Monday, May 25, 2009

Logitech Harmony One Universal Remote

Back in February, I finally decided to research a good universal remote for the growing maze of settings and devices which constituted my home theater setup (M'ame Cyte was beginning to display a marked aversion to the operation of our shiny new television. It was time to act, lest that purchase be retroactively rethunk).

Usually, these searches rapidly bog down in a host of conflicting reviews, and lists of pros and cons which balance each other maddeningly. It was astonishing, then, to encounter such near-unanimity about the quality of a product as I found when I read about Logitech's Harmony One remote. Apart from some quibbling about its lack of RF capabilities (though IR repeater kits are cheap and easy to install), everyone seemed to like it.

After over three months, I can honestly say that I know what everyone was talking about. The thing is simply a joy to use, is eminently configurable, and feels so natural and comfortable in the hand that I sometimes forget to put it down.

The great innovation of Logitech's remote designs is their emphasis on an activity-based (as opposed to a device-based) interface. When you go from sequential menus prompting you to power up multiple devices, switch them to their correct inputs/outputs, then select which controls will be active at any given a tidy little touch screen which invites you to "Play A DVD," you are looking at a tasty little quality-of-life truffle indeed.

Speaking of touch screens, this lengthy and very informative review walks you through the highly intuitive configuration software through which you can customize that screen's soft buttons (not to mention assigning a variety of functions to the remote's hard buttons). You then simply plug in the USB device cable, and synchronize the remote to the settings you've specified. Neat!

Once synched, you activate the desired event by tapping the gently but highly visibly lit screen button, and hold the remote pointed at your components. It then executes a macro which activates and sets up your various devices in turn. If the beam should be blocked, or something else leave one or more components out of phase, there is a handy "help" button which prompts you to answer a series of yes/no questions ("Is the TV on?" "Is the TV set to [HDMI2]?" etc.), followed by "did this fix the problem?" You then operate the familiar hard buttons (which are themselves softly backlit, activated via accelerometer by a gentle shake).

Those hard buttons, by the way, are the result of many hours of beta testing to devise the most logical, comfortable, and generally ergonomic configuration possible. The results are very impressive. Each set of logically-grouped controls (e.g., "play/pause/stop/record, etc") corresponds to a different "plateau" of the comfortably stepped ventral surface of the remote, so the hand is guided intuitively to a given group of functions without having to take your eyes off the screen. The buttons themselves are shaped and positioned such that even someone with such atrocious kinaesthetic memory as myself can navigate the face of the remote by touch, hardly ever getting the buttons mixed up.

The total package is so small and sleek and light, that it is hard to believe the density of functionality that Logitech was able to pack onto its sports-car slick face. When not in use, the remote drops smartly into a charging cradle (the batteries are user-replaceable!), complete with a handy little white LED (whose brightness you can set) so you can find it after you've shut everything down (by means of a simple hard button which powers down any components which happen to be on at the time).

At less than $200 US, this is the remote for those who have any but the most rudimentary home theater setups.

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