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September 3, 2004

King of Remotes - Philips ProntoPro NG


William Grimes of the New York Times is fast becoming one of my favorite writers in his new subspecialty of reviewing cutting-edge electronics as a regular guy, a technodolt (I have retired "technoretard" after Lindsay Lohan's contretemps with her choice of words recently... but I digress) like moi.

His article in yesterday's paper on his experience with the new Philips ProntoPro NG (for "next generation") all-in-one remote was just great, funny as all get out.

Before you drop $1,000 on the device (yes, that's the price, not a misprint), I'd read his story, below.

King of Remotes, but Try to Grasp It

I am not a collector.

My possessions do not include Depression glassware, Art Deco matchbooks, vintage postcards or Hummel figurines.

When I die, I will not bequeath any coins, stamps or rare editions.

What I do have, arrayed on the coffee table that stands between my sofa and my television set, is a fabulous set of remote controls: one for the television, one for the cable box, one for the DVD, one for the VCR and two for the stereo system.

That's six, plus two more downstairs for the television and the cable box in the kitchen. The situation was getting out of hand.

Then I heard about ProntoPro NG. Made by Philips, ProntoPro NG (for "next generation") is a touch-screen device that promises to take couch potatoes to the promised land of truly universal remote control.

With the right customizing, using the ProntoProEdit NG software, the device can communicate with all the equipment normally found in a home theater, as well as with electronically controlled lights, curtains and garage-door openers.

Users can program a single button to set off a sequence of electronic events, like turning on the television, tuning it to a specific channel, muting the sound, turning on the stereo to top volume and dimming the lights.

With a radio frequency extender, the ProntoPro can send its signal all around the house.

This sounded like the solution: the Tito who would bring order and stability to my electronic Balkans, the Esperanto for my Tower of Babel. The price was breathtaking.

At $1,000, the ProntoPro costs more than a lot of the equipment it talks to.

But factor in the lost hours spent hunting for the DVD remote that someone kicked under a chair or the television remote wedged deep in the sofa, and the ProntoPro might pay for itself in, say, a quarter-century or so.

On the debit side, there are the untold hours spent mastering the thing.

About an hour into the instruction booklet, I realized I was in deep water. Like other universal remotes, the ProntoPro has to learn the infrared codes for each device that it will be communicating with.

Philips has programmed the ProntoPro with codes for more than 500 brands but, to my dismay, only a limited cluster of commands for any given remote.

The rest of the functions must be taught to the ProntoPro, one by one. This is tedious but doable.

The real fun begins when it dawns on you that the many functions on the typical remote control exist on one page, so to speak.

That is, all the buttons are present and accounted for on one plane.

With the ProntoPro, the commands for each device are spread over several pages, with the user scrolling up and down to reach the desired button.

That makes for a lot of thumb work, and a lot of time looking at the remote screen instead of the television screen.

It's possible to reconfigure and reorganize the pages, but that requires a long programming session with the ProntoProEdit NG software.

It was at this point that I demoted myself to the ProntoNeo.

With a list price of $200, the Neo is Philips's entry-level universal remote.

The screen is black and white, which did not bother me.

I care about color on my television, not my remote control.

The layout can be reconfigured in only a limited way, and the device does not come with a rechargeable base.

But it performs most of the same functions as the ProntoPro.

With my very limited stores of patience and determination, I managed to transfer most of the commands from my various remotes to the Neo, which, like the Pro, lets you relabel buttons on the touch screen and maintains a page of blank buttons on the last page for each device, so that you can find a place for, say, the zoom button on a DVD remote.

The Neo also allows you to program multiple commands into a single button - as many as 250 of them.

But I found myself stymied when I tried to make it turn on my DVD player, then my television, and then run down a small menu on the television screen to reach the proper setting for playing a DVD.

Each step involves a slight delay. The television takes a little while to come on. So does the menu.

Clicking from one menu choice to the next takes about a second, but wait too long, and the menu disappears from the screen.

In theory, this is no problem. The Neo allows you to add a delay between steps. But I never succeeded in getting the delays to coincide with my television.

I did feel that the Neo and I were developing a relationship. And then I dropped it on the floor. It has not spoken to me since.

If you can't drop a remote, or even kick it once in a while, what good is it?

Practice on the Neo gave me courage to tackle ProntoProEdit NG.

I was overconfident.

Working through the editing program is like studying for an exam that you know, deep down, you are going to fail.

Disorientation sets in fast.

Simple words lose their meaning.

I could feel the goal of universality recede from my little world of remote devices.

Help came from David M. D'Arche, a service sales consultant for Hewlett-Packard.

Mr. D'Arche spends a lot of time on a Web site called remotecentral.com,


where remote-control buffs trade tips and agonize over problems.

User comments convinced him that a lot of people were having difficulty with the ProntoPro user manual and accompanying software.

He wrote his own 138-page manual, "Ultimate Pronto Guide," and began selling it on the Internet (www.prontowizard .com) for $16.95.

Yes, it is absurd to buy a guide to be able to understand another guide.

But it is also necessary.

Mr. D'Arche's guide, essentially a Pronto for Dummies, begins with a chilling thought.


"Creating a configuration in the Pronto is not an event," the author writes. "It is a journey."

He encourages prospective users to get on the Internet and join "Pronto communities," sites where the befuddled and the perplexed gather to exchange tips, share sorrows and feel the communal bonds of Pronto ownership.

Pronto, I was beginning to feel, was not merely a device.

It was a life commitment, a philosophy, a way of being.

Would I be up to it?


The guide leads even the dimmest technorube (that would be me) through the thickets of Pronto prose, clearing away the underbrush and letting in the light of understanding.

As always, there are distinct phases in one's mastery of the fundamentals.

First, blank incomprehension, like that felt by the cave man surrounded by flint and stone, yet unable to create a spark.

Second, a stupefied "Oh," as the obvious becomes, as it should, obvious.

Third, hubris, or the foolish expectation that success at Task A guarantees smooth sailing as Tasks B through Z appear on the horizon.

Fourth, rapid retreat to Square 1.

Step by step, I began to configure my Pronto, practicing, along with Mr. D'Arche, on sample pages, knowing that eventually I would apply those lessons to the real thing.

ProntoProEdit NG, I came to understand, is a marvelous, complex paint-by-numbers kit.

It lets users design their own device on the computer, and then, when ready, to transfer the results to the Pronto itself.

Then I stopped and thought for minute.

Why, I asked myself, am I doing all this work?

For $1,000, shouldn't somebody else be doing this for me?

I felt like a diner who enters a four-star restaurant and looks over a tantalizing menu, only to be told that he has to go into the kitchen and make it himself.

I truly believe that, given enough time, I could make my way - slowly, painstakingly - through the editing process and emerge with a truly universal remote.

But I could also, in the same time, read Gibbon's "Decline and Fall" unabridged, or learn a foreign language.

My Pronto experience, if nothing else, helped clarify my thinking on a couple of important social issues.

In "Bowling Alone," Robert D. Putnam argues that Americans have lost traditional community rituals like bowling in leagues, or going out for a night of bingo.

In so doing, they have become a more fragmented, alienated society.

He obviously knows nothing about the spontaneous communities, or mutual-aid societies, that coalesce around inscrutable consumer goods like the Pronto, whose demands leave little time for more traditional forms of socializing, like hayrides and yo-yo tournaments.

I was also, during my Pronto adventure, reminded of a recent report lamenting the decline of reading in the United States.

While it might be true that the average American no longer reads Milton or Marlowe, the deficit is more than made up for by near-total immersion in the user guides that come with every new piece of electronic equipment.

The good news is that Americans are not reading less - they're reading more, if my experience is anything to go by.

Finally, by laying down my Prontos, like Prospero in the final act of "The Tempest," I may have renounced magic powers, but I have come out ahead.

I now have two stunning additions to my collection of remote controls.

September 3, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink


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I too have now succumed to the no mans land of what is the Pronto PRO. agreed the PRO is indeed a device that has all the exictement ofones first Meccano set or GI Joe. however like most of these toys of yesteryear they become obsolete due to a number of reasons. As for the Pronto Pro, I will conquer this infidel who was brought into my home as a welcome addition to the device of the future to aid and be a convenience .....who was I to think that this could all be acheived in a time period of less than 6 months. As I disappear regularly on buisness I find myself re-learning the pages I had mastered the last time I was home.
So yes it is month 3 and I still have not managed to achieve anything further other than turning my TV on and programming two functions on this rather exorbatant, complex Duwhicky, no its not in the Webster or the Oxford Dictionary, but perhaps I should look their for the correct spelling to the restof my prose.

Posted by: Ewan Paterson | Aug 14, 2008 2:34:03 PM

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