Product Review: Logitech's Harmony 900 Universal Remote
While building a home theater stocked with a variety of electronic components is lots of fun, unfortunately, going the do-it-yourself route often ends with, well, not quite the proverbial Tower of Babel but perhaps worse from your significant other’s point of view – the dreaded Coffee Table of Babel. Those remote controls for the TV, A/V receiver, DVD or Blu-Ray player, cable or satellite set-top box, and other electronic equipment all begin to pile up, making for an ugly mess, and making the home theater appear more complex to operate than it otherwise is.
Back in 2004, Logitech acquired Easy Zapper, a Canadian startup specializing in universal remote controls, giving a firm best known for computer accessories such as replacement keyboards and mice a foothold in the home theater industry.
Under their Harmony division’s moniker, Logitech now produces a full range of remotes in a variety of retail price-points from $29 to $349. While their most advanced remote is arguably the tablet-shaped Harmony 1100, after reading a variety of reviews, I decided to avoid the tablet shape and go with the model directly below it, Logitech’s Harmony 900, which as of the time of this review, sells for $240.99 at Amazon.com.
This is a remote geared towards someone who knows his way around both his home theater and to some extent his PC as well, and who’s prepared to tinker a bit to set up the remote. In other words, expect a bit of set-up time, but once complete, it does make for a rather powerful remote.
Programming the Remote
After installing the supplied software on your PC, the first step is to gather all of your existing remotes, and to write down the brand and model numbers of all of your home theater components. Logitech maintains a database of approximately 5,000 brands and 225,000 devices, which the Harmony 900’s PC interface will search in order to set-up your remote. If you have a component that’s not on there, don’t fret – as long as you have its remote, you should be able to manually program its codes into the Harmony 900 while it’s plugged into your computer via its supplied USB cable.
It’s also possible to tweak the remote to add functions not included in the database. For example, since I do just about all of my TV watching with my A/V receiver on for surround sound, I ended up programming the A/V receiver’s volume and mute controls into the various devices controlled by the remote. Depending upon the amount of equipment you own, and the level of control you’re aiming for, early on you may have to do a fair amount of tweaking to customize the remote to your preferences.
While the Harmony 900 allows control over individual components, its first emphasis is on what it calls (on the remote’s GUI) “Activities.” These typically include watching TV, watching a movie, playing a CD, etc. The Harmony 900 will group together tasks so that pressing one button on the remote will automatically do things such as:
- Turn on your A/V receiver.
- Switch it to the TV input.
- Turn on your TV.
- Make sure it’s switched whichever input the satellite TV is on.
- Turn on the satellite TV digital set-top box.
And so on. A similar activity can be programmed watching a movie, which switch everything on to watch a DVD. For those with a few pieces of home theater gear that need to work together in harmony (if you’ll pardon the pun), this is a pretty convenient way to begin a few hours of television watching.
The Harmony 900 also supports individual components of course, which it calls “Devices.” The remote’s GUI can be toggled back and forth between devices and activities.
Harmony 900 Plays Nicely With DirecTV
Whenever I shop for a universal remote, one of my considerations is how DirecTV’s DRV-based remote control will match up with the new remote. The DirecTV remote is itself a well-designed control, featuring color-coded buttons for that match-up with DirecTV’s on-screen GUI to record shows, advance the on-screen guide, etc. Fortunately, the Harmony 900 replicates these functions, right down to matching color coded buttons. The remote’s array of up, down, left and right and buttons match-up well with the DirecTV’s remote’s controls. Within a day or two of using the Harmony 900, I was able to put my DirecTV remote on a shelf without missing it.
RF to IR Transmitters Feel Slightly Cheesy
The Harmony 900 generates both infrared and RF (radio frequency) signals, allowing it control devices inside home theater cabinets, and in other rooms. Unfortunately, the design of the IR receivers may be one of the minor weaknesses of the remote. For at least 15 years or so, high-end home theater systems have relied on a fairly standardized system of small IR receivers to convert RF into infrared signals. These IR transmitters can be placed directly on top of the infrared input of each home theater component, often with their own supplied self-adhesive tape. Unfortunately though, the designers of the Harmony 900 chose to reinvent the wheel. The remote is supplied with a kludgey-looking main RF module, which connects to a small A/C adaptor, and two IR blasters, which are themselves larger than necessary. Perhaps Logitech didn’t want to risk marring a component with the gunk from adhesive tape, or were worried that it would take inexperienced used some time to position their blasters. But once the blasters are positioned, they work fine, if not as small and aesthetically pleasing as they could be.
Powering the Harmony 900 is a rechargeable lithium ion battery which must first be placed inside the Harmony 900 once you remove the unit from its box. The Harmony ships with a cradle to place it in to automatically charge the battery when it’s not being used. Logitech promises the Harmony 900 will run for about a week on that battery, but most users will likely return the unit to the cradle after each session in the den or media room, ensuring that it’s fully charged before each use.
As C/Net noted in their review of the Harmony 900, beyond the step-by-step activities commands, the Harmony 900 doesn’t support macros, which may cause some power users to eschew this remote:
Like the Harmony 1100, this model doesn't support customized user-programmable macros. To be clear: the activity-based programming that has long made Harmony models a favorite of ours is still here. So, when you hit "Watch TV," you can have your TV, AV receiver, and DVR power up and toggle to the preferred input and settings. But you cannot program separate custom multi-step commands. So, home theater enthusiasts who are used to programming the lights to come up whenever they pause the disc player (for instance) will now need to handle that sort of duty manually (with one or two additional keystrokes). We don't think it's a huge loss, but the absence of custom macro programming on such an expensive remote is notable. If it's important to you, you'll want to look elsewhere.
All in all though, this is well-thought out and highly functional remote control. If you’re comfortable doing a little of the set-up work via your PC, and you’d rather not spend four figures for the high-end version of Philips’ Pronto, and/or go the custom route and have a home theater professional integrate your system, for under $250 at Amazon.com, the Logitech Harmony 900 is an excellent universal remote.