No matter how many times I think I’ve found the cure to my out-of-control remotes, I always end up disappointed. Much as I’d like to get one clicker to handle everything, I’ve never quite been able to whittle down my infrared fiddlesticks to a single magic wand. So it was with some degree of skepticism that I tackled the Harmony 880 Advanced Universal Remote from Logitech.
Design and Features
The first thing you notice about the Harmony 880 is not the appealing 64K color screen (that’s the second thing) but the large charging dock that comes with it–the one that connects to an AC outlet. Since color touchscreens use a lot of power compared with monochrome displays that can last months on a single set of AAA cells, you need an outlet nearby to re-energize the device. Logitech rates the battery life of this lithium-ion rechargeable at one week. I knocked out one of three bars in an afternoon.
Harmony remote controls borrow from an impressive database of codes stored at Harmonyremote.com. Like other remotes in the Harmony lineup, the 880 operates up to 15 devices and 255 commands. Its Help button troubleshoots common problems, and prompts you through fixes when necessary. The remote has a backlight to illuminate buttons in a dimly lit room. Customizable buttons are available for each activity. For codes not known by the huge Harmony library, you can teach codes to the Harmony from the original by holding the two head to head. The device is compatible with Windows 98SE and later PCs and Mac OS X 10.2 and later.
Fifty-three buttons are included on the 8.1 x 2.3 x 1.3-inch device, with eight on-screen activity buttons for macros, or sequential commands. One smart extra is an aspect ratio button that appears on each video activity to let you quickly switch between 4:3 and 16:9 according to program material–without navigating menus.
Image Courtesy of Logitech
Setup and Use
After charging the remote, you load the Harmony software, then plug in the model numbers of your electronics at the Harmony website. I was amazed by the voluminous database of manufacturer names, including obscure brands such as Hypson, Orcom and World of Vision. Setup was straightforward with an extra level of handholding. In cases where the software needs to confirm codes from an original remote, Harmony illustrations and text combine to guide you through the process.
The cool thing about the Harmony approach is that you organize the remote according to activities: watch TV, watch DVD, listen to radio, etc. One button turns on the right components to make each activity happen.
My system isn’t easy to manage. With two radio tuners–one AM/FM and one XM–and with two watch TV options–TiVo for standard digital cable and HD cable box for high-def, I thought I’d confuse the remote during setup. I was pleased to find that the remote could designate two different TV activities–Watch TV and Watch TiVo–so that wouldn’t be a problem.
After programming the remote using a combination of Harmony codes and learned commands, I headed to the A/V system for a test run.
Image Courtesy of Logitech
My first command was Watch TV. In theory, the TV would go on and switch to input 2. Instead, the TV went on, the cable box went off and the input didn’t change from its last setting on input 3. I used the help button on the remote, which prompted me to turn on the cable box and switch inputs on the TV with the Hitachi remote. The 880 help wizard asked if that solved the problem. It did, but three remotes were required which defeated the purpose of a universal remote.
When I switched to Watch TiVo, TiVo turned off from its on state and there was no TiVo button to bring up the menu of programs I had stored.
Next I hit Listen to Radio 2–for satellite radio–and the XM receiver remained off instead of powering on. But when I tried the original Polk XM remote, I found that it couldn’t power up the receiver either, except from about 3 feet away. That wasn’t the Harmony’s fault. If the Polk remote can’t operate its own XM receiver, the Harmony can’t be expected to either.
I didn’t know what to do about the lack of a TiVo button so I made my first tech support call–to Toronto, thankfully, so there was no accent barrier. The customer service rep was patient and friendly and walked me through the process for adding a custom button for the TiVo Now Playing list. In cases where labeled hard buttons don’t fit your needs, you can create a custom button in software that shows up on the color LCD screen. That’s a great add since so many remotes include special functions that don’t appear as an engraved button on universal remotes.
The rep also told me I could add my favorite TV channels on the LCD menu page–16 in all for each activity. With a channel list that numbers into the 700s, this is a terrific feature. Even better, I can store those stations using their logos so I no longer have to remember channel numbers. I hunted down logos on the Web for the major networks, The Weather Channel, HBO, Bravo, Discovery Channel, MSNBC, The Food Network and the Yankees and then added them to the programming page in Harmony software. When I want to watch a favorite channel, I hit the Media button. Up pop the logos and I tap the adjacent button to go to the channel.
I downloaded those custom changes to the remote via USB and headed to my A/V system for more testing. Several of the video sequences were out of whack. The TV still wouldn’t switch to the correct input and the cable and TiVo boxes would turn off when I didn’t want them to. I called tech support again and the rep programmed the boxes to always remain on from his end (I thought I had done that in setup but something didn’t take). We hit a snag when I tried to download the programming changes via USB. After 58 minutes of trial and error, during which I deleted and reloaded the Harmony software, disabled various Symantec protectors, and downloaded a program to remove spyware, we hung up.
When I returned later Windows wouldn’t recognize the device at all, saying it had malfunctioned. The remote itself locked up and couldn’t send commands. I checked Logitech online support and found a FAQ that directed me to remove the battery and try again. Using the USB for power I was able to successfully download the updates, which had remained with all my other stored information at the Harmony website. That’s a comfort. If the battery dies or something else goes wrong, I still have all my remote’s details stored on the site, and the tech folks have access too which speeds up customer support.
I returned to the A/V system to test a few more activities. The Listen to CDs button turned the correct components on and to the correct input but I couldn’t get the CD recorder’s play button to work. I tried the original 10-year-old remote, and it didn’t work either, even with fresh batteries. Again, it’s not Harmony’s fault, but it’s the kind of real-world scenario that puts the kibosh on a “universal remote.”
I put a DVD in the drawer and then chose Watch DVD. Of course, I had to power on the DVD player to open the drawer. But when I hit Watch DVD, the DVD player turned off, responding to the power command in the macro. This is why the custom installation industry has been pushing for separate on/off power buttons for remotes. Fortunately, you can fix this with the Help button on the Harmony without having to pick up the DVD remote.
With the TV still failing on input selection, I made my third call to tech support. The rep said he had an update for the Hitachi codes and had me connect the controller for a remote fix, which did the trick. That may be Harmony’s biggest strength–the ability to continually upgrade codes and communication.
Remote control is hardly a perfect science. Combine the functions of thousands of remotes speaking various languages into strings of commands operating at different speeds, and you’ve got a constantly evolving database of complicated codes and communication. The only universal remotes I’ve seen that worked flawlessly are expensive touchscreen-based remotes requiring hours and hours of painstaking programming. Custom installation pros can charge $2,000 or more for the service.
At $249, the Harmony 880 offers a good alternative. It offers easy setup, distinguishing features and a patient toll-free customer support team as backup. The more complicated your system, the more important the latter will be, but I found the tech support friendly and helpful each time I called.
On the down side, I don’t like having to plug my remote into an outlet. It’s not convenient and just adds another unwelcome wire to the living room.
I appreciate how much work has gone into the Harmony process. I have my work cut out for me to tweak the custom buttons to my satisfaction, but Harmony has the tools I need to make it happen. The Logitech Harmony 880 is a leap ahead of many other universal remotes on the market.
- Beautiful color display
- Works as advertised
- Compatible with tons of products
- Attractive design
- Requires a docking station that plugs into the wall for charging
- Takes time to program