Saturday, December 06, 2008

Gadget review: Harmony 520 Universal Remote

I recently upgraded my TV from an older Hitachi rear-projection HiDef TV to a brand-new Samsung 46" LCD model. Circuit City gave me a pretty sweet deal by buying a Samsung Blu-Ray player to go with it. Of course, now that I had all this new gear, I felt compelled to replace my old Sony AV receiver with one with HDMI ports. So back to Circuit City for a Sony STR-DG720 AV receiver.

But this isn't about all the new AV's about the damnable pile of remote controls I had to run everything. Four in all, to be exact: one each for the TV, Blu-Ray player, AV receiver and cable TV/DVR box. It was driving me crazy (and Ms. Pool Bar crazier) having the remotes lined up like A-10s on the flight line awaiting the next mission. Not to mention having to juggle a minimum of two remotes to do any TV or disc viewing.

So I went and got a basic universal remote, which would have been just fine, oh, 10 years ago or so. Not one of the new devices would work with it. I'd come across Logitech's Harmony series of "Advanced Universal Remotes" when I was shopping for a cheapo one, but paying upwards of a hundred bucks for something so simple seemed silly. But after having no luck with anything else, I picked up a Harmony 520 and figured I'd give it a shot. (The link is actually for a Harmony 510, but it seems to be pretty much the same thing...there's no 520 model on Logitech's site.)

While other universal remotes require you to punch in a three or four digit code to tell it what kind of TV or disc player you have, the Harmony demands much, MUCH more info. But it's well worth it. First, you have to install the Harmony's software on a computer, after which it immediately downloads updates so it "knows" about all the latest AV devices on the market. Then, you connect the Harmony remote to your computer via the supplied USB cable and get down to business.

First, the Harmony setup wizard asks you what devices comprise your AV system...TV manufacturer and model, cable box manufacturer and model, and so on. Because the Harmony configuration software knows what inputs each of your devices has, it learns how you've got your AV components configured. Then, it configures "activities" for your remote, like "Watch TV" or "Watch a DVD". For those activities it knows which devices must be turned on and what input sources must be selected for that activity. From there on out, you're good to go.

I thought for sure that the remote wouldn't be smart enough to handle DVR viewing, though. I was sure I'd have to keep the cable/DVR remote around because of those stupid "List" and "A", "B" and "C" buttons necessary for watching shows we've recorded. Nope. When the remote is in "Watch TV" mode, it simply has those four buttons presented in its LCD display for selection. Sweet!

Logitech also makes a Harmony 1000 which retails for $500, but unless you're running a multi-media teleconferencing center, it's probably overkill. The 520, though, is a must-have item. It retails for $100, but I got it for $70 at BJ's. Amazon has them for even less.

Update: After using this remote for a few weeks, the only complaints I've got are related to the action of the buttons. First, you'll develop biceps in your fingers pressing the rubberized buttons for the DVR (play, fast-forward, reverse) controls. They take a bit of mashing, and there seems to be more "travel" on the buttons than other remotes I've used. Second, the other rubberized buttons that are long and narrow are so narrow that I have to use a thumbnail to press them, due to the excessive downward travel required. That might result in early wear on those buttons. Even knowing these deficiencies ahead of time, I'd still have bought it.


Mark said...

I got the Harmony 550, which I think is a lesser model... go figure.

It works great... but I occasionally get calls for tech support from the wife... the kids at least have figured out the help wizard...

Anonymous said...

Im pretty sure this is just bs advertising. I have a Harmony 520 and it WILL NOT work with a blu ray player of any kind. Obviously the writer of this post has never actually used one of these remotes.

Eric said...

No, it's NOT BS advertising. I've never advertised on this now mostly-idle blog. On the rare occasions I've posted "gadget reviews" here it's been on things I actually own and use.

I've had the Harmony for going on three years now, and it's worked with every device I've configured on it, including the new Blu Ray player I just bought last month.

I suspect user error.