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.
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.
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.
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.