January 19, 2006 If you're like us, you probably have a bunch of home theater gear that comes from a bunch of different vendors, and somewhere between three and fifteen remote controls sitting on your coffee table to control them all. Thankfully, Logitech has a line of programmable remote controls that is intended to solve that problem in style. Jeff Marsh took some time to take a look at the Logitech Harmony 880 Advanced Universal Remote and to talk to them about their upcoming Logitech Harmony 890 Advanced Universal Remote (which adds Z-wave technology from Zensys communications instead of IR).
Logitech's Harmony 880, delivers on its promise of a being perfect for complex HDTVs and DVRs. The 880 is loaded with an array of other features, some of which add greatly to the ease of use, like the easy-to-read color screen. While others, like the customizable slide show, leave you wondering "what were they thinking”? We found that while the device is quite powerful, it isn't anywhere near as intuitive to configure as the documentation suggests. We ran into several snags while trying to configure the device and while we were able to get it to control our equipment, it took us a while to get it set up correctly.
How it works
The entire Harmony product line is designed to allow end users to add IR codes from the devices that we have and upload them to their website to share with the world. Ideally, if you're not the first person to have a component, you won't actually have to go through the learning part, but instead you'll benefit from this online database and just download support for your gear. We were very impressed with the database of devices offered on their website. If you can't find your obscure AV system on their site, they offer suggestions on what codes might work for you. If all else fails you can always use the IR port on the back to "learn" from your old remote.
The 880 (currently the top of the range) is a remote control designed to operate almost all of your home entertainment center components. Using a web interface, you select your individual device model numbers, and tell the remote which devices to turn off or on for a specific activity. Such as setting a macro to turn on your sub woofer and DVD player and tune your television to input 1.
Configuring the device
Using a Windows Media Center PC, the device programming was straighfoward (not so on a Mac, but more on that later), but we never did get it to control our LCD projector correctly. The programming paradigm that Logitech uses with these remotes is based upon a web based wizard template, and we had a hard time debugging the sequence of IR commands that were needed to switch between two video sources connected through an Outlaw Audio 1070 A/V Receiver. We needed the 880 to send a code to the Receiver to switch from Video 1 (TiVo) to Video 2 (HTPC), but instead of just doing this it also sent codes to our LCD projector to turn off and on as well.
We found the simplified wizard style programming interface to be too restrictive, and we wished that there as a way to do some "old school" debugging done by just listing the IR commands and "fixing" them directly. There wasn't any way we could find to do this, and reprogramming the device over and over from the web interface and "gaming" the interview questions to try different settings was tedious and didn't net us a win in the end. It definitely felt like I was trying to steer from the back of the bus. In trying to simplify the programing of macro functions Logitech made it very difficult to debug problems with the chain of commands. In the end, I gave up trying to get it to work since I had no way to actually trace the commands it was issuing other than to keep screwing with the devices interactions on their website. It definitely felt like I was trying to steer from the back of the bus.
On our second attempt, using a Mac, we had to do several things to adjust how our browser downloaded and opened files. We also had to do some tricks to compensate for broken and munged downloads. But once we struggled through the Mac/PC incompatibility issues we were able to get all of our equipment under control with little additional drama. Admittedly, we punted and switched to a different theater setup instead of a calling Logitech and asking for help, so your overall experience may be better than ours.
Is it worth the bother?
Setup issued aside, what this remote offers that others don't, is a color screen which is slightly less vibrant than the pictures plastered on the box. In lowlight situations, the 880's color screen is highly visible. The sleek color icons seem to beg you to press them but, sorry, no touch screen. You'll have to use the small soft buttons aligned along the sides. Customizing backgrounds and uploading pre-formatted graphics for a slide show can be a cumbersome process. Of course all this begs the question, who really wants to watch a slide show on a 1X1.5 inch remote control screen. We really enjoyed the addition of the low profile battery charger and the motion sensor which "turns on" the backlight and screen when you pick up the harmony 880. Both these features help to eliminate those ugly days when you've found your remote batteries are dead.
In the end what matters most is whether the 880 was actually able to replace our existing remotes. As stated above, we never did get it correctly configured with our first set of test gear. We had more luck with our second set of gear, and in fact the device works very well once we got past the pain of configuration.
The newest revision of this device (the 890) adds wireless RF communications (via Z-wave technology from Zensys), but is otherwise identical to the 880. All in all, if you are looking for a nice, easy to use all-in-one remote control, if you can get through Logitech's web wizard, the 880 or the upcoming 890 will have you mastering your home entertainment center in no time.