Review: Logitech Harmony 880/885 Remote Control
By: Cliff PennockPrintablePaged


Without actually disclosing my age, I remember when a Remote Control was something special. When I was a kid, my father had bought one of those super modern TVs that came with a Remote. And even though there were only two channels to choose from at that time (cable didn't exist back then) it was fun "zapping" through those two channels from your lazy chair. I was especially happy with the remote since - being the youngest at home - I was the designated Remote Control for the rest of my family. Yes, they would simply tell me to switch the channel or up the volume a bit and I did it - without them having to leave the comfort of their chairs.

Nowadays, everything has a remote. Even remotes have remotes. And the problem is, you actually need them. TVs or DVD players for instance, offer very limited controls on the device itself. Just about everything is done through the remote. So that's two remotes we need right there. And then there's the remote for our audio system, our digital cable box, our VCR (yes, some people still have those) and what not.

If you're like me, watching a movie on DVD means chasing the cat from your lap to make room for a whole bunch of remotes. Just starting the darn movie involves an obscene amount of buttons to be pressed. Heck, firing a nuclear missile is simpler. Or so I would imagine.

There are many universal "all-in-one" remotes out there, but they are either huge, ugly or expensive - or all of the above. And you still need to press tons of buttons. In fact, sometimes you need to press more buttons with those remotes because they need to be switched from device to device constantly.

Then some engineer at Logitech apparently saw the light, started designing, and the Harmony range of remotes were born. Or maybe he simply stole the idea from another company, I really wouldn't know1).

1) Someone pointed out to me that Logitech actually bought a company called "Intrigue Technologies" in 2004 who made the Harmony Remotes. So they didn't think of it themselves, they didn't steal the idea - they just bought it. Oh well.


A New Approach
Most other universal remotes all work in similar fashion. They have the IR (InfraRed) codes stored for literally thousands of devices. Setting up such a remote usually involves entering a code from a list supplied with the remote, to tell it which brand your TV, DVD Player, VCR, etc. is. Once these codes have been entered, you can control most of the basic functions of the device. The drawback is that you can never control all functions and sometimes you can't control a device at all, either because the brand is not supported, or the device itself is not supported. So even though you have a remote that should replace all others, you still need to have your original remotes nearby.

The Logitech uses a completely different approach for just about everything. First of all, the remote can't do anything out of the box - it's as dumb as a brick and just about as useful. And there are no codes to enter. Instead, device profiles are uploaded to the remote through an internet connection. That's right, you will need an internet connection to be able to use this remote. But only during setup. Once the remote has been set up, you can use it just like any other remote. Well, almost. It's in fact much smarter than any remote I've seen. The idea is that the Harmony can do lots of things with a single key press. For instance, pressing the "Watch a DVD" button will cause the Harmony to switch on your TV, your DVD and your Receiver, switch the TV and Receiver to the appropriate inputs, and start your DVD. Heck, if it had arms, it would probably massage your feet too. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First things first.


What's in the box?
The Logitech Harmony 880 isn't cheap. It retails at US$ 249.99 which is quite steep for a remote. Even compared to top-of-the-line universal remotes from well-established audio/video brands, it's still one of the most expensive remotes. Then again, no other remote offers as much functionality in a device that is not much larger then, well, a remote. Like I said, other remotes tend to get bulkier the more features they offer. But the Harmony Remotes are sleek and sexy and the 880 sports a nice little color LCD display. Plus, every now and then some company will offer them at great prices, like Dell who not so long ago offered the Harmony 880 for only US$ 90.00 after various rebates and coupon codes!

The packaging is just as sexy as the contents, as we have come to expect from Logitech products. You can even peek inside the box without actually opening it to admire the remote in its full glory. In the store, peeking inside the box felt much like peeking at an adult magazine's centerfold when noone is watching. A clever marketing trick from Logitech and I'm sure some marketeer was promoted on the idea.



When I opened the box, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Harmony came with a docking (charging) station. And a very pretty one at that. Logitech did well when designing this Remote.


Not only does it look good lying next to its charging station, it looks great "docked" too:



Of course it also came with an adapter which plugs into the charging station, a USB cable, and a CD with Installation Guide.


Installation & Setup
Of course, like any true professional the first thing I did when I had unpacked the Harmony, was put the manual aside and install the rechargeable battery to see what would happen. The Harmony immediately came to live and it greeted me with a message on its little color LCD telling me to fully charge the unit first, then press "OK". I really wanted to press the "OK" button now to see what wonderful things would happen but I was afraid the batteries might drain in the middle of some setup which would render the remote useless and brake it beyond repair. Yes, I'm a sissy when it comes to expensive gadgets.

So I did what it told me to do and put it in its charger.

When it was finally charged, I eagerly pressed the "OK" button. I'm not sure what I expected but I most certainly didn't expect to be shown a small tutorial on the LCD display! On the flip-side, it was a little disappointing the remote couldn't do anything yet. The remote told me to install the software on my PC first, then hook it up to my computer through the supplied USB cable.

Now that might sound a little weird. And in fact, it is. Hooking up a remote control to my computer through USB was not something I had anticipated when I bought the Harmony. And I hated the fact I needed to install software on my PC for something that would not be used on my PC. But, since I really had no choice, I reluctantly installed the software anyway. Installation was a breeze, but that's only part of setting up your Harmony.

The software installs a resident portion in the systray. Now this is downright stupid since once you've setup your Harmony, you will not need the software anymore - or at least not very often. The way it is now, the software requires resources from your computer all the time for absolutely nothing. Another thing I noticed immediately was that the software interfered with other software on my computer. For instance, my NVidia graphics card has an option that when I move a window, it will become transparent. For some reason this no longer works when the Harmony software is running in my systray. If I kill the software, my transparant windows are back again. This too is very, very bad.

As I said earlier, the reason you need to hook up the Harmony to your computer is because it is getting its initial device information from the internet. As soon as you connect the Harmony through USB, the software will automatically connect you to Logitech's Harmony website (http://www.harmonyremote.com). Here you have to register first, which is a tedious job and involves entering tons of information about yourself.

Once you get passed that, the Harmony website will recognize you as a new user and will ask you some basic questions to get you started. It will ask you to enter brand names and model numbers of the devices you want to control. If you enter a device which isn't recognized by the huge database of devices, it will present you with a list of alternatives to choose from. If the website can't find an alternative, it will start a "Device Tutor". The Harmony 880 also has a IR receiver built in, to learn IR commands it can't find in the online database. The device tutor will ask you to press a few buttons on your original remote control. The Harmony 880 picks up these IR codes and searches the online database for them. If it finds them, it will use the device belonging to these IR codes as a template. If it can't find the IR codes, it will ask you to press more buttons on your original remote so it can learn how to control your device.

Anyway, long story short, even though the Logitech website says you'll be up and running in 20 minutes at most, in reality you'll be configuring your remote for perhaps a few hours. Not because it's difficult to do, but because you are offered with so many (fun) options, you really want to try them all out to be able to fully appreciate what your remote is capable of.

One last remark though. The huge database of devices is not really being maintained actively by Logitech itself. It's the vast userbase that's responsible for most of its contents. This also means there's a huge amount of database contamination, i.e. devices that do not have the proper IR codes stored for them. But since it's easy enough to make changes to a device's profile yourself, this is not really a huge problem. More an annoyance than anything else.


Look & Feel
One of the main selling points of the Harmony 880 is its small 128x160 pixel color LCD screen. It displays messages from time to time, but it is mostly used for displaying labels for the 8 buttons alongside the screen.The Harmony 880 has a very smart energy saver to make sure the display doesn't drain the battery too quickly. The fact the display switches off after the remote hasn't been used for 20 seconds isn't all that special. What is special is that it automatically turns on whenever you pick up the remote thanks to an internal tilt sensor! So you don't have to switch the remote on or anything. Just pick it up and you're good to go - another very smart feature. You can change the Glow Timing (the time the LCD stays lit) and turn off the tilt sensor through the "Settings" page on the Harmony's setup website.

You can upload new backgrounds and themes for the LCD screen - again through the setup website. You can even create a slideshow and display that on the remote's screen. Ok, the usefullness of a slide show on your remote evades me a bit, but the possibility is there. But to me it feels much the same as listening to the radio on a digital camera.

The LCD screen is bright enough to be easily read in broad daylight, but dim enough not to be blinded by it in a darkened home theater room. The keys are subtly backlit and are wired to the same on/off circuit as the LCD. This enables you to always find the right key even in very dark rooms.



The keys are actually not so bright as they seem in the picture above. I just upped the contrast a bit to give you an idea how beautiful the remote looks in the dark.

The remote feels very light. It's completely symmetric so it does not matter if you operate the remote left- or right handed. When holding the remote, your thumb naturally hovers above the cursor and "Ok" keys, which are probably the keys you will use the most. To the left of the cursor keys are the volume up and down keys, to the right the channel up and down. So you have the most important keys near the center of the remote. Obviously someone at Logitech had thought this through.


Usage
I haven't gone into much detail in previous chapters on how to set up the Harmony. Simply because there are so many features it would take forever to try to explain how everything works. And as long as you don't actually own a Harmony yourself, there's absolutely no point wasting time on the explanation. Just remember that the Harmony learns its tricks through the website so it's absolutely necessary you have an internet connection if you want to use this remote.

Once everything is setup, the Harmony has two major modes in which it can operate your devices. There's "Device Mode", and there's "Activity Mode". Device Mode is much the same as the way your original remotes work. The buttons control one single device, with a few extra features offered by the Harmony (like "favorite channel" buttons). The other mode is "Activity Mode". And this is where the Harmony separates itself from the competition.

Before I had the Harmony, this is what I needed to do to watch a DVD:

  • Turn on TV
  • Turn on DVD
  • Turn on AV Receiver
  • Turn off VCR (because it somehow caused interference)
  • Switch TV input to HDMI - which meant pressing a button on the remote 6(!) times
  • Switch AV Receiver to DVD Digital Input
  • Mute the sound of the TV

Now that I have the Harmony 880, this is what I need to do to watch DVD:

  • Press the "Watch DVD" button

Guess which was easier to explain to my wife.

"Watch DVD" is what Logitech calls an "Activity". Pressing the "Activities" button will list all available activities on the display. These activities are created on the website. When you create an activity, the website will ask you a few simple questions like "Do you use your tv or receiver for controlling the volume?", "Which input does your TV use for watching DVDs?". Once it has all the answers it needs, it will create the activity for you. You can add extra commands to an activity if you like. For instance, if you are going to watch an adult movie you can have the Harmony turn up the A/C too if it happens to be controlled by an InfraRed Remote.

When in activity mode, you do not need to switch between devices on your remote. In the "Watch DVD" example, the cursor buttons control the DVD, as well as the Play, Stop, Pause, etc. buttons. The Volume Up and Down buttons however, control your AV Receiver. You can switch between Activity and Device Mode, if you need to control something not available in this particular activity.

When you switch from one activity to another, the Harmony will also switch off devices not needed. For instance, if you are watching a DVD and switch to the "Listen to Music" activity, the Harmony will switch off your TV and DVD player.

The Harmony website will create a set of default activities for you, based on the devices you have.

One nice thing available in both Activity and Device mode, is the ability to create "Favorite Channel" buttons, complete with icons. These icons are uploaded to your Harmony through the website, and can be found either online, or they can be created by yourself.

The Harmony 880 also has an "Off" button. Pressing this button causes the Harmony to switch off all devices. The only drawback is that you cannot change this behavior. Everything that is being controlled by the Harmony will be switched off - no exceptions made. This means that you might switch off your entire house if you are controlling too much with the Harmony.


InfraRed vs. RF
The Harmony 880 is an InfraRed (IR) remote, which means it needs a line-of-sight to the devices it is controlling. Consequently you can never control devices in other rooms, and - theoretically - you can't have the remote start an "activity" when the devices are not near to each other (since you can't have a direct line-of-sight with two devices who are on opposite sides of a room for example). Logitech acknowledged this problem, which is why they came out with the Harmony 890. The Harmony 890 uses RF (Radio Frequency) to communicate with a "A/V Bridge Receiver", a small device that translates the RF signal to IR commands. The bridge receiver is what needs a line-of-sight with your devices, but the Harmony doesn't need a line-of-sight with the bridge receiver. This way you can control anything, anywhere. The problem is that for this convenience, you pay a premium price. The Harmony 890 retails at US$ 399.99 - a hefty US$ 150 more than the 880!

Fortunately, the IR transmitter on the Harmony 880 is a very powerful one. You don't really need to point it directly at a device to control it. In fact, I was even able to point the Harmony in the complete opposite direction or hide it behind my back and my devices still picked up the IR commands! Of course it helps the walls in my house are white (-ish) but I'm not able to do that with any other remote I have.

Conclusion
I've had the Harmony 880 in my possession for a few weeks now and I've been more than happy with it. I still need my original remotes from time to time, but that's simply because I've been too lazy to customize my device templates on the Harmony website to program the missing commands.

And that perhaps is the only real drawback, that setting up the Harmony is quite the task. It's not as simple as entering a few codes into your remote, and if you are a below average computer user you probably can't get the job done at all. But, once it has been setup you'll enjoy the best remote control you've ever had the pleasure zapping with - or at least that's my opinion of it.

Like I said previously, they did good at Logitech.


The good
  • Beautiful design
  • Color LCD display and backlit buttons
  • Charging station
  • Great ergonomics
  • Easy to use
  • Huge database of devices online
  • Control many devices at once with a single button ("activities")
  • Powerful IR transmitter

The not-so-good
  • Lacks manual
  • Requires installation of software on your PC
  • Not really plug 'n play
  • No possibility to customize the "Off" button

The downright ugly
  • Installs software on your PC that stays resident in your systray
  • The installed software interferes with other software



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