, the TRC-780 (the more obviously named counterpart to the MX-780 of old), a TKP-2000 In-wall Two-Way Network Touchscreen, and apps for my iPhones and iPads (unlike so many other advanced home automation systems, one license gives you as many iOS devices as you want).

On the surface, it looks like two distinct home theater systems, and in day-to-day operation it acts a lot like the same (with the exception of the iPhones and iPads in the mix). And you may be wondering what the advantages of going this route are over just doing two single-room, cheaper Complete Control systems. For one thing, because the remotes for Total Control don’t contain the smarts themselves, they end up being much cheaper. The controllers are more expensive, sure, but when you combine them together, a Total Control starter system like this really isn’t much more expensive than a similar Complete Control setup. Factor in the fact that programming is a lot quicker (although not necessarily that much easier) for the installer, and by the time you factor in the cost of the custom installer, it’s probably going to end up being a little cheaper.

And you now have a system with near infinite expansion potential.

There’s another benefit beyond that, though. Like I said, I don’t have two distinct systems now; I have a unified two-room system, and instead of having one remote live in the den and one in the bedroom, my wife and I now have his and hers remotes (the 1280 being mind; the 780 being hers).

Given that all of the remotes on the system are capable of talking to all controllers, and are constantly updated to take into consideration the activity in play at the moment (in other words, if I press “Watch Blu-ray” on my iOS app or my TRC-1280, the screens on my wife’s 780 and iOS apps instantly switch over to Blu-ray control, as does the screen of the TKP-2000 by the door), there is some room for playful mischief. We can both pause live TV. We can both fiddle with the volume. And the system doesn’t get overwhelmed or lock up as a result of any of these shenanigans.

Of course, if you don’t want the kids being able to pause the TV in your bedroom while you’re snuggled up with Colbert at bedtime, you can also put controls in place to limit which devices can control which rooms. But what would be the fun in that?

Being a rather new player in this space of affordable-but-complete home entertainment and automation control—a space really dominated by Control4, it has to be pointed out—has some advantages and disadvantages for Total Control. The disadvantages are that, of course, not all of the kinks have been entirely worked out. To wit: when I fire up the TRC app on my iPhone, I have to tell it that it’s “Dennis’ Phone,” and not “Bethany’s Phone.” It would be nice if it knew which device I was on, but I guess that’s one of the side effects of not being limited in how many iOS devices you can add if you’ve paid the one-time iOS license.

The other downside worth mentioning is that the flagship controller for the system—the TRC-1280—hasn’t changed in form at all from the MX-5000. It’s a wonderful, incredibly comfortable device, don’t get me wrong. I still love it to pieces. But it could have benefited from a hard button update, because there are no red, green, yellow, and blue buttons, which have become a lot more crucial in the few years since the MX-5000 debuted. I used them constantly with my Dish Hopper system.

Here are the major upsides, though: the programming software smartly knows which devices have which hard buttons and which don’t. Although the onscreen graphics are automatically generated and remain incredibly consistent from device-to-device, the system knows that my TRC-1280 lacks those colored buttons, and generates them onscreen for me. I do miss the ability to radically customize my button layout, but it’s a fair price to pay for this much consistency across such vastly different control interfaces.

And I just need to stop and mention just how much the TRC-1280 and -780 set Total Control apart from its competition in the market. So much of custom home automation revolves around touchscreens—and yes, with the iOS functionality and the in-wall keypad, touchscreens are a big part of this system—but nobody, and I mean nobody makes hard-button remotes that can compete with URC’s, so to have such graceful, wonderfully built, intuitive, use-them-without-taking-your-eyes-off-the-screen remote controls at the center of such a robust home control system is a major bonus. Aside from the missing colored buttons on the 1280, everything is exactly where it ought to be. Use either of these remotes for ten minutes and you’ll be pausing, fast-forwarding, skipping, and hitting your programming guide or disc menus without even glancing at the buttons.

The other big benefit is that Total Control is hitting the market at time when people are realizing the benefits of a better home network, and rely on their networks for just about everything from music streaming to Netflix watching and more. The multi-room audio system integral to Total Control is amazing, and although I’m not running it here at home, I did get extensive hands-on during my dealer training. Again, CD-quality sound, in every room, with perfect synchronization and no latency. Quite frankly, it’s a better retrofit multi-room music system than Sonos will ever be, and it’s fully integrated with Total Control.

Above all, though, like I said, the thing I love most about Total Control is how expandable it is. You can start small—really small; one room of home theater control—and slowly, over time, add lights, streaming music, security, comfort control—just about anything your heart desires.

If your heart desires such a system, check out URC’s new and improved Dealer Locator to find a Total Control dealer in your area.

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