In my review of Elgato’s EyeHome (see "EyeHome: So Close, Yet So Far" in TidBITS-741), I referred to the extreme disgust most of us feel when confronted by the remote controls for most consumer electronic devices. To begin, there are so bloody many of them – TV, CD player, receiver, VCR, PVR, DVD player, video camera, etc. Some claim to control more than one device – often from the same manufacturer – but nearly always lack at least one essential function, forcing you to keep the original within arm’s reach. They are plagued with inorganic design, buttons that aren’t grouped by logical function or are so small that you can’t avoid pressing more than one. And never mind the flowcharts, diagrams, and training sessions necessary for the baby-sitter to watch "Pimp My Ride." It’s enough to make you reach for the Mylanta.
Logitech’s Harmony Remote product line aims to change all that. It’s a universal and programmable remote control. It’s also expensive, with a suggested retail price of $200 and up (but available for less from retail and online discounters). However, it’s the only universal remote I’ve used that actually relegates the originals to a drawer.
Harmony remotes are built around the concept of Activity Buttons – physical buttons that represent watching TV, playing a CD, listening to the radio, etc. The remote remembers and maintains the state and connection status of your devices as you switch from one activity to another.
Creating Harmony — To configure the remote control, you install the Harmony Remote helper application on your Mac or Windows PC, then create a user profile on Logitech’s Web site. Within the profile, you create a record for each device (TV, receiver, CD player, etc.) that the remote will control; Logitech’s database fills in the remote control functions and various inputs and outputs of the specific model numbers of your devices.
Next, you set up Activities, such as "Watch TV" or "Play Music," by specifying participating devices and how they physically connect to each other. For example, my "Watch DVD" activity includes the TV, DVD player, and receiver, so that I can watch movies in surround sound.
Last, connect the remote to your Mac with the included USB cable and click Update. The Web browser downloads a file and hands its off to the Harmony Remote application, which then programs the remote control to match your devices.
Press "Watch TV" and the TV turns on. Press "Watch DVD" and the TV switches to the S-Video input, the DVD player and receiver turn on, and the receiver switches to surround sound. Press "Play CD" and the CD player turns on, the DVD turns off, surround sound turns off, the receiver switches inputs, and the TV turns off. When your media thirst is quenched, press "Off" and all devices turn off.
Additional complexity is available through the Web site’s configuration wizards. You can attach specific commands to the beginning or end of an activity. For instance, our television spends most of its time watching TiVo, so the DVD and VCR activities return the TV to TiVo’s input when switching out of those activities. Similarly, we listen to two-channel stereo music more often than surround sound, so those activities turn the surround off when they’re done.
The remote knows the state of your devices, and adjusts them to match the current activity. This works amazingly well, so long as you only use the Harmony remote to control the devices. If you happen to use another remote, or the toddler presses buttons on the front of the TV, the devices can move out of sync with the Harmony’s state tracking. If this happens, press Help and answer the questions on the LCD display until the correct state has returned.
You can also control a device individually, outside the scope of an activity – each device’s full functionality is represented on the Harmony. For functions that don’t logically map to one of the Harmony’s buttons, there are six buttons ringing a small LCD panel at the top of the remote. Any remaining functions are listed on the display, and map to the "soft buttons" on either side. The display is small, however, and function names are often too long to display clearly. I also found that these additional functions don’t accurately represent the features on my device – the Harmony thinks my TV has picture-in-picture, for instance, and that my receiver has a great deal more features than it does. (It appears that Logitech’s database sometimes supplies the functions of, say, all Panasonic TVs instead of precisely the one you have.) Last, the functions are listed alphabetically, which isn’t necessarily in their order of usefulness. The functions’ names and ordering can be customized on the Web site; it takes some time to re-order the functions and remove ones that aren’t applicable, but the result pleases me.
Living in Harmony — I tested two remotes, the 659 ($200) and the newer 688 ($250). To my tastes, the 659’s only drawback is the placement of the transport buttons (Rewind, Play, Fast Forward, Record, Pause, Stop) – they’re at the very bottom of the remote. This placement may be fine for some, but I use those buttons all the time for driving my TiVo. Otherwise, I found the buttons to be well positioned, and with good tactile feedback. Various buttons are shaped differently, making touch-only operation an easy reality. The 688 was designed for users of digital video recorders (DVRs), with the transport buttons up near the middle of the remote. However, the physical buttons are very flat and hard to distinguish from one another by touch.
Two new models, the 676 ($230) and the forthcoming 680, appear to address these problems by melding the 659’s hard plastic buttons with the 688’s improved button layout. Logitech says the 676 is intended for a home theater, while the 680 is designed for Media Center PCs. In either case, when purchasing you should consider the devices you use most and the placement of their applicable buttons.
At last, my coffee table is clear of remote control clutter. Driving the home theater with one remote is a seminal experience, and one that I am quite happy to have achieved.
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