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Logitech Harmony Remote 885

2006, review

Logitech 885 remoteI've recently come into possesion of a Logitech Harmony 885 Remote (which seems identical to the 880 model in the 'states) as a replacement for my Phillips Pronto RU940 (soon to be put on sale at eBay). The Pronto has lasted well (and is still very capable) but the downside to the Pronto is that there's no cursor pad, just buttons on the back-lit LCD. Although it worked in pretty much any ambient lighting condition (and the back-lit green LCD reminded me of my old Psion 5), it wasn't something that you could really use without looking at it.

The Logitech remote, on the other hand, does have a 5-way cursor which will be familiar to anyone who's used an iPod or TiVo remote control. It also fits neatly into a single hand, like the TiVo remote does (though the newer Prontos, like the NG and Neo, have the cursor and in the case of the Neo, are designed to be held in one hand). It also has a numeric keypad, separate buttons for the normal DVD-type fast-forward/play/record options, as well as a colour LCD screen that can be programmed with a series of individual options. It's not a touch-sensitive screen; rather, the 8 buttons flank the screen 4 a side, and there's always two columns of menu options. It's obviously a lot more limited than the Pronto (which can have its own graphics defined and any number/size/position of buttons on the touch screen) but on the whole works.

A neat feature of the remote is that you can define activities (very much like the Pronto's macros). However, the difference between a simple macro and the harmony activity is that you express what you want to happen, and it figures out how to take you there. So you can have activities like "Watch TiVo" and "Watch DVD", and it will figure out that it needs to turn the TV on, set the channel to Ext 1 or Ext 2 as appropriate. Even better, if you then switch to another activity, it knows that the TV is already on so doesn't send the power signal again. On my Pronto, I had two macros; one for turning everything on, and then others to switch to TiVo or switch to DVD. The only downside is that if it gets out of step with realiity (e.g. your 10 month old switches off the TV manually) then the remote thinks that the TV is still on when it's not. Fortunately, there's a neat "Help" button that tries to prompt you with questions like "Is the TV on?" and "Is the TV on now?" to try and get the devices synchronized.

The good points about the remote include:

  • You can hold it in one hand.
  • The buttons have tactile feedback, so you can use it without looking at it most of the time.
  • It's got most of the controls that you'd need for most pieces of equipment, and for the extras that you hardly ever use, you can display on the menu.
  • The activities are great for people who come around rarely (baby sitters, parents) or technophobes (spouses) who otherwise would have to deal with many remote controls and know what to press.
  • The colour LCD is better than a monochrome one, and you can upload images e.g. of aforementioned 10 month old son.
  • It comes with a base charger by default, so you can just drop it down onto the charger when it's not in use. The Pronto one used to be extra, though I don't know if they chuck it in for free these days.
  • You program it by hooking it up with USB and getting software up/down. Plus, it works on a Mac as well as Windows (Linux: unlikely).
  • The remote has got a clock on-board, which is quite useful if you don't have a watch or clock nearby.
  • There's a movement sensor which will turn on the LCD and backlight if you move the remote, and they then power off after a few seconds of inactivity.

It's not all great though. The downsides include:

  • TiVo's remote control -- with two circular arrangements for the menu navigation and the play/fast-forward/pause -- is much better than the Logitech's with only one circular arrangement. The play button is to the far right of the player controls, which makes it a bit odd to find and may be an issue for left-handed people.
  • The software for configuring the Harmony is only via Logitech's website. That means they could go bankrupt, and I'd have no way of configuring my Harmony remote to do something else. Maybe open-source will save the day in the end, but I doubt it.
  • The website is pretty bad at customising the remote. Granted, it works for simple setups; and in fact, it's pretty easy for first-timers to use. Here's the model of my TV, here's the model of my DVD player, and whack! it puts it all together. When you want to change it, however, there's no easy way to get it the way that you want without going through numerous web pages and clicking questions and answers. Lastly, there's no way of organising the menu items that appear on the LCD; they just appear in a quasi random order based on what configurations you set. Although this could easily be upgraded at any time, given that the Logitech series of remotes have been out for some time now, it's unlikely to be an improvement that they are likely to make.
  • There's no macro functionality. Granted, the activites do what you want most of the time, but if you wanted to have a particular sequence that wasn't an activity (e.g. press fast forward, wait 2 secs, press play) then you can't do that with this remote control. You can't even group operations together; say that a TV menu was down/down/right/select; although you can manually perform this sequence, there's no way of recording it as a macro for later use.
  • Their customer service sucks. I filed a complaint about the quality of the website configurator pretty much as soon as I first used it, and got an automated reply back saying 'We're looking into it' or thereabouts. I then got a mail 48h later, saying that since I hadn't added anything new about my complaint, that this meant I was obviously now happy and thus the matter could be closed. Seriously, have you ever heard of a CRM system (or bug tracking system) that automatically closes bugs/reports 48h after they were made if no additional information was logged by the reporter? See my worries above about the fears that the website could go titsup.com and not have a leg to stand on.

Would I recommend this remote to anyone? Well, the hardware is nice. It's probably also got a easier initial setup than something like the Pronto (largely because the software runs on Macs, and uses USB instead of serial (the Pronto now uses USB, but the software still only runs on Windows). Plus, you specify your equipment in terms of the model number, and it knows the codes immediately; the Pronto needs a bit of teaching to let it know what devices you have. However, the Pronto is more flexible, allowing you to record and manipulate the UI on the Pronto itself (meaning that a computer isn't even necessary to set that up; the Harmony needs both a computer and an internet connection to get going).

The software for setting the remote up sucks; I think that if either they opened the specs to others for implementing the software, there'd be much better UIs available (and for different platforms, too). I suspect they want to keep control of it because (a) they then don't have to distribute the database of IR codes and model nubmers, and (b) they can quietly distribute firmware updates without people knowing about it. At the end of the day, it's always about control. The Pronto edit is nice though, and has an emulator that allows you to test-drive your settings before uploading it.

So, I would recommend this remote -- but only just. The hardware is very nice and easy to use; it's the (configuration) software that lets it down, as well as the customer support. If you can live with the defiiciencies in these areas, then it's a nice remote to have around. Otherwise, you might like to look at which Pronto is right for you.

By the way, this seems fundamentally the same as the Harmony 995, except that the 995 uses an RF tranceiver to send the signals to your AV equipment located elsewhere. I didn't need that since I've already got an IR transceiver, but if your equipment is hidden away, it might be a good thing to look at. Oh, and if you're in the 'states, this is called the 880 for no particularly good reason.