Marantz RC5200 Learning Remote Control 
Home Theater Remotes & System Control Remotes & System Control
Written by Richard Elen   
Sunday, 01 September 2002

Introduction
With the increasing complexity of modern home theater systems, it’s vital to have a good method of controlling all the components. Of course, many systems these days come with remotes that can handle more than one device – the one you just bought plus another, such as TV and DVD player – but before long, you find you have a whole bunch of remotes on the coffee table, and while you yourself might be able to work out what extensive combination of devices is required to switch on the TV, set it to the component input, power up the receiver, set that to the correct input, and switch on the DVD player, the chances of your girlfriend being able to manage it are minimal (not because she's female, but because she didn’t put the system together and therefore doesn't know anything about it).

The answer is a single learning and/or programmable remote control. You might think you got one of those with your receiver – after all, it has a whole load of buttons for different sources, and claims to be able to control a whole bunch of devices: all you have to do is configure it. And this is where you find that the supplied remote is woefully lacking. Maybe it doesn’t control any devices other than those by the same manufacturer, and of course you don’t have any other gear made by the same people. Alternatively, it will learn commands from any other remote you point at it, except there are 300 different commands to program in, and you don’t have all day, and that’s just the DVD player. Or, finally, it will operate all kinds of other gear as long as they’re on a short list of manufacturers in its database. Which covers everything except your satellite receiver -- and that new DVD recorder. And although it claims to be able to talk to your make of device, none of the 10 different four-digit codes provided seem to do anything.

What you need is something that includes both these capabilities – learning via infrared, plus, if possible, an extensive product database – and then some. Like macros, which enable you to define a button to, say, power up the system, switch to the right input, set the remote up to control whatever it is, and actually play the thing. Well, thankfully, they now exist, and the Marantz RC5200 is one of the nicest around in what we might call the “entry level” price range for this kind of device (although it doesn’t have the product database). The majority of programmable, large-scale remotes are aimed at the expensive end of the market, with prices well over $1,000. Finding a device of this kind with a $599 MSRP is definitely “entry level,” yet these devices can give the expensive remotes (which generally need to be configured by your installer and not by you) a run for their money and offer at least comparable performance for much less outlay.

The real pioneers of super-sophisticated remote technology, chock-full of features but also affordable, has been Philips. I bought one of their original Pronto remotes the moment I saw it at a trade show: it was the obvious solution to the entire gamut of remote control woes. It’s been a few years since then and the technology has moved forwards by leaps and bounds. Thanks to the software-based nature of these beasts, your can keep up to date almost (but not quite) indefinitely via on-line firmware updates, computer-based editors and goodness knows what else.

During the time that Marantz was part of the Philips empire, they took the Pronto engine and did a few things to it to release their own devices. With the RC5200 and its sister 9200, they changed the shape of the case from a very curved and European-looking contraption (which I happen to like, presumably as a result of being a European) to something a bit more Space Age and a tiny bit bigger. They moved some of the soft buttons that appear on the screen on a Pronto and made them programmable hardware buttons while adding a four-way rocker-type central control button assembly, thus opening more of the display area for device-specific controls – a major benefit that Philips should have thought of themselves.

There are actually two Pronto-derived devices available from Marantz (an earlier one, the RC5000i, which was essentially just a re-badged Mark I Pronto, is no longer current). They are essentially identical, but the RC9200 has a color screen, 8MB of RAM and a more powerful processor, while the RC5200 reviewed here has a mono screen and 2MB of non-volatile RAM.

At the heart of the RC5200 is the green touch-screen, strongly reminiscent of an early Palm PDA, with a green backlight for operation in the dark. To the right of the display is a set of five programmable “hard” buttons that generally control volume up/down and mute, plus channel selection. Under the display are six push buttons, including a pair that a normally programmed to offer forward and back functionality like a Web browser, plus Enter, Menu, Exit, Home and the central four-way rocker assembly. This is a good deal more hard buttons than the original Pronto offers. An RF Extender adds RF control functionality to either unit (it’s included with the 9200 and optional with the 5200), while a special four-pole miniature socket allows connection of a serial cable to a computer. Also on the left side of the unit are a backlight on button and a contrast wheel. At the bottom of the unit is a multi-way connector that plugs into a mating connector on the “docking station” base/charger, pointing the controller at a useful angle and keeping the NiMH battery charged. Unlike my original Pronto, the connector is a cell phone-like latching type that requires the remote to be angled up to release it, and provides a firm contact while charging.

Setup and Operation
Once you’ve bought one of these things, it takes a while to realize what an incredible device you have acquired. When I got my original Pronto, it was basically a matter of selecting a built-in template or creating one for the kind of device you wanted to control, then (if it didn’t use Philips or Marantz standard codes) having it learn from your existing remote and labeling the functions (which was cool enough). Not so any more. You can still do that, but there are a number of far more exciting possibilities.
First of all, you go to the Marantz web site, www.marantz.com, and find the software download section and download the setup (editing) software to bring your remote’s firmware up to the latest version. These programs run on a PC, but the editor at least will operate on a Macintosh running Virtual PC, if that’s your situation.

Once you’ve got the editing software up and running, you can go off to one of a number of sites such as RemoteCentral.com and look for downloadable files that contain control sets for your home theater components. Once you've downloaded them, combine them into a set of your own and download it to the remote.

There are rather more control files available for the Pronto than for the Marantz versions, but they work, although you may have to do some minor modifications to a Pronto file for use on the Marantz, like reassigning the channel and volume buttons, which are in a different order. Of course, original Pronto configuration (ccf) files do not use all that much screen space because of the lack of on-screen buttons utilized in the hardware on the Marantz.

When you first power up the device, by touching the screen with a finger or stylus (just like a Palm) or pressing a button, you’re presented with the Home screen. The non-programmable Home button always returns you here. From this screen, you link to all your components, and touching an on-screen button takes you to that device’s control screens, at the same time switching your receiver to that input (if that’s what you want: you can defeat the input-switching on the fly by holding a button down while switching if you need to, or just program it not to switch). Each device’s controls (and Home itself) can actually occupy multiple screens, accessed by soft buttons, there simply not being the room on the three-and-seven-eighths-inch diagonal, 320 x 240 pixel display to get everything in when it comes to a complex unit like a receiver or DVD player, although the extra space compared to a Pronto means that you can generally get your screens down to a couple per device if you’re building your own.

If you can’t find a ccf file online for your particular device, you can make your own control panels, easily and quite quickly. I had to do this to suit my Dish Network 501 satellite receiver, for example. You can build new panels either in the unit or on the computer for download, the latter being a bit easier (but to learn IR commands, you have to use the remote anyway). You start by either copying an existing device or creating a new one from a standard library of 75 templates, which include anything you might want – or you can design the graphics from scratch on the computer! Then you can label the buttons and assign actions to them, typically by learning them from the device’s original controller. Buttons that appear in the template but are not assigned an action remain hidden. New devices appear in a device list, accessed via an on-screen button, and you can link them to your home screen, too.

All this is carried out with the remote’s different modes: Use (for normal operation), Learn (to capture instructions from other remotes), Label (to add symbols or names to buttons), Add (to add new devices), Del (to delete stuff), Move (to change the order in lists and menus) and Setup to configure fundamental features of the device, such as the time and date and backlight and display on-times. There’s also an RF control mode.

The hard buttons can be programmed to have specific functions when a device controller is onscreen, or you can program them to have global functionality. So, for example, you would probably want the Volume up/down and Mute buttons to control the receiver volume, no matter what device was on screen, but the channel buttons might be needed to change channels on the TV or the VCR depending on the current device, while the four-way rocker buttons could navigate around a particular set of onscreen menus for a device. Local settings override global settings for these buttons.

Once you get beyond the programming of control panels for your devices, you can have fun with macros. The macro facility in the RC5200 and its relatives is phenomenal. Built-in library sets include channel surfing helpers and a cool group of control panels that will help your family to power up a home theater system. Beyond that, you can do almost anything you want. You can jump from one screen to another, include any command from any screen in the device, add pauses of defined length, re-order and edit the steps in a macro and test it before saving it. Because the unit can send commands in any order, you can, for example, switch on the receiver, then switch on the TV before coming back to the receiver and selecting its source after it has “woken up” and is ready to take commands, without having to include delays that would make the macro unnecessarily long.

There are of course some difficulties here that are beyond a remote’s capability to fix. The main challenge is whether you know the status of a device before you run a macro on it, or not. For example, imagine your TV has a single button that steps through the available inputs, like mine does. I have four basic inputs: the receiver, which is an S-Video input; two composite video inputs for VCRs and DVD, which is a component input. The only way of selecting one is to step through them, repeatedly pressing the TV/VCR button until the desired input comes up. This means that if you have a macro that turns on the DVD player, switches the receiver to the correct input, switches on the TV, and switches to the right input on that, the last step will only work if you know how many times to press the TV/VCR button. And that depends on what you were watching at the time. Bummer. The same thing happens with power switching. Some units have On and Off commands, while others just toggle the power from one state to the other with the same command. What you really want is devices that have commands to set them into a defined state, like “Power On” or “Select Input 4.” No doubt the spread of remotes with sophisticated macro capabilities will encourage manufacturers to address this problem, and to their credit Marantz (and Philips) already have: their units are “remote friendly.”

Sometimes you can work around the problem: there may be a command sequence that will put a device into a known state. For example, if you press Play on many DVD players, they will turn on if they are off – putting it in a known state. So the command to turn on that particular DVD player might be able to be expressed as “DVD-Play” followed by “DVD-Stop”; to turn it off, you could go “DVD-Play, DVD-Power.” Generally, though, the device manufacturer doesn’t document these sequences and you have to find them yourself.

The Marantz remote also has another workaround for this problem: you can program a help list, with the aid of a special device called “Help.” With these lists, you can instruct the user to press an input toggle button until the TV displays “DVD” before continuing.

The Marantz remote makes it as easy as possible to create macros -- quite complex ones, in fact -- but it’s bound to take a bit of fiddling and testing to get them right, so don’t despair. Not only do you have the learning curve of programming the remote, you also have the challenge of working out how to control a bunch of different devices in a sequence and making the result reliable and understandable by other people. It’s worth persevering.

The Downside
Most of the drawbacks with using this kind of device are not the fault of the device itself. Particularly in regard to macros, you will have to find solutions to handling devices with undefined states. However, there is one area where the Marantz RC5200 could be improved, and this is the display. A first-generation four-grayscale LCD touch screen, it’s identical to my original Pronto’s display, and both suffer from a lack of contrast and brightness, making it sometimes difficult to see the onscreen information clearly. If you look at the color display on the more recent – and expensive – RC9200, you’ll see that this has been solved: the 9200’s screen is brighter, clearer and in color. In fact, the 9200 has more memory and a faster processor, too.

Other drawbacks are minor In the Pronto, the IR learning “eye” is on the bottom of the device, so you place the new and old remotes one above the other, which makes it easy to teach sequences of buttons, such as numbers or transport controls. The RC5200 has the learning eye at the top, so the two remotes have to face each other, meaning that you have to keep your wits about you in order to press the right pair of buttons. The PC editing software is not the easiest to use, but it does give you direct access to the entire unit and its enormous range of features.

Compared to the equivalent Philips unit, the second-generation Pronto TSU2000, the RC5200 lacks the built-in UEI control code database of the Philips model (and thus offers more room for memory-intensive device sets). This may not be too important if you have Internet access, as you can probably find ccf files for your devices online, but otherwise, the need to use learning capability for every new device is a bit of a pain, especially if you’ve lost an original remote!

Conclusion
There are other differences between the Marantz and the Philips. The RC5200 inherits many of the special Marantz features of its predecessor, the RC5000i. The Marantz variants have additional macro functionality – the ability to program jumps in macros, so for example you can display the DVD control panel while the macro sends a command to the DVD player and then go back to the receiver panel as it sends a receiver command, all while the macro is running. They also have the ability to recall previous screens, allowing for the “back” and “forward” buttons referred to earlier. The Marantz can also learn IR codes up to 455 kHz, while the Philips is limited to 56 kHz. Finally, the 5200’s MSRP is a little higher than the TSU2000, but the Marantz includes the docking station and rechargeable battery, while the Pronto has these as optional extras. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Overall, the power, flexibility and versatility of the RC5200 and its relatives are second to none, especially with the enormous degree of independent Internet support for these devices in terms of free editing software and available free control panel files for a vast range of components and devices. The additional hard buttons on the RC5200 give it an edge over the Philips equivalents, while the lack of a component database in the Marantz vs. the additional user memory resulting from it not being there is a more difficult decision point.

You really need a remote like this to control the ever more complex components that grace our home theater and audio systems, and the Marantz RC5200 at $599 offers some excellent innovations, notably the additional hard buttons, which Philips, the inventors of the Pronto engine used in the 5200, ought to have thought of themselves. The current best remote in this class, in my personal view, is Philips’ new TSU6000 ProntoPro (which also has more hard buttons), but that lists at $899. So if you’re not intending to spend that kind of money, the Marantz RC5200 is a definite contender among the Pronto-based competition at its price level.

I would advise you to check the different Pronto-based remotes available within your budget and determine which of the variants suits you. If you have lost or damaged the remote for any of your devices and have challenges with Internet access or using the editing software, the Philips TSU2000, with its built-in UEI database, may be your best choice. But if you want that extra RAM, those extra programmable hard buttons and a look that many would consider more stylish, investigate the Marantz RC5200. In any event, if you have a halfway sophisticated home theater installation, a Pronto-based remote is not an option, it’s a necessity, whichever one you choose.
Manufacturer Marantz
Model RC5200 Learning Remote Control
Reviewer Richard Elen
Type Handheld





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