Having become tired of the gaggle of remotes on my coffee table I’ve ventured once again into the one-remote-to-rule-them-all world of universal remote control. My prior purchase was a $20 cheapie that relied on the input of ‘device codes’ to identify your hardware. The Harmony line of remotes are a whole different kettle of fish.
The ‘secret weapon’ of the Harmony is that it’s ‘programmed’ using a PC. It’s a USB device. The interface used to configure the remote is even more sophisticated (and problematic) but I’ll get to that later.
Price and placement
The 785 is the top of the Harmony range that comes in a normal remote control form factor. It retails for $399 AUD but can be had cheaper from specialist computer shops. The real top of the range is the Harmony 1000 which looks like more like a UMPC with its large 3.5″ touch screen and minimal buttons but at a RRP of $699 AUD it’s just too far to go for us mere mortals (also I suspect it takes 2 hands to operate, one to hold it and one to touch-screen (that’s not really a verb)).
Activities and Devices
The 785 is able to control up to 15 devices and these are organised into ‘activities’. This is the main mode that the remote is used in. The other mode is the ‘devices’ mode where all of the commands of each of your devices are available. Activities include things like ‘Watch TV’ and ‘Watch a DVD’ and these, once configured, are listed on the remote’s screen and can be selected with the buttons that surround the screen.
The configuration process runs in a wizard style and begins with you entering the details of your devices. This is done for each device by selecting the type of device, TV, VCR, PVR, etc, then selecting the brand and finally entering the model number. The configuration for your device is then either retrieved from Logitech’s database of existing devices or you are prompted to execute 2 or 3 commands from the device’s remote and a near match is made. The worst case scenario is that your device isn’t in Logitech’s database but this did not happen for any of my 8 devices, including a very old stereo system, a very new DVD recorder and one very obscure A/V switcher.
The initial configuration sets up some default activities. These are built based on what devices you’ve entered. Once an activity is created the remote’s buttons are assigned various functions for that activity. For instance, the volume buttons are configured as the TV’s volume controls, the play-stop-pause-FF-RW buttons are assigned to the VCR’s controls and so on depending on what devices are in the activity. The buttons can be further customised after that. Obscure commands can be assigned to one of ‘pages’ of commands accessed through the remote’s LCD screen. Unknown devices can be taught using the remote’s IR receiver and as many devices as needed can be added to an activity. It’s very flexible and powerful but there’s a price.
When you’ve run through the default configuration most of your activities should be set up but will likely require some ‘tweaking’. This is the killer. Ok, my setup isn’t the simplest. I have a couple of switchers and the routing of devices is somewhat less than conventional but that’s the way I want it set up and so far I’ve spent several hours tweaking and I’m still not close to finishing. I’ve only got 2 activities that I’m fairly happy with. It didn’t help that I didn’t have the correct model number for my TV and I must stress the importance of gathering the model numbers of all your devices before you even consider beginning the configuration process.
There are also shortcomings in the configuration interface. Firstly, it’s web based. Yes, you read that right, web based. The configuration for your remote is kept on Logitech’s web site which you must sign up to to be able to use the remote. This includes you agreeing to all of the information you enter on that site belonging to Logitech. Be warned, the site has a dastardly short time-out. Don’t go looking for a model number mid-way through the configuration process. You’ll be greeted with a re-login when you return and, depending on where you were in the process, you could lose a lot of hard work.
Now, although the configuration is web based, you don’t get to use your own browser. You have to run an installer and what appears to be a mozilla based browser is installed. Another gotcha, be prepared to download ~50Mb of updates before it will run. This is not a piece of hardware you want to buy if you have dial-up. Even at 256kbps ADSL I might even be disinclined to purchase a Harmony.
There are a few other seemingly minor problems with the configuration interface. Sometimes none of the options the configuration wizard presents to you apply to your device. When I added my Topfield PVR it asked for me to pick which ‘input’ it used. The Toppy doesn’t have any inputs, unless you count the antenna. This is an artifact of how the remote works in activities. It trys to switch on every device in the activity and pick the correct input for that device. However, in the case of the Toppy it’s a non-sensical option. I picked one of the options and moved on with my life. It works.
The same can’t be said for my Samsung TV. The activity manages to switch on the TV but is wholly unable to select the correct input (video 1). Granted the TV is particularly difficult in this area. It has 2 buttons, one to select the TV and one to toggle between the 2 video inputs, and it unhelpfully switches back to TV when switched off.
Lastly, the whole experience so far has been made all the more traumatic by horrible peripheral isssues such as support and the Logitech web site. There’s the slowness of the web based interface and the fact that I have to stop any downloads etc to get what I would consider usable responsiveness. This is still nowhere near normal Windows based application speed. There’s also problems accessing support. I wasn’t able to create a forum account as my email address was ‘already in the database’ but I wasn’t able to retrieve the password for it as the site claimed ‘the user ID… is not valid’. Eventually Logitech support created a forum account for me but it still took 4 login attempts before it would actually recognise the account. Bizarre. Lodging support requests requires the completion of multiple fields even though the link for it is in the configuration site. it just doesn’t carry that information across to the support form. Painful.
If I ever get the remote working just the way I want it I’m betting that every now and again I will still have to pick up one of my original remotes. Oh well. The one-remote-to-rule-them-all world looks like staying an unreachable nirvana but the Harmony will get you closer than you were before.