by Michael S. Palmer
Over the last few years working here with the great gang at High-Def Digest, I've made it a habit of recommending Logitech's Harmony remotes in various holiday shopping and how-to guides because they're intuitive and -- much higher up on the list of important things -- allowed my parents, siblings, and wife to use one remote where there were once three or more. Yet, when approaching this year's HD Gear Gift Guide, I found myself wondering if the Harmony series needed another mention. My first thought was HDD Readers tend to be pretty tech savvy, so of course they've heard of them. And second, I started to have some troubles with the ones I've owned (a 550 and an 880, to be specific. The 550 fell apart, and the 880 had problems keeping time and its IR emitter seemed finicky. In both cases, mind you, Logitech tech support was always willing to help.).
As such, I gave a more tempered recommendation citing said problems and the fact that the cheaper units don't have higher end capabilities such as RF transmission (RF is necessary to access to gear hidden in cabinets, behind walls, in closets, etc -- ie, more complicated set-ups like a dedicated home theatre which might also include lighting controls). This initial comment buried in a very long document found its way to the kind folks over at Logitech who offered to send over the Harmony 900 remote which is capable of RF among other things. Since I'm an apartment dweller and all of my gear is proudly presented out-and-about in the living room, I don't actually need a remote as fancy as the 900. So Logitech sent over a Harmony One (which is apparently identical in many ways to the 900 save for RF capabilities) along with the PS3 Adapter, the one Logitech Harmony device I've always wanted to try. Here's a review of each:
Logitech Harmony One
Out of the box.
The Harmony One is -- in a word -- elegant. Bathed in a high gloss black, my initial impression was one of quality. Selling for just under $160 online at stores like Amazon, the Harmony One feels heavier in the hand than my 550 or 880. The ergonomic design fits my man-paws nicely and the buttons themselves seem more durable and heavy duty than less expensive models where cheap-feeling buttons can stick or break. The touch screen (which is for "Activity" selection as well as "Additional Buttons" not already on the remote. Think your satellite or cable DVR's "List" or "My DVR" button.) is of a decent size and bright.
Included in the easy-to-open box is the remote itself, one rechargeable battery, one battery charger and power chord, instruction booklets and CD software installer, a cloth to wipe finger prints off the touch screen, and a USB cable for connecting the remote to your PC or Mac for set up and updates.
If you've ever owned a Harmony remote, you already know how simple installation and set up really are. After loading the provided software onto a Windows-based PC or an Apple Macintosh, owners are required to create an online user account because the setup process is actually done on a web-based application. This is for two reasons: 1) Logitech's database of gear is expansive and always updated, and 2) these very smart people wanted to make sure that if you crash/sell/lose your computer, you can still have access to your very precise home theatre settings. And for the purposes of this review, upgrading from my 880 to the Harmony One was a cinch. Owners can either choose to swap out the newer remote, or create a new user name to keep multiple remotes active.
The next step in set up involves telling your account what gear you have, called "Devices." A Denon AV receiver? Check. Motorola HD DVR Cable Box? Check. You name it? They have it. After entering brand and model numbers for each Device, it's time to set up "Activities." Activities are things like "Watch TV" or "Watch a DVD." They're the one-touch choices which then fire a sequence of coordinated instructions to your system ensuring your TV, Blu-ray player, and AV Receiver player are not only on, but set to the right inputs and outputs. Activities can also be placed into any order of your choosing.
The process of choosing Activities is fairly straight forward, but I like to customize mine a little bit. So instead of "Watch TV", I've renamed mine "DirecTV". Or, I don't "Watch a DVD", but rather "Blu-ray." Customization like renaming an Activity or a Device (sometimes the generic labels don't quite fit) is easy to do under any Activity or Device's "Settings" button.
While the Harmony One has many of the same control functions of your manufacturer's remotes (Menu, Guide, Exit, Vol +/-, play pause, record, etc), there are some device-specific or non-universal buttons (think the square, circle, triangle, etc. on a PS3, or the red, green, yellow, and blue buttons on a DirecTV remote) which need addressing. Logitech calls these "Additional Buttons", and they appear on the Touch Screen after an Activity is selected. Additional Buttons are organized in "pages" of 6 buttons, which can be flipped through forwards or backwards by tapping the arrows next to the Touch Screen. Many come standard with the Activity is selected, but you can add as many as you'd like via the "Customize Buttons" tab of each Activity. For example, if I have more than three pages of Additional Buttons, I put the most important buttons on page 1, and the second most important buttons on page 2 or the last page. The Additional Buttons also work great for features like a TV's aspect ratio or picture modes, or to get into AV Receiver settings like Dynamic Volume or Pro Logic Cinema vs. Pro Logic Music. As another personal example, I recently set up a TV Power Toggle button so that I can't turn off the TV if I'm using my PS3 or DirecTV DVR to listen to music.
Lastly, if you can't seem to find the right button you're looking for in any Device's pull-down list, it's really easy to teach the Harmony One a new command using the instructions provided (under Customize Buttons, then "Learn Command") and the original manufacturer's remote.
In Use -- What I Loved and What Could Be Better
Time to test it out. There are always a few Additional Buttons I forgot, or perhaps I'll realize there's a more ergonomical way to re-order the buttons. For example, the Harmony One is a pretty tall remote so on page 1 of my Customized Buttons, I put the most used buttons (my DVR List, or an eject button) at the bottom because they are easier to reach.
After some quick tweaking, that's pretty much it until you get a new piece of gear. The Harmony One runs itself and is so intuitive thanks to buttons and controls that mirror most manufacturers' remotes. In use, the Harmony One excels in form and function. The Touch Screen is sensitive, requiring only a light touch.
HINT: while Activities are starting up, it's important to keep your Harmony One actively pointed at all your gear (sometimes up to five seconds). IR remotes like the Harmony One require constant line-of-site because it isn't just firing off one simple command, but rather many back-to-back. If you swivel your remote too quickly, each Device might turn on properly, but your HDMI input could be off, or the AV Receiver could still be set to the FM Tuner. Be patient and keep it pointed.
If you do run into any troubles (the wrong thing turns off when it should be turning on, etc) just hit the "Help" button, which will re-fire your activity commands again and then ask you a series of questions until it gets everything corrected. It's a nice feature, and is personally needed only when I forget to point the remote at my gear.
Tired of watching a TV, and ready to play video games or a Blu-ray? No problem, just nudge the Activities button which brings you back to the main menu to select anew. Also, at any time, it's really easy to go to specific Devices, which temporarily turns the Harmony One into a one-device remote. This is helpful accessing the deeper functions in your TV or AV Receiver.
My experience with the Logitech Harmony One has been very positive. I've enjoyed not only its build quality, but the ease-of-use found in the entire Harmony line. I like the online setup (and its provided safety net). I like the solid feel and smooth operation of the physical buttons. The touch screen itself is a modern touch, reminiscent of newer smart phones (but much less sophisticated).
But like all electronic products, it's not perfect.
First, while the Touch Screen is very nice, it's so sensitive I find myself accidentally hitting the wrong button from time to time. Further, the Power Off button is quite small and sometimes requires a second push to begin the process of powering down my system.
Oddly (and though I don't have a smart solution to offer), I found the overall length of the Harmony One to be a challenge. All the physical buttons are in a great place, but the remote is so tall it often requires a two handed approach to reach the Touch Screen. Not a terrible problem, of course, but my iPhone is a veritable hand-held computer (Literally. It's faster and has a bigger hard drive than my 1998 college desktop) and everything is within a single flick of my thumb.
Also, while I love-love-love the computer-programming interface, the Customize Buttons feature can be a chore. Many Activities come with more than five pages worth of Additional Buttons -- which is fine -- but when someone needs to take something on page 4 and put it on page 1, clicking it up and down one by one takes too long and often causes some awkward swapping issues. It's too bad these aren't drag-and-drop like the Netflix Queue.
My last issue with the Harmony One is battery life. Granted, with more functionality and a bright, clear touch screen, there's no way the battery could last as long between charges as some of the cheaper models I've encountered. It took a little while to get adjusted to the difference; to get into the habit of charging it more often.
One thing I love, though, about the Harmony One over the 880 involves the low battery warning. The 880 not only beeps incessantly when the battery is dying, but it also requires exiting out of a message to keep using it (I had more than one occasion where the 880 turned my TV on to a channel where a show was already in progress and spoiling the episode, but I couldn't click away because it only then decided to tell me that I had a low battery). The great news is while the Harmony One reminds you to charge it, it's much, much less annoying and interruptive.
Deciding whether or not a universal remote is right for your household probably doesn't depend on just you. I'm guessing most of us here reading (or writing for) HDD can look at a coffee table with two thousand remotes and turn everything on as we need it, but the other people in your life may prefer something simple.
So let's turn this review over to my wife for a moment. When I asked her what she thought of the Harmony One after weeks of use, she said, "I like that it makes a noise when you touch it, and it has colors." As cute as her statement is (to me at least, and God help you if you say otherwise), it makes a perfect point. She never had to think about anything when using the Harmony One. It worked well. Every time.
And that's just about as good a compliment as any remote control can and should get. Simple. Elegant. Well constructed. Feels great in the hand. And works every time (especially for our apartment set up). In the future, I may need a bigger device, and this model might be a little pricey for those just starting to dip their toes in the welcoming waters of home theatre, but right now I'm a pretty big fan and will easily recommend this unit to anyone in this price and set up range.
Logitech Harmony Adapter for the PlayStation 3
Out of the box.
The Logitech Harmony Adapter for the PlayStation 3 comes in a small box featuring the adapter itself, a power cable, and an instruction booklet. The glossy black adapter is approximately 3" W x 3" D x 1" H. Find it in stores or online at places like Amazon for under $46.
This adapter works by accepting IR signals from a Logitech Harmony remote and then translating them into the PS3's native Bluetooth. Unlike patch-key adapters such as the Nyko PS2 (yes it was actually built for the PS2, but works on the PS3 too, thought not nearly as well as the Harmony) Adapter which I own, the Harmony PS3 Adapter does not hog one of your PS3's USB inputs.
Quick and painless. With the PlayStation 3 (and TV) already on, plug the PS3 adapter in and hide it amongst your gear where it can get line-of-sight IR signals from your Harmony remote. Then, under the PS3's Setting's menu, open up Accessory Settings and Register a BD Remote Control. On the Harmony Adapter, press the red "connect" button und tah-dah, you're connected. Power everything down and make sure you've set up your Harmony remote's Devices to include a PlayStation 3 (and that the Watch a DVD or Blu-ray Activity includes the PlayStation 3 as its Device). You're good to go.
In Use -- What I Loved and What Could Be Better.
As someone who has spent over two years manually controlling the power and eject functions on my PS3 through either the actual machine's buttons or the XMB interface, I love this little adapter. Sure, it's another plug and wire, and I'm not a huge fan of the little green light (indicating that it has power) on the front, but the Harmony PS3 Adapter is a breath of fresh air. It brings a level of convenience to the PS3 (without having to deal with separate remotes) that can only be found in stand-alone players. Everything's so simple now. It turns on when I press my Blu-ray Activity button. It ejects discs when I want (although, please note it's a smart idea to fully stop and quit out of a movie first, or the system gets stuck. If that happens, don't worry. Simply push the PS button, which is among the Harmony's PS3 Additional Buttons. In the case of my Harmony One, that's in the Touch Screen area). And then my PS3 turns off all by itself when I switch over to watch DirecTV or power down the entire system. Heavenly. Simple pleasures for simple people, am I right?
Other than the glowing green light, I have no real complaints. Perhaps the next generation could be smaller?
Since I'm a cheap bastard and this adapter didn't actually exist when the PlayStation 3 (or PS3 as the kids say in their hipster verbage) became my primary Blu-ray Player in October of 2008, I had never gotten a chance to use the Logitech Harmony PS3 Adapter…until now.
Boy was I wrong to not pony up the cash on day one. It's fantastic, super easy to set up and forget, and really completes the PlayStation 3 as a Blu-ray Disc player. For anyone who owns a Logitech Harmony series remote and a PS3, this is highly recommended.
Final Thoughts and Your Thoughts
What do you think, dear readers? Do you have a computer programmable universal remote? Have you used or owned any Harmony products, and would you recommend one to your friends and colleagues? How complicated are your set-ups? Hit up the forums to weigh in and discuss.
As for me, until I'm a kabillionaire with a dedicated home theatre and whole-home video & audio neatly tucked away in a remote corner of the McMansion which will require a more advanced product, the Harmony One and PS3 Adapter are two quality products perfect for me. The guy who likes things easy and well-made. The guy whose gear is all line-of-sight ready.
The Harmony One is reasonably affordable (though admittedly not dirt cheap -- here is a case of paying for what you get) and easy to program. Recommended if you have the funds. And the PS3 Adapter is a Must Buy for anyone who uses the PlayStation 3 as his or her primary Blu-ray player.