One remote to rule them all…

Our home entertainment system currently requires a lot of remote controls. One for the TV, one for the DVR, one for the amplifier, one for the Apple TV device I just bought, and one “universal” remote that tries (and fails) to control them all.

The irritating thing, of course, is that several of these remotes claim to be “universal” in some fashion. But invariably something doesn’t quite work correctly: the universal remote won’t switch the amp’s audio sources, the DVR remote won’t change the TV’s video inputs… and none of them are very elegant. I’ve been keeping an eye on the Logitech Harmony remotes for a while, and finally decided to take the plunge: I’m now the proud owner of a Harmony One Advanced Universal Remote 5846.1.0.jpg

The “secret sauce” of the Harmony remotes is how you program them. Most universal remotes require you to look up your components in a table, punch in a weird code, and hope. Invariably, the best you can get with this method is a “sort of” match: some features will never work. Better universal remotes also have a “learning” feature- those missing features can be filled in by selecting keys on the universal remote, and pointing the old remote at it in some kind of strange mind meld maneuver.

Even if you get all of the features of your various remotes crammed into one frankenremote, you are still left with the key problem: what you really want to do is somehow say “this button means set my whole system up to watch a DVD”, and that means a high degree of programmability. The Harmony series of remotes addresses this challenge by moving the programming process to your computer, and by introducing the concept of “activities”.

To set up a Harmony remote, you first need a Macintosh or Windows PC. You run the set up program, and type in the type, brand, and model of each component in your system. Since you are using a computer, you get all the niceties: drop down boxes, an actual keyboard, and a database of tens of thousands of components. My home theatre consists of a mix of Hitachi, Motorola, Yamaha, Sony, and Apple components- the Harmony database knew every piece completely, just by typing in the model numbers.

Once you’ve told the Harmony software about the parts of your home theatre system, it suggests some standard activities. Things like “watch a DVD”, or “play a CD”. Based on your components, it suggests what each activity should entail. Watching a DVD in my system, for example, means turning on the TV, selecting video input 4, switching on the amp, turning on the DVD player, selecting amplifier DVD input, and making some popcorn. Okay, I’m joking about the popcorn part, but all the rest is true. With the Harmony, this becomes one “button” on the full colour touch sensitive display. I can customize which of the components is in charge of the volume, add special steps like setting the sound field settings, or anything else that my components are capable of.

I was further impressed by how “smart” the default choices for various components are. Because the configuration database is managed outside the remote control, it can be vastly more complex than the control itself is: the settings for those tens of thousands of components have been tuned and refined by millions of users, and are updated regularly by Logitech. So when I said “watch tv” using my DVR, it “knew” to map the program guide and DVR controls to logical places on the remote: logical enough that, without even thinking about it, I was navigating my menus as easily as I did with the “native” remote control.

And then there are the “non-functionals”. The Harmony One is an elegant remote: the way it fits in my hand, the rubberized back, the smooth glossy finish, the tactile buttons, the way it lights up when moved, and the charging cradle all look, feel, and behave with a degree of engineering that makes the device feel more expensive than it is. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never spent this much on a remote control before. For over $250 it is reasonable to expect some quality. But I’ve played with some $600+ remote controls, including one that costs more than $2000, and I can’t say any of them really felt “good” to me. The one downside of the design is how quickly the touch screen gets covered in fingerprints. I found it kind of humorous that Logitech includes a little cleaning cloth- sort of like one of those things you use with your glasses- just because of this.

The Harmony One is overkill if your home audio system consists of a TV and a DVD player. But I’d say that, if you are getting beyond three remote controls, the Harmony series of remote controls are probably worth a look. They range in price from about $120 to about $1000: at the high end, you are getting something like a small laptop computer intended for whole-home control, with both IR and wireless control capability. I can’t really comment about the other models, other than to say that they all use the same programming system as the Harmony One I bought. And in truth, I’ve only had the Harmony One for less than a day: however, I’ve never owned a remote that impressed me before, and this one definitely does.

3 thoughts on “One remote to rule them all…”

  1. I’m very happy with it. More importantly, Irene likes it as well.

    I have one complaint, and I suspect it might be a matter of ignorance on my part. When you choose an activity like “watch DVD”, the remote finishes in a well-configured state for managing that activity. The fast forward, pause, and navigation buttons are generally configured in logical ways. This is great! But if I use the device menu and do something “out of the ordinary” (like fiddle with the CD player controls), there is no obvious way to get the remote back to the state it was just in for the chosen activity.

  2. If Irene likes it then there is a slim chance my techie mother might have the patients to figure it out… oh wait… nope. Patients like gnat if it requires more than one button to operate. Sadly out of Home Base reach… but ME!….

    Hope you sort out the limited mental quirks of the device. It looks might promising.

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