Review of the Acoustic Research XSight Color Universal Remote

At last year’s CES, Acoustic Research announced new entries into the programmable home theater remote market with the XSight Color and XSight Touch. Now available online and at local retailers, these might initially look like worthy competitors to Logitech’s Harmony One and 900. But not so fast…it’s worth a closer look.

The XSight Color, the least expensive of the two remotes, lists at just under $150. It can be programmed to control up to 15 different devices via IR, using web-based configuration software on your Windows PC or a guided setup process on the device itself. For another $100, the XSight Touch can control 18 devices and includes touchscreen control. Add an RF base to the Touch for another $100 (totaling about $350) for controlling you system without line of sight.

Like Logitech’s Harmony remotes, the XSight models allow you to control your home theater system by device or by multi-device activities like “Watch TV” or “Listen to Music.” In addition, the XSight lets you set up profiles, allowing you to create different sets of favorite channels to suit your mood or for different people in your household.

An LCD color screen at the top of the XSight displays menu options and programmable soft keys that you select using buttons lining both sides of the screen. On the XSight Touch, as implied, the buttons are replaced by a touchscreen. The screen is bright and crisp, at a resolution that seems comparable to the Harmony. But between color choices and font smoothing techniques, the screen on the XSight is far more readable than on Logitech’s remotes. An elongated toggle button lets you move between multiple onscreen options. On the Touch, a buttonless slider zone (à la iPhone unlock) performs the same function.

Setting Things Up

You can perform basic programming on the XSight without a computer, but to set up anything beyond basic device control—like creating soft keys on the LCD screen, creating multi-device activities, and defining favorites and profiles—you’ll need a Windows PC running Internet Explorer. The programming software uses an ActiveX control that requires IE. It won’t run in any other browser and therefore offers no support for Mac users. Even running Windows in a virtual machine on the Mac, the interface software wouldn’t recognize the USB-connected remote, so if you’re an exclusive Mac user, this is a non-starter.

Programming the appropriate devices and activities for a home theater system with a TV, amplifier, video switch, DVR, movie server, and Internet streaming device proved to be more difficult than expected. The programming software claimed to support the Moxi DVR, but none of the keys functioned for it. Setting up an Apple TV required manually capturing IR codes from an Apple Remote. Windows Media Center had the best support of the tested devices, but the default soft keys seemed a bit unusual, including two separate Record buttons that duplicated a physical key on the remote itself. It’s easy to redefine or add soft keys for any device or activity, but it doesn’t seem possible to specify their arrangement on the screen.

Defining favorites and profiles is very straightforward, and the configuration software provides an extensive selection of network icons for your favorite channels, unlike Logitech’s limited set of icons for FOX networks only. By creating different profiles, each member of your household can have a different set of favorites. You can also use this same feature to create different profiles based on programming. For example, a profile for sports channels, one for movie channels, etc.

Using the XSight

The XSight Color is a sturdy remote. It feels noticeably heavier than the Harmony One—partly the weight from three AA batteries—and it doesn’t fit in your hand a nicely as the One. Its straight edge “candy bar” design ultimately yields a device that is bottom-heavy and somewhat hard to grip. The XSight Touch uses a rechargeable (and presumably lighter) battery pack and comes with a charging cradle, like the Harmony One.

The remote senses motion when you pick it up and has nicely backlit buttons—with a few notable exceptions: The four color buttons used commonly by Blu-ray players and other devices have no backlight, and the buttons lining the screen on the XSight Color have very little backlighting except around their edges. This last bit is especially tricky, since the screen itself is bright and begs for touching. Making it worse, the on-screen buttons look 3-dimensional and don’t in any way hint that you should be pressing the buttons next to the screen and not the screen itself.

Physical button layout is pretty logical, but a few strange industrial design quirks make using this remote more clunky than intuitive. The first thing you might notice is that the most prominent and physically differentiable button on the remote is (somewhat ironically) the Pause button. That’s right—not Play, but Pause. Nearby, the replay and skip buttons have ever-so-subtle ridges that feel more like manufacturing abnormalities than intentional guides for your fingers. And the buttons in different zones have a different feel when you press them, each offering slightly different resistance and tactile responses. In general, it seems like most of the buttons on the remote require just a tad bid more pressure than should be necessary. Finally, the four buttons that drive the content on the screen—those that switch between home, favorites, activities, and devices—are identified by 2mm icons that are way too detailed to be discernible at that size by the eyes of those most likely to afford this remote.

Both XSight remotes feature a dedicated power button, but it doesn’t function as an all on/all off command, as you might expect. Each activity will turn on your devices, as necessary, but the remote doesn’t manage the power state of each device as you select different activities, like the Harmony remotes do. In fact, if you want to be able to turn everything off at once to shut down, you need to create your own, separate All Off activity.

After a little bit of time, you may get used to some of the ergonomic anomalies of this remote, and when you do, you’ll find that it lets off some seriously powerful IR signals. Side-by-side, the XSight remote outperformed the Harmony One on numerous devices—at different angles and heights.

The Bottom Line

While it’s good to see some competition for Logitech’s latest Harmony remotes, the XSight Color and Touch from Acoustic Research are harder to configure, heavier in your hand, and less intuitive to use. This is a good foray into this market for AR, but for this kind of money, the Harmony One and 900 are still better options.

  1. How did you configure a windows media center device? Is it one of the pre-programmed selections when setting up new devices?

  2. Unfortunately, it's been so long since I configured and reviewed this remote that I don't recall if Windows Media Center was one of the predefined devices. I suspect that it was, though usually you need to select a particular vendor's PC, which may not be easy to do if you have a hybrid or home-build machine.

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