Sun-Times: “Logitech Harmony One Remote”

This column was originally published in the Sun-Times on January 31, 2008.

Harmony One remote

I had no idea how badly my home entertainment system here in the living room had gotten out of hand until a recent afternoon when I picked up the requisite basket of remotes and issued the usual sequence of baffling commands. But instead of the big screen showing the opening scenes of last night’s “Survivorman,” it started to display page after page of decrypted attack orders for Nazi submarines.

I checked the huge tangle of cables and commands interconnecting my TV and the cable box and the DVD burner (and…and…). Well, I’ll be damned: over the past four or five years of adding components to my setup, I’d gradually managed to reproduce the complex wiring and programming of “Colossus,” the British computer that broke the infernal codes of the Germans’ top-secret ENIGMA encryption machine.

Surely you have a similar story to tell.

It really doesn’t take very long for things to become a huge, confusing, honkin’ mess. Your TV long-since stopped being a TV. It’s a nexus for a half-dozen audio and video devices. Hence the need for the basket of remotes, and the need to maintain a mental map of which devices need to be switched through what other devices in order to send “American Gladiators” on its stately way from the cable tuner through the DVD recorder and then finally to the big screen.

Yup, you can walk into any store and plunk down eight to thirty dollars for a universal remote. But there comes a time when you’re ready to bring a gun to a knife fight. When that day arrives, there’s Logitech’s Harmony One remote.

Let’s do this quick, like ripping off a band-aid: it’s $249.

(Move on to the next paragraph when you feel as though you’re ready. You’ve had quite a shock; drink some juice or soda to replace the blood sugar you’ve lost.)

It’s a lot of money. But the One actually represents a sensible middle ground. The truly expensive controllers cost three times as much and they’re typically the size of an Etch-A-Sketch. The $30 ones replace a half-dozen remotes, and that’s a terrific space-saver. But they don’t really make your life any simpler…particularly when it comes time to program the remote with all of your device codes.

To set up the Harmony, you just plug it into the USB port of your PC or Mac and hand things off to a nice little app that collects a list of all of the devices you’ve got there in the living room along with their makes and model numbers. The app then connects to Logitech’s servers and retrieves the proper codes for all of ’em. They’ve got codes for hundreds of thousands of devices; the only difficult thing about configuring the One was crawling behind my TV with a flashlight and a pen to get at the model number.

(Though it didn’t have quite the right codes for my Apple TV. The good news was that “teaching” the Harmony was a piece of cake. Even this part of the passion play was guided by the desktop software. Just check off all of the commands you want to record, and the app walks you through the list one by one.)

But once you’ve described all of your gear, send the codes to the remote, and un-dock it, the Harmony will control all of your gear automatically. Commands are automatically grouped into “actions” — sequences of commands — that handle common tasks. The One’s gorgeous color touchscreen doesn’t feature tawdry buttons like “Input Select” or “Closed-Captioning.” You can get to those buttons if you wish, but you’re paying $250 for the big button marked “Listen to Music.” The Harmony understand that when I listen to music, the TV and the Apple TV need to be on, the TV needs to be on Video 4, and all other devices can be shut off to save energy.

The remote itself is no dummy, either. As it happened, I’d given the app the wrong info: I’d told it that my Apple TV was connected to Video 3. When I tapped “Listen to Music” and the TV switched over to the TiVO, I grumbled and pressed the remote’s “Help” button, expecting the remote to do something brilliant like say “Check the manual.”

Instead, it gave me interactive tech support.

“Is the TV on?” it asked.

(Err…”yes.”)

“Is the Apple TV on?” (yes)

“Is the TV switched to the right input?” (no).

The TV suddenly switched from Video 3 to Video 4.

“Is the TV switched to the right input now?” (yup).

“Did that fix the problem?”

True, it’s no different than dealing with any corporate IT department: someone with curt social skills who clearly thinks you’re a moron asks you a series of condescending questions. But you are, a moron and it did fix the problem and it’s not as though you have to invite it to your big barbecue this weekend or anything.

My only real complaints about the Harmony One are of the “Well, jeez, for $250 you ought to be able to…” variety. For instance, you can build a custom Action, but the individual keypresses available to you are limited to powering up devices and switching inputs. I’d love to be able to set up a one-touch button that says “I want to pipe this video through my DVD recorder and start recording immediately” but no can do, apparently.

Also: it’s an Apple (Freaking) TV. For $250, I shouldn’t have to see it described by the touchscreen as “Media Center PC.”

The other problem is out of the Harmony’s control. It can send commands to your components, but it gets no feedback to confirm that those commands were received and that the component is set the way the remote thinks it is. If your TV has a remote command that switches it directly to Video 2 (your TiVO), you’re good. If it just has a single “Video Input” button that cycles through all of the possible connections, the fuse is lit on a powderkeg of vinegary disappointment. The Harmony has to drive blind, pretty much. As often as not, after tapping one of these fabled Action buttons, I need to select the proper input manually.

The Harmony One’s best feature might actually be its shape. It’s perfectly sculpted for the human hand, which is what I’m equipped with. The size, shape and placement of its physical buttons is cozy and nicely thought out; it’s an uncluttered and welcoming arrangement. Overall, the remote’s shape and button layout makes you want to cancel your gym membership and watch more TV.

This really hits home when you compare the One to the Harmony 550. The 550 is designed much more like a conventional remote (with a clunky shape and cluttered keypad) and it lacks the One’s gorgeous color touchscreen. But it retains the One’s killer feature (you can program it via USB)…and it costs just $90 online.

But come on. Between the plasma screen and the hi-def DVD player and the $700 game console, you’ve already got $4000 tied up in that system. Your opportunity to prove that you value your kids’ college education more than you value a kick-ass rec room sailed away a long, long time ago.

8 thoughts on “Sun-Times: “Logitech Harmony One Remote””

  1. Does this mean that I no longer have to go looking for columns? Please say that all Sun-Times writing will magically appear here for our pleasure!

  2. Yes please, I subscribe to your RSS here and would love to see all your columns published here, even if they must be delayed in order to keep the paper happy. I looked but didn’t find a way to subscribe to a feed of just you on the Sun-Times site… A tragedy.

  3. Regarding it being named Media Center PC, you should be able to go into the Harmony software and edit the device to call it whatever you want. A quick update over USB and you can have your lovely white box correctly named.

    This is based on the Harmony 885 which has been controlling my system for the last year, but I would be surprised if the newer remotes lacked this functionality.

  4. Re the $250. It seems like a long time ago when I spent something similar for a Harmony 680 (I think?) remote.

    My wife did not understand why I would waste that much money on what she saw as a universal remote! She wrote it off as another toy and she was about fed up with my “toys”.

    But then a magical thing happened. She used it. I no longer had to run into the family room to re-program the receiver and TV from last nights DVD viewing to her current desire to surf the cable channels. I told her once (and only once) to hit the “Watch TV” button and it just worked!

    So, like the DVR that she also thought was a waste until she realized it would store “Gray’s Anatomy” as easily as “CSI”, my purchase when from a useless bauble to a basic necessity!

    But, do beware that the programming application is less than intuitive. It took me several cycles to get it all right, and I wasn’t doing anything fancy like programming macros!

    That being said, once you’ve gone though the pain of programming the remote, it just works! Look on other forums that mention the Harmony remotes and the recurring theme is one of familial harmony more than the harmonious linking of audio/visual devices.

  5. Yup, there it is: among the dozen or so radio-button options for each device is a “Rename” command. Dangit. I really looked for it and I didn’t find it.

    Mea culpa, but that’s one more complaint about the Harmony that didn’t make it into the final review: the desktop software isn’t nearly as sophisticated as you’d expect a Windows or Mac app to be (after, say, 1991). It’s nearly always walking you through a long list of radio buttons, making you think you’re taking an online “Which ‘Babylon 5’ Character Are You?” quiz.

  6. Yes, it is a little clunky, mostly to do with it being an online app rather than a desktop one (despite appearances). The great thing is that you can connect your remote up to another computer (or after a reinstall) and once you log on the app pulls down all the info for the remote you already have set up. It also means the app can magically update itself as required. Still, once it’s set up you can pretty much forget about it until you have a new device to add so the pain is, for the most part, a one off.

  7. I would like to agree with the above comment about the spouse friendliness of the remote. My wife was VERY skeptical of the thing until I programmed it for her. At her urging we now have two. The second remote controls the “slightly” less complicated entertainment system in the bedroom. It started out as just a TV. Can you say “scope creep”? :)

    I managed to get my hands on one at Macworld and they have made a couple of big improvements over the 880 and 890 that I have currently. One is that it feels more solid and doesn’t have the microscopic buttons down the sides of the screen like it’s predecessors, the other is that it actually sits and charges in it’s charging cradle very nicely. The 880 and 890 almost need a book sitting on top them to keep the charging contacts touching in the cradle (a fact I got the Logitech guy to quietly admit at the show).

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