40 functions with 13 buttons

This is the 15th in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

Scientific Atlanta 8300 HD DVR cable boxEarlier I described how my rewired remotes had 12 buttons as follows. The first column had channel up, channel down, volume up, volume down, and power. The next column had VCR controls of stop, play, fast-forward, and rewind. The three final buttons controlled TV input to either HDTV or VCR, VCR display so I can see the tape counter, and TV zoom to select either 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratios. That sounds like that’s just about everything you would need until you start thinking about what it takes to work a cable box with a built-in DVR. The desire to have a DVR and have flexibility to use other devices was what really led me to need more switches. In fact as soon as we got the new rewired remote working, Dad drove over to the Bright House Cable office to exchange my Pace 550C HD cable box for a Scientific Atlanta 8300 HD DVR cable box. With this new very powerful cable box/DVR I had plenty of functions I could control with my new 13 switch remote. As it turns out I barely had enough.

Let’s talk a little bit about how a universal learning remote works. At the top of most universal remotes you have several device select buttons such as TV, VCR, DVD, cable etc. The Sony remote I’m using can control 8 different devices. Typically you leave the cable device selected and use it to change channels and work various cable menus. Most universal remotes do not require you to switch to TV mode just to change the volume. However if you have other TV functions such as on-screen display, tuning TV channels or working menus then you have to press the TV button to control the TV and when you are done with that press the cable button to get back to cable control. Similarly you would press the VCR or DVD buttons to work those devices.

However with a good learning remote you can put any kinds of codes under any device you want. That ability to put any kind of functions under any device you want is one of the reasons that the Sony remote worked and unfortunately the Zenith remote did not. For some reason the Zenith placed restrictions on this mix and match idea. As an example of how I use this mix and match feature, my cable box has a built in picture-in-picture function but my TV does not. I’m a little short on spare buttons in the cable section so I put the picture-in-picture functions under the TV heading. It’s really nice to have the flexibility to mix different functions within a particular device. Of course it makes it confusing to remember where you put everything but I’ve got a pretty good system worked out in the back of my head somewhere.

13 micro switchesOn my new 13 switch remote I wired it to use four different “devices” on my remote. Although the buttons I planed to use are labeled TV, DVD, SAT, CABLE, the functions that go in those particular “device” slots actually control a wide variety of gadgets. So rather than thinking of them as different devices, I’m going to just call them “groups”. This image shows the micro switches on my remote. The four switches on the right are used to select the group. The other nine switches have the functions themselves. The function of each of these buttons changes depending on which group button you press first.

One of the problems I had over the first few days of using the new system was I could not tell if I had actually pushed one of the four group select buttons shown on the right in the image. When you’re using the actual remote in your hand, the device select buttons light up when you press them. The lights tell you if you’ve really pushed the button or not. I can’t see the remote when I’m in bed and sometimes I thought I had pushed the device selects button and I had not. Then when I tried to push a function button, I got the wrong function!

When I wired the remote, I didn’t wire the device select micro switches directly into the device select buttons. Instead I wired them into the four system command macro buttons. These buttons allow you to program in a whole series of commands up to 16 steps. For example, on my Dad’s remote the “D” button has been programmed with five steps: CABLE, POWER, TV, POWER, CABLE. This sequence turns on the cable box, turns on the TV, and then selects the cable device for future use. Pressing it again turns everything off. So I needed to program these macro buttons to do more than just select one of the four groups. I needed it to do a function that would be visible on the TV screen but wouldn’t interfere with whatever else I was doing at the time.

One interesting thing about this new TV and many TVs these days is that when you press a button, it doesn’t actually do the function immediately. It simply displays on-screen the current situation. In order to get it to actually do the function you have to pump the button twice. So for example if you hit volume up, it doesn’t move the volume up one notch. It displays the current volume setting and if you repeatedly that the volume up while the displays on-screen then it will increase the volume one step at a time. The same thing is true with volume down.

So I did the following… pressing the Group #1 button not only selects Group #1 but it does volume up. If I hit the button only once it puts the volume display on the screen but does not change it. Pressing the Group #2 button does the input select functions on the TV in addition to selecting Group #2. Originally I needed this function to toggle between the component input for the VCR and the HDMI input for the cable box. However now I just use it to toggle between the cable ready tuner in the TV and the HDMI. This is because the VCR now goes through the cable box out the HDMI port. The Group #3 button chooses group 3 and turns the TV captions on and off. These two functions on the TV similarly require two keypresses. If you only press the key once, it simply displays the current status. The Group #4 button works the volume down function similar to the way Group #1 button works. So I can push any of these four different group buttons and it will flash information on the screen is that verifies I really did press the button. If I punch the button repeatedly then I can get the actual function as well such as volume up, volume down, caption etc.

Initially the group select buttons only selected a group. They did not have an additional function associated with them. The volume and other function buttons but I’ve doubled up onto the group select buttons were in other locations. In fact what I’m describing here is about the fourth or fifth different layout I’ve used for these functions as I’ve toyed with it over the past couple of weeks. That’s what’s so great about a programmable learning remote if I can rearrange it anytime I want.

Here is a chart explaining all of the functions in each group. C= cable box, T = television, V = VCR.

Group #1
C Channel Up
C Channel Down C Back
C Info C Play
C Favorite Channel C FF
C Pause C Rewind

The first group has your basic channel up and down buttons for the cable box. The cable info button tells you information about the current show. This is especially useful when looking at the on-screen cable guide although sometimes it’s nice to use during the currently watched program. The cable play, fast-forward, rewind, and pause buttons are for the DVR function of the cable box. The Back button is an instant eight second rewind feature that is especially useful when you are fast forwarding through a commercial and overshoot the end of it. You can just pump the “Back” button until you get to the place where the program resumes.

On my other remotes I never use the favorite channels feature. I watch so many different channels I don’t really have favorites and if I want to skip around I simply punching the channel numbers. But when you have over 200 channels and only a channel up and channel down at to navigate it’s a long way from TBS on Channel 22 to ESPN2 HD on Channel 761. So I programmed in a favorites button to toggle through a list of favorites just to get me from one section of channels to another in addition to picking a few favorites along the way.

Group #2
V Display
T Zoom V Stop
T Channel Up V Play
T Channel Dn V FF
C Bypass V Rewind

The second group is used while watching the VCR. The VCR stop, play, fast-forward, rewind buttons are used to watch the tape. The VCR display button toggles the on-screen tape counter which I need when I’m searching through a tape looking for a program. The TV zoom button is used a lot when watching tape because my VCR records HD programs as letterboxed 4:3 aspect ratio so I can use the TV zoom button to make them fill the 16:9 sized screen.

The other buttons in this group require some explanation. Originally I had my cable box connected to the TV using either component RCA cables or a digital DVI cable. The VCR was connected to the TV by standard composite RCA cables. I needed a TV input button to toggle between the two. However the new cable box has an auxiliary composite input. It can be used to plug-in a VCR, DVD, camcorder etc. In order to view a device connected to this input you hit the “Cable Bypass” button. The signal then passes through the cable box and onto the television. This cable box has HDMI output that I am using to connect to the TV. The cable box is slick enough to convert the analog composite input from my VCR connected to the auxiliary jack into the digital signal that is sent to the TV to the HDMI port. That meant three less cables connected to my TV. So when I want to watch the VCR I hit the cable bypass button and presto… I’m watching the VCR.

The TV channel up and channel down buttons or a last-minute addition. I decided to run an additional piece of code lacks to my TV since this new Magnavox HDTV has an ATSC tuner cable ready built-in. My older Dell monitor did not. This means that if I’m recording two programs simultaneously using the DVR, I can still watch analog cable channels and some HD digital channels even though the cable box is tied up. Bright House Cable transmits the local HD channels in the clear so you don’t need a cable box or any othe

r decoding system other than ATSC tuner to view them.

Group #3
C “C”
C “B” C Up Arrow
C “A” C Down Arrow
C Menu C Right Arrow
C List C Select

Group 3 buttons are navigation buttons used by the cable box. The arrow keys and the select key are pretty much self-explanatory. I decided I didn’t need a left arrow key. Most of the menus will wrap around if you keep pushing the right arrow. The remote has three special function keys labeled A, B, and C that are used for various purposes. The “A” button usually means “Yes” in various “Are You Sure?” prompts. The “C” button is often used for cancel or go back one menu. The cable menu button is used for a variety of things that I use it mostly to turn the closed captions off and on. It can also be used as to select a menu that does “Record the current program”. Because that function was accessible through the cable menu I did not need to program a separate Cable Record button. Note that most of your DVR recording is done by selecting the program on the cable guide and it doesn’t require the use of record button either. The Cable List button calls up the list of recorded programs on the DVR.

Group #4
C Zoom
C Swap V Power
C Move C Power
C Pip T Power
C Stop C Guide

Group #4 is basically the “everything-else-that-doesn’t-fit-in-a-different-group” category. Initially I wasn’t even sure I would add a 13th button so that I could have four groups however I didn’t really think about all of the extra capabilities this cable box/DVR and available. The Pip, Move, and Swap buttons are used for the picture in picture function of the cable box. The cable zoom button is different from the TV zoom. It would take me several paragraphs to explain why sometimes I want to zoom using the TV and sometimes using the cable but trust me they are both useful under certain circumstances. I found that on some occasions I do actually need the cable stop button to cancel the recording of a current program. However I use it so rarely it belongs here.

I could live without calling up the cable guide but it’s amazing that I can do just about anything from a bed remote with these micro switches that I can do with a regular remote. On several occasions I’ve called up the cable guide to see what other programs are on and I can actually schedule recordings on my DVR while in bed.

When it’s all over with I need to shut everything off. Therefore we have power buttons for the TV, VCR, and cable box. I could just shut off the TV and let the VCR and cable box run all night but hey… why contribute to global warming? If I ever have other special functions I need, I can always substitute different functions in some of those power buttons. And let’s face it I don’t really need picture-in-picture but it sure is nice once in a while.

Well that wraps up my story. I now have a DVR/cable box connected to my HDTV in my bedroom. I have two VCRs also connected which I probably will use very little. If I get a new cable box or different VCR or perhaps someday a DVD recorder I can always re-program the buttons on my learning remote to do something different. At one point I had to have five very thick RCA cables connecting my TV. Now I’ve got it down to a single HDMI cable and a piece of coaxial. I can record two programs simultaneously in HD on the DVR and watch a third local channel in HD at the same time or I can watch a previously recorded DVR program or a videotape or DVD all using 13 little RadioShack micro switches. I know you’re probably overwhelmed with all of the technobabble but the primary purpose of a blog is to give an outlet for people who like to talk about how clever they are. I think I succeeded in that self-indulgent task and perhaps I’ve entertained you along the way.

Although the series essentially finished I’ve got a brief photo epilog for the final installment.

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