Wikipedia defines a couch potato as a slang term for a person who spends most of his or her free time sitting or lying on a couch. You can read more about the history of the term here. The modern home has an average of one TV, a VCR, stereo, and a DVD player. And with the convergence of broadband, TV and computing, the multimedia home entertainment system is gaining ground. In all of this convenience lives one constant – the remote. Each appliance comes with a specially built remote that showcases the basic and unique features of the appliance.

But all good things must come to an end. The most used appliance naturally means higher wear and tear on the remote control. In my case, the remote for the TV in the living room is due for a replacement… and because it’s a really old model, a replacement remote is expensive.

For a couple of years now I’ve been thinking about replacing all the remotes with one universal remote control. It just made sense, why keep five or more controls if you can have one that does everything? Most remotes use infrared to control the appliance.

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, founded CL 9. to create a remote control that could operate multiple electronic devices. The CORE unit (Controller Of Remote Equipment) was unique in that it could ‘learn’ remote signals from different devices. It had the ability to perform specific or multiple functions at various times with its built-in clock. It was the first remote control that could be linked to a computer and loaded with updated software code as needed.

Which brings me to our review of the week – the Logitech Harmony 900. This unit comes from a long line of Harmony universal remote controls offered by Logitech.

The build of the Harmony 900 is solid. Charging is almost child-proof. But everything else after that is something else.

The box includes the Harmony 900, a charger cradle, two chargers, a central RF to IR blaster, and with two mini IR blasters. This is a radio frequency (RF) device. The blasters are meant to be used where the appliances to be controlled are behind a cabinet. Setup is a simple plug the master blaster (reminds me of the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome character – Master Blaster) and the two mini blasters. The complicated technology of synching these blasters to the remote itself is all done by the software.

Speaking of software, all the intelligence that goes into the Harmony 900 is by way of software… the Logitech Harmony Remote Software (currently version 7.7.0). The Remote unit itself is very solid to the feel. It feels like one of those weapons common to Sci-Fi flicks. I’m not going to do an exhaustive recap of the process I went through to test this unit. I tested it on two different systems. One is a simple Sharp TV-vcr console. The more complex system included a Panasonic 29″ TV hooked up to a cable TV decorder, and a Pioneer DVD player-recorder.

The product manager for the Logitech Harmony series told me it took him a couple of hours to make the proper setup. To be honest, two days of trying to get my Sharp TV to recognize the remote was frustrating the ‘hell’ out of me.

Suffice to say that it was only when I had the technical support person walk me through the process that I began to realize just how tedious it is to teach the Harmony 900 how a particular remote control controls an appliance. For the Sharp TV-vcr, it took us all of an hour to get the basics done right. Thereafter it took me another hour to teach the Harmony 900 additional features of the TV-vcr that were controlled by its proprietary remote.

WHAT I LIKE

The remote control unit itself is great. It is not too heavy and neither is it bulk. The display is touch sensitive and there are instances during the setting up or ‘learning’ mode when you are asked to press parts of the display to initiative commands.

If I were to believe what the product manager said, this device can control an entire home entertainment system in one go. He explained that if your setup includes a TV, DVD player, set-top box cable, HiFi – in other words, a true home entertainment system that rivals those in cinemas – the Harmony 900 can be trained to control all those devices. In fact, he said you can create a profile of the sequence with which each device

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

This is my first experience with a “learning” Remote. Quite frankly, the lack of a proper detailed printed manual frustrated me. This is not a simple device. For instance, you cannot teach the remote control without plugging it to your laptop via USB located in the nose or front of the control. But to do this, you have to remove it from the cradle. So if your remote is running low on power, you have to allocate time to charge the remote before proceeding with connecting to your computer.

This device cannot learn without the software that you install on your computer. So no computer, no Harmony remote, no magic. So each time you add a new device for the Harmony to replace, you have to plug it into your computer and teach it. Thankfully, once you get the hang of setting it up properly the rest of the process is easy.

For the Harmony 900 to learn a new remote, you first need to tell the software what device you want the Harmony to emulate. The process begins with telling it what appliance – brand and model. Then it checks its library if this model is already in its database. If yes, then the process is simple. If not, be prepared to sit through a long and tedious process of teaching the Harmony remote about your appliance.

MY FINAL THOUGHTS

Certainly this is a beautiful device. I have long wanted to buy a universal remote and when the opportunity to try out the Harmony 900, I didn’t hesitate at the opportunity. But three days of frustrating attempts to get the remote to learn how to control my TV, I came to the conclusion that this is not the device for my home. For one thing, I don’t have the patience to teach the Remote about each of my device.  

I am sure there are people out there who would be more than happy to take the time to patiently train the Harmony 900 on the promise that it will do what its manufacturer claims it can do.

As for me, I will continue to look for that universal remote that can learn how to control all the devices I want it to learn without forcing me to feel like I’m a grade school dropout.

Sample list of universal remote control vendors:
Logitech Harmony
Philips Prestigo
Acoustic Research
Belkin
Monster
Harman/Kardon
Nyko
Universal
Sony
SnapStream
RCA

Other people’s review of the Logitech Harmony 900:
Digital Trends
CNET
Electronic House
Dvice

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