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As it turns out, Universal Remote Control is not the sort of company that likes to sit idly by and let a well-designed, well-selling product go unchanged. Nope, there's just got to be something that can be improved! They've established in the past their propensity to tweak things and not tell anyone about it - for instance, when I reviewed the Home Theater Master SL-9000 way back when, they were already onto the second revision. Since then at least two other versions of that remote have been released, with nothing on the unit or box to distinguish one from the other.
This trend continues with the MX-500, which saw three distinct firmware versions in the first few months of its existence. Naturally, all of these changes were improvements or bug fixes - though in some cases compromises had to be made. For instance, in the second release, Universal Remote Control added the capability to learn longer bit-length codes on LCD buttons, but due to limited available memory the "factory reset" procedure had to be dropped. In the third version Universal added several user requested features, such as shorter macro hold time (which dropped from two seconds to one second) and the ability to end macros on the "MAIN" page. Those were transparent changes that did not affect other parts of the remote.
But when all is said and done, these are merely firmware, or "inside" changes. Typically, once the physical parameters for a product are set, that's it - nothing could get a company to go to the remarkable expense of creating new plastic moulds. Nevertheless, this is Universal Remote Control: the masters of clandestine product improvement. Somehow, they've found several ways to change the MX-500. However, are they all for the better?
First up are Universal's patented GemStone buttons. Now, these are not new to the company - they've been in use on the MX-1000 remote since it was first produced, long before the MX-500. They didn't initially include them on the MX-500, but planned a later introduction on the MX-700 (a more expensive, "Custom Installer friendly" version of the MX-500). Finally, they've managed to work themselves into the MX-500, bringing with them an important ergonomic improvement to a nit I had with the buttons surrounding the thumbpad's blue bezel.
As you'll have read in my original review of the MX-500, I found the "fast-forward" and "rewind" buttons very difficult to press since (unlike other buttons on the same remote) they were flat-topped and flush to the bezel, with only a small portion protruding. Now, with the GemStone style, Universal has domed all buttons, including these, making them far easier to press. In addition, other buttons partially embedded in the bezel, such as [PLAY] and [STOP], have been raised slightly, making them stand out better.
Original buttons on the left, GemStone to the right.
Click to enlarge. (98kb)
Another change is with the "volume +/-" and "channel +/-" toggle buttons. The embossed "+" and "-" signs have been removed, replaced by simple black printing, making the buttons perfectly smooth. The embossing gave those keys a nice textured feel. Indeed, the new super-glossy GemStone finish has made everything positively slippery in comparison to the previous grippy matte finish. It may look better sitting on a table, but I would have still preferred the older, less chic finish to use every day.