We liked yesteryear's Logitech Harmony One but it wasn't without its flaws. Logitech has raised its game with the Harmony 900 universal remote control. It's available for around £350.
The remote looks almost identical to the Harmony One, except for some small but notable improvements. For starters, Logitech has increased the sharpness of the screen. This isn't a huge deal, but it gives the interface a cleaner look. You can now choose between four colour 'themes' that put a new skin on the interface, although it doesn't look radically different from theme to theme. We assume additional themes will become available for download.
Logitech has also added a row of buttons in the middle of the remote that correspond to the red, blue, green and yellow tabs you'll find on Blu-ray player remotes for controlling interactivity options during playback of Blu-ray discs. These buttons are also useful for mapping to various confirmation buttons that appear on DVRs and cable/satellite boxes.
The other change is the addition of radio frequency, and its implementation. With previous Harmony RF models, you had to set up the remote and RF separately by connecting both the remote and RF module to your computer via the USB port. Every time you updated the remote, you had to update the RF module -- a major pain if you had an intricate set-up and had to take the RF module out of a cabinet or closet.
With the Harmony 900, Logitech's gone to a whole new RF system and has greatly simplified the set-up and update processes. You no longer have to connect the RF module to your computer. You can just leave it in your rack or cabinet and choose which components you want to control via infrared (which requires line of sight) or RF from the remote itself in a special RF set-up menu.
The small RF module is powered by an AC adaptor (it's a duplicate of the adaptor that charges the remote) and is designed to be tucked into the back of your cabinet, behind your components. You then plug two mini IR blasters into the back of the RF module (there are A and B ports) and place the blasters just in front of your components. If your components are in a cabinet with shelves, you can stick one blaster on a left shelf and one on a right shelf. The IR signals reflect off surfaces, so the two IR blasters should cover all your components, except perhaps your TV, which is always within your line of sight anyway. If two blasters don't cut it for your set-up, you can buy additional RF modules and blasters.
The system we tested the RF with wasn't in a closed cabinet, and the TV sat on top of the horizontal component rack. We decided to let IR control the TV and RF control the rest of the components. Because we had one IR adaptor on a lower shelf next to the AV receiver, we were worried that it wouldn't be able to control the cable box on a higher shelf. But it turned out we had no problems controlling all our components, even though the system was in an open rack with three levels and included seven components, not including the TV.
Alas, the only unit that we couldn't control was our PlayStation 3, which uses Bluetooth and has no IR receiver. In an ideal world the Harmony 900 would offer Bluetooth connectivity, but we can't fault Logitech for Sony's stupidity. Thankfully, there's now a solution: Logitech offers a PS3-specific IR-to-Bluetooth converter module for £45.
Sleek and comfortable
Logitech's done an excellent job with the remote's appearance and ergonomics. The remote is sleek and sits comfortably in your hand. Plenty of thought has been put into the button layout, with hard, backlit buttons that are differentiated in size and shape, so you can navigate by feel without looking down at the remote, at least when performing basic operations like changing channels, adjusting volume and pressing play. While the remote appears to be loaded with buttons, it actually has fewer than previous Harmony remotes. The remote is essentially divided into five zones of operation (they're designated by faint, silver lines), with the colour LCD at the top constituting the fifth zone.
The touchscreen on this model is as responsive as that of the Harmony One. We really like the two glowing, touch-sensitive buttons on either side of the screen that allow you to easily scroll between 'pages' of soft buttons. Additionally, two touch-sensitive buttons allow you to toggle between 'options', 'devices' and 'activities'. The touch-orientated interface really makes the remote a pleasure to use.
The Harmony 900 ships with a docking station for juicing up the included rechargeable li-ion battery. You simply place the remote in its cradle (unlike some earlier Harmony remotes, this model fits securely in its charging station). Not does a recharging option let you save dough on batteries, but, if you're good about leaving the remote in its cradle, you'll always know where it is when you need it. Battery life is good -- Logitech says you should be able to go a week or more without recharging. It's also worth noting that the battery is replaceable.
As with all of Logitech's new remotes, the Harmony 900 features a motion sensor, so it automatically turns on when you pick it up. The LCD turns off after a short time of inactivity to conserve the battery. You can adjust the LCD's shut-off interval, as well as the brightness, in the settings menu.
In terms of programming the remote, the Harmony 900 works in the same way as its stablemates. Programming a universal remote can be a frustrating and time-consuming process, involving punching in a series of multi-digit codes for each component in your AV system. But Harmony remotes are programmed by hooking them up to your Internet-connected Windows PC or Mac with the supplied USB cable, installing the model-specific version of Harmony software, and answering a fairly simple online questionnaire on the company's Web site.
You simply choose your home-cinema components from a list, explain how they're connected, and define their roles in activity-based functions, such as 'watch TV', 'watch DVD' and 'listen to music'. For each function, you specify which devices and inputs the remote must enable. You can also choose which keypad functions will punch through to which specific devices -- for example, you can have the channel buttons always control the cable box or the volume controls dedicated to the TV. After you've completed the questionnaire, the software uploads all the relevant control codes to the Harmony 900.
As simple as the remote generally is, some people may encounter a few snags when initially setting it up. Luckily, Logitech's customer service is generally very good and the company has continued to make improvements to its software system. Logitech occasionally offers firmware upgrades, as well as upgrades to the Harmony desktop software.
While there's still no way to manage multiple Harmony remotes on the same account (you're required to create separate user accounts, with separate names and passwords, for each of them), Logitech has made it very easy to swap in a new Harmony remote for an old one. For example, if you already had an older Harmony that you use with your main living-room system, you could quickly swap in the Harmony 900, and then set up a separate profile for the old Harmony, to be used in another room.
If you have a complicated system, you can expect to spend some time fine-tuning the remote to get it to work just right, although it should be noted that our set-up of the Harmony 900 went off without a hitch and we had full control over a seven-component system within 35 minutes (including the RF set-up). Logitech's Web site provides advanced, macro-style options for delay times, multi-step commands and other functions.
In terms of complaints, the remote's glossy black finish is a fingerprint magnet, and we wish Logitech would come up with a way to let you manage multiple Harmony remotes from a single user account. Built-in Bluetooth support would be good, but the add-on dongle works fine for PS3 owners. The only other real issue is the remote's relatively high price tag, which may scare off some people. But, if you don't need RF, you can always default back to the IR-only Harmony One, which retails at a more reasonable £120 or thereabouts.
The similarly priced Logitech Harmony 1100, which also features RF, offers more on-screen button options than the Harmony 900, because the screen is much larger. Our tastes lean more towards wand-style remotes, however, and we think the Harmony 900 is more responsive and easier to use than the Harmony 1100. And, unlike tablet-style touchscreen devices, the basic functions of the Harmony 900 can largely be navigated by touch. Its RF set-up is also significantly better than that of the Harmony 1100, so, until Logitech upgrades the RF module and blasters that come with its tablet-style remote, the Harmony 900 is the better choice. It's one of the best consumer remotes with pro aspirations that we've tested to date.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet