2008 Gadgets Review – #2 – Logitech Harmony 880 Universal Remote Control

For part 2 of my 2008 gadget round-up I’m going to talk about Logitech’s Harmony 880 universal remote control.

Being a geek, my lounge is full of stuff with remote controls, all hooked to each other. At last count, my media setup included:

  • A TV
  • Mini system (used for sound and playing CDs)
  • 2 game / media consoles (XBox 360 & Playstation 3)
  • DVD player
  • Squeezebox Music player
  • Cable TV DVR
  • HDMI switch
  • Mac Mini

This equals a lot of remote controls, confusing the heck out of my girlfriend (and me early on a Saturday morning) and it’s a big mess on my coffee table. A couple of my friends had been bugging me about getting a universal remote control, a remote which could control all of my devices, but I was sceptical about them after bad experiences in the past.

Eventually though I decided to do some research and looked into the options. Logitech seemed to have the best reviewed range for non-ludicrous prices, and of their selection the Harmony 880 model seemed a good middle-ground option for a reasonable price and it had many decent reviews. I decided to go for it and a few days later found myself unpacking my remote.

The first step to setting up the remote was to install software on my Mac, and plug the remote in to a USB socket. Setting up the remote is done solely through the computer, which is useful since there are a whole range of options available. The next step was to tell the software what devices I had, and how they connected to each other (e.g. through which inputs to the TV.) Much to my surprise the software knew about both my UK Pioneer mini system system and my fairly obscure HDMI switch.

After the device and connections setup, I needed to decide which ‘activities’ I wanted the remote to know about. Most of the time when using the remote your usage is activity-based (‘watch DVD’) rather than device-based (‘turn on DVD player’). This is a wonderful scheme, it brings the concept of remote control macros (controlling multiple devices in one user action) to a level anyone can use and setup.

After programming the remote, it was time to try it out. Tentatively I pointed at my Stack Of Stuff and chose to ‘Watch TV’. The cable box turned on, the TV turned on and switched to the correct HDMI input, my HDMI switch moved to the correct input, and my mini system turned on switching to the right input also. I was shocked – it worked!

I wanted to watch a recent episode of the Daily Show, for which I needed the DVR controls of my cable box. As if by magic, a ‘list’ option had appeared on the screen of my remote, which I could select by using the general purpose button next to it. The menu buttons on the remote controlled the selection, and play, pause etc. all did the right. Even better, the volume control on the remote automatically changed the volume on my mini system, since during the setup process the software has asked me what device I used for controlling volume when watching TV.

Anyone who has used universal remotes knows that sometimes things don’t quite work. Many devices have power toggles (‘change the power setting’) rather than absolute commands (‘turn power off’) and so workflow-based remotes are sometimes out-of-sync with the current state of your devices. The Harmony remote’s approach to problems like this is a ‘help’ button at the top of the remote, which launches a very simple step-by-step process guided through the remote’s screen to get everything going properly.

The other concern I had was what happened for the occasional use of something that wasn’t in an activity (e.g. changing the surround setup of my mini system.) For this the remote allows you to switch to a ‘device’ mode rather than ‘activity’ mode, giving you full control of your devices. For buttons which aren’t represented directly on the remote, the screen on the remote, and associated general purpose buttons, can have multiple pages offering pretty much everything available on my actual remotes.

Of course, the real test was would my not-quite-as-nerdy-as-me girlfriend be able to use this remote. The answer was an emphatic yes, even being able to navigate the ‘help’ workflow.

I have almost nothing bad to say about the Harmony 880. Higher end models allow for more devices, and allow for ‘out-of-sight’ control, but that’s beyond what I need. My Playstation 3 can’t be controlled with the remote, but that’s Sony’s fault for not providing an infra red sensor. There are 3rd party IR-to-bluetooth adapters available for this purpose but I’ve been having trouble getting hold of one.

In summary, the 880 has been an absolutely superb purchase, and I thoroughly recommend it.

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