Owning a nice home-theater system is great—until it’s time to teach your family or friends how to operate it. Heck, I bet even you get confused sometimes. Which remote changes the channel or turns up the volume? How do you coordinate powering everything on or off and make sure all the correct inputs are selected to watch a DVD or listen to a CD?
One answer to these questions is a socalled universal remote, which controls several components using one handheld unit that issues its infrared (IR) codes from a preprogrammed database; some can also “learn” the codes for devices not in the database. There are many such universal remotes available today, but most share a common problem: They’re difficult to configure and, once configured, difficult to understand.
Logitech offers a better way with its Harmony line of universal remotes. When I first saw a Harmony remote several years ago, I knew immediately that it was something special. It took a new approach to the problem of universal remotes, solving it in a brilliant masterstroke of outside-the-box thinking. But despite this paradigm shift, the early models suffered from poor button layouts and too-clever-for-theirown- good designs.
The Harmony 676 was the first model to get it right; in fact, it’s the remote I use to control my home theater. So when Logitech announced a new generation, I had to try it. Would the Harmony 880 live up to its predecessor?
Before getting into the specifics of the Harmony 880, let’s look at what makes the Logitech approach so special. First, all Harmony remotes are designed around activities, such as watching TV, watching a DVD, and listening to CDs. The remotes treat the A/V system as a unified whole instead of a collection of components. By contrast, most universal remotes make you think in terms of which devices you want to use; as a result, many nontechnical users of the system (say, other members of your family) never learn how to operate the remote.
Another fundamental Harmony concept is online configuration. The remote-configuration process takes place entirely on the Logitech Web site (www.logitech.com/harmony), rather than on the remote itself, or even from a program running on your computer. The site provides scads of customization options that let you easily optimize the remote for your system.
A user establishes a profile on the Web site by following the clear instructions of the Setup Wizard. You specify which components are in your AV system, then define the activities you want to engage in and how each component needs to behave for each one. This step assigns volume and channel control to the appropriate device and automatically generates appropriate macros (strings of commands) that send power and input-selection commands to configure the system for the selected activity.
Once you’ve defined the system components and the way they work together, the Web site downloads the appropriate codes to the remote, which is connected to your computer via USB. The remotes come with a CD-ROM of Harmony software, which must be installed to configure them; the software can also be downloaded and installed from the Web site. The Windows version works in Windows 98SE or later, while the Mac version requires OS X 10.2 or later. I used a PowerBook G4 running OS X 10.3.9. If you have multiple Harmony remotes, you need to establish a separate account for each system they control. In addition to configuration, the Web site also downloads firmware updates to the remotes as they become available. Perhaps most important, all the details about your system are stored on the Web site, making it easy to change them or restore the configuration if it’s lost during a firmware update. The company maintains a centralized database of all products and IR commands they know of, which are downloaded into each remote as needed. Also, when a user configures a Harmony remote for an unknown product by “teaching” it that product’s codes, the codes are stored in the database, tested, and made available for all subsequent users.
One of the biggest problems for universal remotes is power synchronization. Some devices have discrete power on and off commands, while others have a single command that toggles the power on and off. Sometimes, a device’s own remote toggles the power, but the device can actually respond to discrete power commands. Input selection poses a similar problem: Are a device’s inputs available by discrete codes, or do you have to cycle through them?
In most universal remotes, you have to program macros to power multiple components on and off and set their inputs, but this is often fraught with frustration. If a toggling-power device is off and you initiate a Power On macro, the remote sends the device’s power command and all is well. But what if the device is already on? The remote has no way of knowing this; if the device responds to a single toggling power command, it will turn off, causing much gnashing of teeth.