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Philips Pronto Pro RU980
Remote controls have gone from being a luxary item to being one of life's little necessities. Remote control technology is becoming so clever and customisable that you can get away with one that controls everything in your house.

The idea that one handset which deals with a number of electronic devices may seem a tad extravagant (especially since some of these remotes can go for well over 1000) but when you consider any self respecting home theatre would have at least four remotes (flatscreen/projector, amplifier/receiver, DVD player, Sky/Cable box) add to that any Hi-Fi equipment (CD player, tuner, set-top MP3 player) you can see that the arm of your sofa would fail to cope, let alone if you're one of the 'balance on the stomach' crowd.

Universal remotes have been widely available for a number of years with the "One for All" range being very popular but recently the onus has been on units with touchscreens.

Touchscreen units have been around for longer than you might think. Until Philips introduced their Pronto, the only way you could get hold of a touchscreen unit was to approach a specialist installer. These solutions were very expensive and not flexible should you add new equipment to your setup.

Now you can find touchscreen remotes from a wide variety of outlets. We'll touch this topic again later, but gone are the days when a couple of companies could charge you obscene amounts of cash due to lack of competition. Philips themselves have to contend with other manufacturers and prices are becoming more affordable. That said, today I'm looking at the top-of-the-line Pronto, the Pronto Pro RU980 or TSU7000 (depending on whether you're buying in Europe or US) which costs around 600.

Sporting a 3.8" colour touchscreen (320x240, 65,536 colours), 32MB memory, support for radio frequency (RF) transmission, it's firmware upgradeable and dressed in matt black with ever so slightly rubberized sides. Go on admit it, you're already tempted.

Styling of the Pronto Pro is more functional than elegant. To the untrained eye it simply looks like a PDA or a smartphone. Actually it's larger than most PDAs currently on the market and not only in height and width. The Pronto is a thick wedge of plastic. I can't help but think that if some serious effort had been put into the styling, it would have really completed the lust appeal of the Pronto. Maybe a brushed aluminium veneer on the front and a bit of nip-tuck on the sides wouldn't go amiss.

Single hand operation is achievable but only if you have fairly long fingers and in many cases I used both hands for safe operation. More curvatious models like the Harmony series from Logitech allow easier grasping and it's clear that ergonomics could be improved.

You might think having a touchscreen means 'hard' buttons are void, but popular consensus between users is that even with a touchscreen you still need a staple diet of old fashioned hard buttons. The Pronto Pro has 13 buttons and one control pad. For things like channel surfing or volume control these hard buttons are perfect as they avoid the need for looking at the screen.

The unit itself has a motion sensor so the screen stays off unless you pick it up. Essentially a ball inside triggers a sensor (if you shake the unit a little you can hear it rattle gently). The motion sensor serves two purposes, power conservation and more importantly in a darkened living room or home theatre, the glow from a Philips Pronto is enough to put you off Tom Cruise saving the World or gouging your face with popcorn.

Behind the hard buttons a rather dim white backlight is emitted. The white light scarcely provides enough visible illumination, even in a dark room and the light seeps through the gaps between the buttons. A nice blue backlight would be lovely, along with attempts to make the gaps between the buttons smaller.

Battery life is very commendable for a unit with a large colour screen, IR and RF transmitters. It varies with usage but mine easily managed 4 days without having to put the Pronto back on it's recharging cradle. The cradle doubles as the docking station should you wish to connect your Pronto to the computer. The remote sports a USB connector at its base so should you wish to bypass the cradle, you can but no recharging of the batteries will occur.

One of the great advantages with the Pronto (and most touchscreen remotes) is that they are fully customizable. All buttons are programmable and allow multiple commands (called macros) with detailed options like delays between commands. The Philips Pronto can 'learn' commands from existing remotes so you don't have to worry whether your old TV or obscure DVD player is on a list somewhere. The screen layout is also completely changeable, from backgrounds to icons and everything in between. Philips bundles their own editor ProntoPro Edit but others like Tonto are available on the Web.

As I had some obscure bits of Hi-Fi equipment I decided to go down the 'learning route' instead of delving through the quite extensive library that is provided. Learning commands doesn't take long but is quite tedious, especially if you have a number of buttons to program and many devices. Nevertheless since it's something you don't plan on undertaking every week, one can bare with it.

The usability of this remote comes down to how usable the ProntoPro Edit package is. One problem with all Pronto remotes is that they require some user intervention to get going. You have to sit down, install the software, edit the commands (even if you keep the default design) and then upload the file to the device.

Thankfully the ProntoPro Edit software isn't bad to use. It's far from the easiest thing in the world, but if you have some patience you too can create functional designs within a few hours. ProntoPro Edit boasts a simulator so you can see how you're doing without having to run off every 10 minutes to test in front of your television. Uploading your files to the handset is a matter of just seating the unit in it's dock and clicking the download button. There are sample configuration files included should you not wish to get down and dirty with your Pronto. Prontoedit's learning curve may seem steep from a distance but as with most things, a little effort is all that's required.

More elaborate configuration files with lots of images and commands take up more system memory. 32MB is supplied, although after the operating system and other system files, you end up having around 24MB to play with. In all fairness that's more than enough to have a visually stunning configuration and still have a few megabytes left over.

Radio frequency operation in remotes aren't very common over here but essentially it means you can hide all your equipment out of view and not have to worry about your remote control being in line of sight of your equipment. The Pronto Pro can connect to it's RF Extender unit (sold separately for around 100) in order to achieve this. The results are exceptionally good. Place the RF Extender near your equipment (it needs line of sight with the equipment as the RF extender sends IR signals) and from the ProntoPro Edit software you flick a setting that changes how the Pronto Pro handset sends its commands from IR to RF.

Wi-Fi access points, cordless and mobile telephones and other wireless appliances didn't cause interferance problems. The days of pointing to your set-top box or TV are numbered. Philips claims you can control equipment in other rooms and true to their word, I managed to control every part of my setup from my balcony and more surprisingly, from the end of my garden aswell. The idea of turning on your TV and having the film enqueue as you swing your living room door open to usher your mates in is now possible.

The Pronto Pro RU980 and TSU7000 are the same product with one difference. The RU980 is designed for use in the UK (which means it takes 240V AC) whereas the TSU7000 takes 120V AC (for America). What you should know is that the RU980 costs about 600 over here in the UK, whereas the TSU7000 bottoms out at around $560. Maplins sell voltage transformers for a mere 8.

Personally, I brought mine over from the US and enjoyed the savings, even with tax of around 70 it came to an overall saving of around 110. The one downside is that your warranty is invalid here in the UK. Regardless of where you pick up your Pronto Pro from, it's an expensive remote. Other models in the Pronto range that feature less memory and a mono-chrome screen can be purchased for much less (below the 250 mark) and Logitech's Harmony 885 remote (130) are also very capable but doesn't feature a touchscreen and that all important wow factor.

The Pronto Pro is a good piece of kit. Design quips aside, the Pronto Pro RU980/TSU7000 is a device that will replace all the remotes in your current setup and doesn't make excuses for what it is. If you want a cheaper remote, get something else. If you want to just take something home and use it with your system, get something else. But if you want something that will make your mates stop and take notice when they come round to watch The Godfather for the 18th time, get a Pronto Pro.