HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



February
2006

Reviewed by
Jeff Van Dyne
REVIEWERS' CHOICE


Logitech
Harmony 880
Universal Remote Control

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: Harmony 880

Price: $249 USD
Dimensions: 8.06"L x 2.31"W x 1.38"D
Weight: 6 ounces

Warranty: One year parts and labor


Features
  • Learning remote
  • Internet-based setup
  • Smart State technology
  • Eight onscreen activity buttons
  • Hard buttons
  • Color LCD screen
  • TiVo/satellite controls
  • 2MB flash memory
  • Rechargeable lithium-ion battery
  • Recharging cradle

I have a love-hate relationship with my Philips Pronto remote control. It’s bulky, ugly, is a serious pain to program, and the LCD screen is hard to read in a brightly lit room. On the other hand, its ability to completely customize everything has allowed it to reliably control almost every component I’ve thrown at it, which is a lot. However, it is, at best, an imperfect solution that requires an inordinate amount of time and effort to program.

It’s extremely rare that a remote control comes along that can make our constantly changing home-theater system simple enough to operate that my wife doesn’t give up in complete frustration, and that doesn’t require a computer science degree to set up. However, since reviewing the Logitech Harmony 688 last year, I’ve come to expect exactly this from Logitech’s Harmony line. The 688 was among the best remotes I had seen up till then, and now they’ve upped the ante again, with the Harmony 880 Universal Remote Control ($249).

Sleek design

Right out of the box, the Harmony 880 impressed me. It’s sleek, stylish, and sexy -- in stark contrast to the Philips Pronto, which is twice the width and comparatively brick-like. The 880’s curved, charcoal-and-silver housing is the very picture of elegance and modern design. The small color LCD near the top only adds to the positive effect.

A small, chrome Off button at the 880’s top is flanked by Activities and Help buttons. Activities brings up on the LCD screen a list of the routines you’ve programmed. The Help key is used primarily to set things straight when something goes awry during an Activity macro -- for example, if someone walks between the remote and a component while a macro is in progress. To resolve the situation, hit Help and answer the questions until everything is back in order. Of course, you could get up and physically set the affected component to the proper status, but why should you when you can correct it from the comfort of your couch?

The eight-position LCD panel occupies the remainder of the 880’s top third. I found this infinitely easier to read than my Pronto’s dull gray screen, especially in conditions of bright light. The top portion of the LCD displays the day and time, battery charge status, and the remote’s current mode. The rest of the display is flanked by four small buttons on either side to activate whatever command is displayed next to it on the LCD. If you have a simple system with few activities to control, the Activity panel can be set to use the screen’s entire width to display only four activities at a time. This makes the text and icons larger and even easier to read. A tilt sensor wakes up the LCD when the remote is moved appreciably.

Directly below the LCD is the Glow button; this turns the display on and off manually, should you need to. To either side of that are keys for paging back and forth through multiple pages of LCD displays. One of my components was originally set up with nine pages of custom command keys on the LCD display, for a total of nearly 70 custom buttons. In my opinion, hybrid hard-button-and-LCD remotes such as the Harmony 880 offer the ultimate in flexibility and ease of use, with real buttons for the most common functions and an LCD to handle unusual and less frequently used commands.

The series of buttons that runs along the LCD panel continues, in an elongated oval, down the sides of the remote to just past the remote’s midpoint. To the left and right of the Page up/down controls are the Mute and Prev Channel buttons, respectively. Below these are the Volume and Channel up/down keys. Completing the bottom of the oval are Up and Down arrow keys, which I never used during the course of the review. Just inside the oval’s bottom arc is a small cursor pad, an OK/Enter button at its center.

The bottom half of the remote is in three sections. The top is a single row of four keys: Menu, Exit, Guide, and Info. These are essential and well placed for control of my DirecTV system, though I wish the Guide and Exit keys (which I use frequently) were at the far left and right of the row. The next section contains two rows of keys to control the functions of DVD players, DVRs, and the like. Finally, the bottom section contains a numeric keypad. In this case I had to reprogram the "+" key to a "-" in order to be able to use it to select channels with my Hughes HD DirecTV receiver.

One concern I had with the Harmony 688 was that its buttons were too small for me to determine their function by feel alone. In the 880, Harmony has largely addressed this issue with a better spacing and shaping of buttons, though many are still small. The Volume and Channel keys could be a bit wider, and Play is awkwardly placed for my right hand. But other than those minor issues, I found very little to argue with.

The Harmony 880 comes with its own charging base and rechargeable lithium-ion battery, eliminating the need to hunt down (and buy!) fresh batteries every few months.

Simple setup

Like all Harmony remotes, the 880 is programmed via the Internet. First, you install a small software program on your PC, then connect the 880 via a provided USB cable. Once that’s done, log on to Logitech Harmony’s website, logitech.com/harmony, and register your unit. The site then walks you through the setup wizard, which does the initial setup. But before you start, make a list of your components’ makes and model numbers, and determine which input each component needs to be hooked up to for proper operation. After that, it’s a simple matter of answering a series of questions to set up each component and activity.

In my experience of two different Harmony remotes that together have controlled 20 or more different components, this initial setup will get you 90-95% of the functionality you’ll need, with no additional effort. When first using the 880, keep pad and pen handy to jot down which functions are missing or don’t work as expected. Then return to the Logitech website to add or fix those functions. It’s that simple.

I spent about as much time programming the Harmony 880 to control my entire home-theater system as I did to modify the existing panels on my Philips Pronto to control just the basic functions of an Outlaw Model 990 processor. The 45 minutes or so I spent setting up the 880 was nothing compared to the days I’ve been tied up designing and programming individual devices, panels, and macros for the Pronto -- an exercise in frustration I’ll be glad to give up. During the course of this review, whenever a new component arrived I grabbed the Harmony 880 and quickly reprogrammed it to include the new component’s controls, rather than spend an hour or two reprogramming the Pronto.

Simplicity at work

Like all Harmony remotes, the 880 is activity-based. This means that you press the button that describes what it is you’d like to do, and the remote turns everything on and sets it to the appropriate input. What most contributes to making this work is the fact that the 880 tracks which components are turned on and which input each is switched to. No matter what state your system is in, the Harmony knows exactly what it needs to do to set up the system for the next activity. The simplicity of pressing a single button to fire up a home theater and having everything be set up automatically is nothing short of amazing, considering some systems’ complexity. I know people who keep instruction sheets in their home theaters that describe exactly how to get the systems to work. They could use an 880.

The one system in our house that has resisted all attempts at automation is the simplest. Our small home gym has only a DirecTV receiver, a Panasonic DVD player, and an inexpensive Polaroid LCD display. It’s that Polaroid flat panel that has proved a constant source of programming frustration. The problem is in selecting the appropriate input from an onscreen menu. If the menu always started from the top, I could program a macro to reliably select the input. Unfortunately, the TV is smart enough to remember the last input, which means that I have no way of knowing in advance the list’s starting point. It’s beyond me why, in this day of universal remotes, anyone is still designing input-selection methods that can’t be programmed into a macro. Polaroid is not alone, however; I constantly run across posters to Web forums who are searching for discrete codes to use with equipment from a wide variety of manufacturers.

It took some digging through the various options on Harmony’s website, but I eventually found a way to adjust how the 880 handles input selection. I was able to describe the input menu structure and the manner in which my LCD display selects the input. It took a few tries to get it all working, but I now have a remote that has fully automated our gym system, which had frustrated my wife from day one. This is a huge improvement.

In such a situation, even the formidable programming power of the Philips Pronto was no match for the Harmony 880. The Pronto’s inability to track the status of a system was its Achilles’ heel, and meant that it never had a hope of automating the gym system. Even with all the programming power of the Pronto, if you can’t get discrete power and input codes for each component, you may find it impossible to fully automate the operation of even the simplest system.

Conclusion

Juggling the size, ergonomics, power, flexibility, and ease of use of a programmable remote control is difficult to do. Most remotes fail miserably in at least one of these areas, but in the last few years Harmony has steadily advanced toward a more perfect balance. However, the real story of the Logitech Harmony 880 is the amazing amount of power and flexibility it provides for minimal investments in programming and setup time. I’ve spent many hundreds of dollars over the years searching for the perfect remote; with the Harmony 880, Logitech has just about nailed it.

Review System
Speakers - Magnepan MC1 (mains, surrounds), Magnepan CC3 (center), Rocket UFW-10 (subwoofer)
Preamplifier-Processor - Anthem AVM 20
Amplifier - Rotel RB-976
Sources - Panasonic DVD-S27 DVD player, Pioneer DV-563A DVD player, Philips DSX-5500 DirecTV receiver, Sony SAT HD200 DirecTV receiver, Hughes DirecTV HR10-250 HD TiVo
Cables - Analysis Plus, Audio Magic, Monster Cable, Straight Wire
Monitor - Hitachi 46F500 rear-projection HDTV, Polaroid FLM-2011 LCD flat-panel display
 

Manufacturer contact information:

Logitech Inc.
6505 Kaiser Drive
Fremont, CA 94555
Phone: (510) 795-8500

Website: www.logitech.com/harmony


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