Is a Universal Remote Worth Your Money?

A man controls his entire media center using a single remote. It's a universal remote!

Universal remotes have been around for a while, and they’ve come a long way. They can control your media center, your IR devices, and even your smarthome. But are universal remotes worth your money? If so, which one should you buy?

What Can a Universal Remote Do?

Before deciding whether or not a universal remote is worth your money (and which one you might want to buy), you should know that universal remotes can do more than just control a TV.

We’re going to quickly look at the Logitech Harmony Companion’s features, as it’s arguably the most robust universal remote. Keep in mind that other (cheaper) universal remotes may only carry only one or two of these features, but we’ll get into that later.

Here’s what universal remotes can do for you:

  • Simplify Your Media Center: Universal remotes can imitate the IR blast from any remote control. In other words, you can control multiple devices with one remote.
  • Create TV Routines: A universal remote can also automate your TV processes. If you wanted to turn on your TV and PS4 with the press of one button, for example, a universal remote could do that. You could also flesh out this routine by adding time-saving commands like “switch to HDMI input 2.”
  • Control Your Smarthome: Along with IR controls, some universal remotes can control Wi-Fi enabled smarthome devices. This means that you can control Alexa, Google Assistant, Philips Hue, and other devices through the universal remote control (or companion phone app). These smarthome features can also be used in conjunction with TV routines. You could set your Philips Hue bulbs to dim when you turn on the PlayStation, for example.
  • Make “Dumb” Devices Smart: Some universal remotes can control any device with an IR sensor (cheap lights, portable air conditioners, etc.). In effect, they can technically make your “dumb” devices smart. An electric fireplace that’s set up with a universal remote can be controlled through Alexa or Google Assistant or added to smarthome routines. (This can only be done with smarthome compatible remotes).

Now that you know what universal remotes can do let’s get into it.

Do You Own a Complicated Media Center?

A pretty minimal media center. Maybe this person should skip the universal remote.
Keith Muratori/Shutterstock

If your TV is hooked up to just one video source, then you probably don’t need a universal remote. But if your media center is comprised of a cable box, a few game consoles, a Blu-Ray player, and an old VHS player (for example), then a universal remote is probably worth your cash.

Aside from the ability to turn on different devices with a single remote, some universal remotes, like the Logitech Harmony Companion or the Harmony 665, can build custom routines. You could program your PS4 and TV to turn on with the press of a single button (which can be done without a universal remote on some TVs using HDMI-CEC), for instance. Or, you could expand on the routine by adding commands like “turn to HDMI input 2,” or “set volume to 20.”

Of course, you could keep things simple with a cheap remote, like the GE 33709 or the Philips Universal Remote. These remotes don’t have smarthome features or routines, but they’re capable of controlling up to four devices at a time. That’s still better than fidgeting with a pile of different remotes.

Do You Have a Robust Smarthome?

A man controls a smarthome using his phone. He's got a lot of connected devices, maybe he should get a universal remote.

Even with a tiny media center, a universal remote can still be worth your money. That is, so long as you have (or want) a robust smarthome.

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The Best Ways to Watch VHS Tapes on Your HD or 4K TV

A picture of an HD TV playing a The Big Lebowski VHS tape.

People assume a VCR won’t work with HD and 4K TVs, but that’s not the case. If you want to watch those old VHS tapes and home movies, all you need is a VCR and some cables.

Well, it’s not that simple. VHS is a long-dead format, so many people might not even have one. Also, newer TVs lack the cable inputs that work with a VCR, and tapes can look like crap on a big screen.

That’s why we’re going to cover each of your cable options, along with some tips on how you can improve VHS quality or buy a new VCR.

A quick warning: VCRs are ancient, fragile machines. Don’t expect high-quality video from a VHS tape, and always test your VCR with a tape you don’t care about before risking your most precious films (even if it’s been tested by someone else).

A Quick List of Your Cable Options

If you’re already an expert on video cables, there’s no reason to drag things out. Here’s a quick list of your options (from best to worst picture quality) before we get into the nitty-gritty:

  • HDMI Converter Box: The easiest (and most expensive) way to play VHS tapes on a big screen. These boxes work with RCA and S-Video cables, so you don’t have to worry about compatibility issues or quality loss.
  • S-Video: If your TV and VCR have S-Video ports (your TV probably doesn’t), use S-Video. It produces a better image than RCA or coaxial.
  • RCA: Even some new TVs have an RCA port, and you probably have a few RCA cables lying around. They aren’t as good as S-Video cables, but they’re still an easy option.
  • Coaxial: In a worst-case scenario, you can use coaxial cables. There will be a decent loss in quality, though, which can make the shoddy picture from a VCR even worse.

If you’re ready for some more in-depth cable info, tips on how to improve tape quality, and info about where to buy a VCR, read on.

Use a Converter Box for HDMI Input

The Tensun HDMI converter box.

Your TV might not have S-Video, RCA, or coaxial ports. This can be a problem, as VCRs don’t have HDMI ports unless you’re using a DVD/VCR combo.

In this situation, you have no choice but to use a converter box. These boxes simply take the signal from a set of RCA or S-Video cables and shoot them to your TV through an HDMI cable (without any quality loss). We suggest using an S-Video cable with a converter box, as S-Video produces a cleaner signal than RCA. This is your best-case scenario when it comes to picture quality, especially if your TV doesn’t have an S-Video port, but your VCR does.

Use S-Video Cables for a Sharp Picture

Cmple s-video cables.

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Are Extended Warranties Ever Worth Buying?

A group of people looking at an iPad screen displaying an offer for extended warranty.

Extended warranties are everywhere. But whether it’s on a car or an appliance, extended warranties are almost always a waste of money.

The Best Warranty Is a Savings Account

Extended warranties are rarely worth your money. Products don’t break on their own, and when they do, the price of repairs is usually lower than what you’d spend on an extended warranty.

Sure, some people have saved a lot of money with extended warranties. That’s great! But take a moment to ask yourself why a company would offer you an extended warranty. The answer is: because they’re profitable.

According to Warranty Week, a newsletter dedicated to service plans, extended warranties are a $40 billion business. This figure alone indicates that extended warranties are grossly overpriced and rarely used.

In most cases, it’s best to skip the extended warranty and use your extra cash to build up an emergency fund. But every situation is different, and some extended warranties are more useful than others. That’s why we’ve researched some popular products that usually offer extended warranties and explain whether it’s worth your money.

Extended Warranties for Cars Are Scams

A man's hand handing a stack of money to another man's hand over a table with a contract and a car key sitting on it.
Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Extended warranties for cars are a giant scam. They don’t exist to make people’s lives easier, and they’re not worth your money. Of course, everyone’s situation is different. If you’re offered a cheap extended warranty for a car with a lot of mileage, for example, it might be worth going over the pros and cons.

Dealerships offer extended warranties to supplement reduced prices on the showroom floor, to push people into high-interest, low-payment deals at the last second, and to ensure that people go to dealerships (instead of small businesses and competitors) for servicing. On top of all that, dealerships don’t always honor extended warranties, and most of the money from them goes toward a dealer’s commission, not a vehicular social security program.

The average extended warranty for a car costs between $350 and $750 a year (plus interest, if you add the warranty cost to your loan). And, in most cases, an extended warranty won’t cover routine maintenance (which costs less than $100 a year when paid out of pocket and prevents most unexpected breakdowns).

If you take that $350-$700 and stick it in your savings account, you’ll have more than enough money to pay for any surprise repairs. If you do run into a problem that’s too expensive to deal with (an engine replacement, for example), you can sell your car and use your savings as a down payment on a new one. This way, you also avoid Blue Book depreciation and future breakdowns (after one serious failure, cars tend to suck the money out of your wallet).

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Are You Watching 4K Content? Here’s How to Tell

A couple of athletes play soccer on a 4K TV.
Krivosheev Vitaly/Shutterstock

A common complaint about 4K TVs is that they don’t look any better than HD TVs. But the problem is rarely the TV’s fault. Often, the content that you’re watching simply isn’t in 4K.

As you’d expect, TVs know what resolution they’re displaying. But they generally won’t tell you. Most TVs don’t have an option to check whether you’re watching something in 4K, 1080p, or any other resolution. You’ll need to understand what content is available instead.

Why You Can’t Tell the Difference Between 4K and HD

There are several reasons why your new 4K TV may look identical to your old HD TV. The issue may be that your source video isn’t actually in 4K, but before we get into that, let’s knock out some of the more typical reasons why your 4K TV looks just like an HD TV:

  • Your TV Is Small: Resolution is determined by the number of pixels in an image. As screens get larger, the space between those pixels increases, which can decrease the visual quality of an image. That said, 1080p starts looking “bad” at around 60″, and that’s where you can really see the difference between 4K and HD.
  • Your TV Needs Calibration: Like a computer monitor, your TV needs to be calibrated for color, brightness, and contrast. This is usually done by the manufacturer, but if you’re disappointed by the quality of your TV, then it probably needs to be calibrated. Additionally, you should turn off any motion smoothing on your TV.
  • Your TV Is Cheap: Not to be rude or condescending, but cheap TVs can look like crap. If a 4K TV is made from cheap components, then it may not look any better than an HD TV. Plus, some cheap 4K TVs aren’t UHD TVs, which means that they lack modern contrast and coloring technologies. (UHD is the TV equivalent of Apple’s Retina display).
  • You’re Using RCA Cables: Don’t use the colored jacks behind your TV, use an HDMI cable. RCA cables have been around since the ’50s, and while newer component RCA cables are capable of transmitting high-resolution video signals, they’re almost always capped at 1080p.
  • It’s Just You: All humans are capable of seeing the difference between 4K and 1080p. 4K is four times the resolution of 1080p, after all. But if your expectations are too high, the difference may seem negligible to you.

If your 4K TV still looks bad despite its size, price tag, and proper calibration, then the issue probably lies with your source video.

Upscaling can help make 1080p content look better on a 4K TV. But upscaling isn’t magic, and you’ll get the best picture with native 4K content.

Cable Doesn’t Support 4K Yet

For whatever reason, you can’t get cable in 4K. The high-resolution format has been around for a long time, but it’s generally useless if you’re just watching cable TV. Some set-top boxes support 4K streaming and video downloads, but don’t let the cable company fool you, cable TV maxes out at 1080p.

In some cases, cable looks different (not objectively better or worse) on 4K TVs. This is the byproduct of better, brighter, and clearer lighting technologies; it has nothing to do with the higher resolution.

Are You Actually Streaming in 4K?

Netflix, Amazon Video, and a host of other streaming platforms boast their 4K streaming plans. But even with these streaming plans, most of the video that you’re streaming isn’t actually in 4K. It’s not that you’ve fallen victim to false advertising, it’s just that most content on streaming services predates 4K, hasn’t had a formal 4K release, or isn’t licensed for 4K viewing on streaming platforms.

If you want to check whether or not your favorite shows are in 4K, HD-Report has a comprehensive list of 4K titles on Netflix and Amazon Video. As of right now, Hulu doesn’t have any 4K content (but it used to). You’ll only get the 4K content on Netflix if you’re paying for the more expensive Premium plan. All Amazon Prime members get Amazon Prime Video’s 4K content with no extra fee.

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How to Make Sure a Deal Is Really a Deal

The Prime Day banner inspected under a magnifying glass.

While a deal or discount may look great at first glance, you can probably get an even better one. Whether it’s Prime Day or a regular old Tuesday, a quick deal-check can save you some cash.

Deal-checking is a relatively straightforward (albeit, tedious) process. In essence, you’re just checking that a deal is really a deal. Retailers are super-competitive and crafty. They like to get people hyped up for “deal days” (like Prime Day or Black Friday) and capitalize on that energy by offering mild discounts, rather than great deals. Sometimes, the best deals don’t even happen on those “deal days,” they just pop up a few times a year. So, how do you make sure you’re getting the best deal possible?

Check Other Retailers’ Websites

Online retailers are viciously competitive. When there’s a good discount on one website, another always tries to match it. Target and eBay are even hosting their own “deal days” on Amazon Prime Day this year.

Before jumping on a potential deal, take a minute to see if other retailers are offering a better price. We like to use the search function on Slickdeals, a website that aggregates and organizes deals across the web.

But, if you aren’t having any luck with Slickdeals, you can make a manual price comparison. Check whether major retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, and Target have better discounts, or search a bit deeper with websites like Woot, Rakuten, and Groupon.

Check the Product’s Price History

It’s important to understand that, even if you can’t find a better price for a product that’s on sale right now, it may hit an even lower price in the future. Sale prices fluctuate over time, and popular products (especially smarthome products) routinely jump between sale prices from week to week.

So, before buying that “discounted” smart toaster, you should look up its price history. The most popular price tracking website is camelcamelcamel. It creates price history graphs for every product on Amazon in real-time, so you can quickly check if a discount is a good deal. Yes, Amazon isn’t the only store in the world, but it routinely matches the discounts of its competitors, so it’s a good reference point for the market as a whole.

A camelcamelcamel price chart for the Amazon Echo Dot.

You can also check a product’s discount history on Slickdeals. Just search for the product, and you’ll see how much it’s sold for in the past.

If you want to take things a step further, you can set up camelcamelcamel and Slickdeals to alert you for deals and discounts on select products. You can even import your Amazon Wishlists into camelcamelcamel, so you never miss a deal.

Use a Browser Extension for Easy Deal-Checking and Coupons

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