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Things we love: the Harmony 880 remote

Harmonyremote Summary: Harmony's new 880 flagship remote is a virtual swiss-army-knife that can talk to your TiVo, TV, stereo, xbox, overhead fans, and even x10 lighting systems. Instead of worrying about various sources, you instead program macros through a wizard, so when you click "Watch TV" it turns 5 devices on and sets the tuners and options properly.

After using one for the past couple weeks on my wildly varied home theater system, I'm hooked and loving it. Full review after the jump.

For the first time in five years, I'm TiVoless. I've replaced my DirecTiVo with a Comcast HD DVR by Motorola (more on that in a future post), but the first thing that stuck out was the included universal remote couldn't talk to my A/V unit that controls speaker volume. Not being able to control volume from the remote was a deal-breaker, so I had to look elsewhere for a remote.

I've been watching Harmony for years, after first hearing their virtues from other designers that raved about the remote's simple interface. Their pricing used to be fairly high, but with a recent acquisition of the company by Logitech, they've opened up their lines to more affordable price points.

Their full line includes several models, each offering various levels of device support and each remote designed in it's own way. I decided to go for the gusto, getting their high-end 880 that offered all the bells and whistles.

Once you remove the remote from the packaging, insert the rechargeable battery (nice perk, never have to fish for AA batteries again), and charge it up a bit, you simply load some software on your PC or Mac and plug the included USB cable into the remote. The setup and customization process takes place online, through a special harmony website that offers simple wizards to help set up each device, your custom buttons, and your custom activities.

I was most impressed with the plethora of devices that Harmony's site keeps track of. I only remembered the manufacturer and part of the model number ("it's 250 or something") on my home theater receiver, but the Harmony site figured it out. Once the devices are entered, you walk through activities, in which I setup "Watch PVR", "Watch a DVD", "Play music CD", and "Play a Game" as my macros. In each, I could set where the audio goes to (xbox uses the TV speakers, movies and PVR, the surround sound receiver). Tweaking each device within an activity can sometimes be a pain because you're kind of forced into the wizard system and have to remember which question controls just the one aspect you want to change. My welcome screen is shown below.


Daily Use
I've had this device for a couple weeks and so far it's worked pretty well. For each activity, I realized I had to adjust the custom buttons that show up in the color screen area, and that's been a slight pain to get each one right. I've also found the wizards at the Harmony website are great for general stuff, but when you want to do something very specific or custom, it's sometimes tough within the wizard system -- it's kind of like corporation automated phone systems getting in the way when you just want to chat up your friend Carl in Accounting. I have a bit of a weird placement in my house, with the TV up on a wall now and the AV components down below, and the remote still turns on all the devices properly about 90% of the time. When my aim isn't quite right, there's a simple way to turn on the missed device by using the remote's help assistant.

The Good
I like the remote's familiar (and possibly infringing :) peanut shape, and I love the idea of making everything you do with your home entertainment center based on simple phrases. When I had to leave instructions for a babysitter to watch TV, it took up two pages of description and amounted to about a dozen separate steps. Now, you just hit "Watch PVR" and you're golden. It's nice to see a product that lets people attach normal human language instead of having to think like a robot ("source set to cable on device 1, source set to aux on device 2, and then source set to HDMI on device 3").

I was most impressed to find out the remote could issue codes my included default TV remote couldn't do. When switching between sources, I have to slowly step through each of the seven inputs, but the Harmony remote revealed there are remote codes to jump directly to each of the seven connections. That's pretty impressive and makes it work much smoother than even me switching devices by hand.

The Bad
As good as the remote's shape and ease of setup is, I don't like the buttons themselves. There seems to be no attention paid to users that want to do many basic things without having to look down. TiVo's controllers have always been great at that, giving each button a distinct shape, feel, and size. All the basic ffwd, rwd, rec, and pause buttons are similar shapes and sizes on the remote. If I close my eyes and pick it up, I could only tell you where the volume and channel changing buttons are, the rest aren't distinct at all. I've noticed some of the other Harmony remotes (like the 688) seem to have smarter button layouts and designs.

As I mentioned, the setup wizards on the Harmony site are great for first timers, but I've found them frustrating on revisits to tweak my current settings. I kind of wish there was an alternate, direct way to modify an activity without being forced to answer a zillion questions first. Lastly, the price is kind of high, though it certainly can be the last remote you ever need to buy with the included rechargeable battery and cradle, constantly updated website with codes, and the extensive device support.

This remote can talk to every IR device in my house, and I can set complex configuration tasks that fire from a single button. The remote won't gobble up batteries and can be updated for any new device I buy. I finally have a truly universal remote control and it's nice to reduce the coffee table clutter to just one remote. While the price is kind of high, it's lived up to my expectations and impressed me with its flexibility. I'm happy with it and I'll be suggesting it to all my friends in search of a truly universal remote.

Rating: I'd give it a 4 out of 5
Price: list is $250, about the cheapest I've seen it is around $235
Requires: Mac or PC with an internet connection and a USB port.
Buy it Now: I got mine from Amazon and it showed up a day and a half later.

September 28, 2005 in Product Reviews | Permalink | Comments (50) | TrackBack

Rollyo custom search

Rollyo This is kinda minor, but may come in handy in the future. Rollyo is a new search engine that lets you craft searches among just a select number of sites. Currently Google, Yahoo, and others let you search the entire web, or just a single webserver, so this acts as a sort of hybrid.

I've created a PVR search based around the major sites featuring info about PVR products, tweaks, and reviews and will be adding more sites to it. It could come in handy when you're stuck with a TiVo needing a phone line and wondering "how do I get around that again?"

September 28, 2005 in News | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

On the PVR

In this week's episode, NPR show On the Media has a discussion about PVRs and television networks (2.4MB MP3) with Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi.

One of the highlights is a study by CBS that says 50% of PVR owners skip commercials.  This is down from 70%, which nebulous "other studies" report as the fraction of commercial-skippers in our midst.


Another interesting bit of information is that networks are starting to look at TV as a stepping-stone instead of a destination.  TV shows on DVD make up "a multibillion-dollar market," and everyone is waiting for an iTunes Music Store for downloadable shows.  Instead of worrying about showing commercials, the focus would be on selling DVDs and downloads.  If the business shifts that way, people who say "Any time you skip a commercial you're actually stealing the programming" are going to sound a lot like the "Home taping is killing music" bunch.

September 28, 2005 in News | Permalink

Rent My DVR

The concept behind the new site Rent My DVR is something that television networks will be extremely interested in.  Users of the site can pay 20 Euro Cents to request an episode of a TV show.  Other users on the site are informed that the episode has been requested and if they send a video file of the episode to the requester, they get paid.

OK, but is it legal?

Dave Zatz talked to founder Micke Langberg, who said I can’t see that there should be any legal concerns related to our service, since it is exactly the same thing as asking your neighbor to record a TV show for you.  The FAQ on the site expands on this:

According to fox networks it is OK to ask a friend or co-worker to tape video shows for you. We at www.rentmydvr.com are all friends. See "ask fox question 8."

8. Can I get tapes of FOX Network Primetime Shows sent to me?

The FOX Network does not provide nor sell videos of any of shows, specials or movies that air on the Network.

Our recommendation is to ask co-workers, friends, family and neighbors for anyone who may have taped off-the-air the show you are looking for.

OK, but is it legal?  Well, that's for the lawyers to answer, but given recent supreme court decisions you might want to play it safe and check for spare change in your couch instead.

September 27, 2005 in News, Products | Permalink | Comments (6)

TiVo adds 1-year contracts

Dave Zatz pointed us to this new part in TiVo's service agreement:


This fits with their August 2005 investor call where they announced they would be moving to a mobile phone-like retailing strategy.

On the one hand, I kind of like this.  I would rather see TiVo's retailing for $50 with no rebate instead of $200 with a $150 rebate.  By adding a service commitment they can get rid of rebates, although I should emphasize that I have not seen anything that says TiVo is ending rebates.

Still, I'm hopeful that they're replacing one customer hassle with another, less annoying one.  I'm constantly surprised that friends with $300 mobile phones think a $50 TiVo is too expensive, I think the rebates have encouraged people to think of them as $200 boxes.

On the other hand, this is much less customer friendly.  People hate mobile phone contacts but everyone goes with them because they're going to be paying for the service anyways so they might as well save $100-$200 on their phone.  The mobile phone companies are some of the least-liked business around, I know TiVo will lose a few evangelists over this.

Also, like I said, I'm simply speculating that this will end annoying rebates.  They could simply add this on top of the rebate system (which TiVo employees have defended).  That seems like a net-loss for consumers since someone who didn't like their TiVo would be out $50 before, now they're out the full $200.

September 25, 2005 in TiVo | Permalink | Comments (11)

Elite entertainment PC roundup and review

c|net has a pretty good roundup and review of what they're calling "Elite entertainment PCs". They range from $2,500-$6,000, and are basically souped up Windows Media Center PCs with all the bells and whistles. They're designed to sit in home theater racks so they're all quiet and come in pretty cool looking cases, but after reading the review it sounds like the entire bunch is fairly overpriced.

It still seems like you could get a copy of BeyondTV or SageTV, a new HD tuner card, and a thousand dollar pentium PC to get the same performance as these monsters.

September 22, 2005 in News | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tivo stops seling units directly, but O Canada is finally supported

On Saturday, a former employee of a company that handled all the TiVo.com sales let slip that TiVo is no longer selling units directly from their site, instead linking to Best Buy as the primary place to buy one. This seems like a good move to me, as it lets TiVo concentrate on its core business of software and support and lets retailers concentrate on sales of units.

In other TiVo news, it looks like they are officially supporting Canada, though it seems they aren't allowed to ship anything into the country so you kind of have to get one mailed to you from an American friend. It's been a long time coming for our Canadian friends and most of mine simply moved to a cable company-provided DVR as they waited for the past five years. I wonder what held TiVo back from Canada all this time? Are there stiff trade restrictions or tariffs that couldn't be settled or are the cable systems difficult to integrate into the software? [thanks Dave and Megazone for the links]

September 18, 2005 in TiVo | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

TiVo/Macrovision DRM seen on IFC shows

After a few days of reading near and far about the TiVo/Macrovision DRM flap, I fully believe the response that TiVo has given is true. TiVo says some noisy broadcast video has tripped the flag accidentally, and that it shouldn't occur under normal conditions with cable and satellite connections. However, Aaron Hurley has reported seeing it on a IFC show recorded over cable, and he's posted photos of it on his box:

It's not just local stations. There is a red flag on IFC right this minute. Check it out if you can.

My Tivo is currently recording a conversation with Lauren Bacall and it has the red flag showing up saying that the program will be deleted by 9/23.

You can see evidence here and here
--Aaron Hurley

It could be another bug tripping the flag, but it looks like this might not just be limited to syndicated shows on a Fox station recorded from an antenna connection. I'm curious what caused the bug in this case.

September 16, 2005 in TiVo | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack

More on TiVo's Red Flagged Recordings

If you haven't already, please read our recent post about restricted shows on TiVo. As you may have noticed, a lot of people are upset about the ability for the TV industry and TiVo to control a box people thought they owned.

Many were quick to point out that restricting two year old reruns of King of the Hill wasn't the intended use for the DRM. Jim Denney, TiVo's Director of Product Marketing, told TechBlog that these were probably just "false positives."

Denney said the copy protection is trigged by a flag in the video signal. The reports appearing on the Web appear to be cases where TiVo misinterprets noise in the signal as a copy protection flag, and imposes the restrictions.

Cory Doctorow over at Boing Boing happened to be at an DRM standards meeting and asked the experts what they thought about random noise triggering the restrictions:

When I asked them if they believed that noise could be "misinterpreted" as a DRM flag, they burst into positive howls of disbelief. One present talked about Macrovision's checksums and said that that must have been "incredible noise if it completed the checksum." A semiconductor expert laughed out loud.

Charitably, an operating system vendor's rep suggested that TiVo might not be lying: rather, he said that perhaps they've just done an "incredibly bad" implementation of Macrovision.

OK, it probably wasn't bad reception that caused it, so the next link in the chain is the local TV station. Is it possible that someone at the station accidentally turned content protection on? Marc Hedlund over at O'Reilly Radar (while mistakenly assuming that the content protection comes from guide data instead of the video signal) argues that it doesn't matter: If the broadcaster … can turn the flag on whenever they want, the power of this feature is in the wrong hands altogether.

It was likely a local broadcaster that made the mistake, but what's to prevent this from happening in the future? How can I protect my TiVo from the mistakes my local TV station makes? The next time someone freaks out on live TV, will the broadcaster flip the "Copy Never" bit to control the damage?

This was probably a mistake, but that doesn't negate the fact that this bug feature is built into every TiVo (and other PVRs).

September 15, 2005 in TiVo | Permalink | Comments (43) | TrackBack

TiVo Coming to Canada?

canda.gif Word has it that TiVo is starting to support Canadian guide data in preparation for a launch in the Great White North (or South, for those of us in Detroit). We haven't tested this ourselves yet, but the latest Tivo software allows entering a Canadian postal code, selecting a Canadian provider, and getting Canadian guide data.

Thanks to Erik Pettersen for the tip! (Previous Canadian TiVo howto post)

September 14, 2005 in TiVo | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack