Monday, January 15, 2007

Harmony 880 universal remote control
controls just about everything

If you're a typical reader of this blog, you probably have five or six remote controls for your home entertainment components. Two are probably missing and one has weak batteries.

For a decade or more, manufacturers have attempted to simplify our lives with so-called "universal" remotes that could replace a pile of others.

Some models are like small PC touch screens. Some look like regular remotes, with a gazillion tiny buttons and unreadable labels. Some are programmed by aiming the Infrared output of a regular remote, into an Infrared receiver in the universal remote. Some are programmed by inputting endless digits for each component you want to control -- and provide endless frustration because the digit sequences for some brands just don't work. And even if you do get the unit programmed properly, it can be a real PITA to use, because of conflicting label functions and non-intuitive design.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in 2002, I discovered a new company in the universal remote business, Intrigue Technologies from Canada. The company was founded by Justin Henry and Glen Harris, two biomedical engineers. They, like many, were frustrated by the complexity of operating a home theater system with all the required remote controls. They spent two years developing what would become the Harmony Remote Control, with two important new ideas:

  • Harmony's remotes get their control codes from an ever-growing online database with information for 175,000 devices from 5,000 manufacturers. (If a new product isn't online, the remote can learn the signals.)
  • You control your system be selecting a task, not a device. You make a choice such as "watch a DVD," instead of having to remember which six key strokes are necessary to get a picture on the TV screen.
  • I ordered a first-generation Harmony, but was disappointed with it. I tried setting it up a few times, but kept getting frustrated, and it has stayed in a drawer for nearly five years.

    In 2004, Logitech -- a Swiss-based maker of PC accessories -- bought Intrigue Technologies, and pumped in some money and brains to develop more products, better products, and less expensive products; and added Mac programming for Applegeeks.

    The Harmony 880 is a midrange remote. Suggested retail price is $250, but it's available for $165- $200 online. Less expensive models start at $100 at Sam's Club, or about $150 elsewhere.

    It's easy (but not necessarily quick) to set up. You load some software into your PC or Mac, and then connect the remote with a USB cable. A wizard walks you step-by-step through the set up. You enter the model numbers of your components, then answer a few questions about how you "Watch TV" or "Watch a DVD."

    It's easy to use. Just press an activity button, such as "Watch TV" or "Listen to Music," and your Harmony remote automatically sets up each of the devices required for that activity, in the proper sequence.

    It's easy to get help. No sound? No picture? No problem. A handy "HELP" button can guide you through simple troubleshooting.

    The Harmony 880's color LCD is both functional and stylish, with user-customizable backgrounds, button icons and text. There's space for up to eight custom activities or controls.

    An on-screen battery level indicator plus a charger/docking station will help you keep the remote fully charged. Its Lithium-ion battery provides up to one-week use The horizontal docking station allows the remote to be used while charging. CLICK for more.

    1 comment:

    Ray said...

    I have tried a number of the all-in-one remotes and gotten generally poor results. With the Harmony remote I am almost there. The one thing it can't do is keep track of which video input my TV is on. The problem stems from the fact that you can't directly select video 1 or video 2, but rather you must step through the inputs.
    Also, the Harmony support program installs itself on your PC so that it always loads on startup. Kind of a big program, though; it's 36 MB on my XP machine, plus another 6 MB for the "Logitech Desktop Communicator." A lot of unnecessary overhead for a program you might use once every six months or so.