Finally, a universal remote that works

4 Feb

February 4, 2007

By Geoff Meeker

Did you ever own a ‘universal remote control’?  I had one back in the early nineties. In theory, it was supposed to control my TV set, cable box, VCR and stereo system.

In reality, it was confusing and nearly impossible to use. Before playing a videotape, you had to select the VCR key. Before changing the channel, you had to select the cable key (or you would change the channel on the TV itself, thus losing the source of your signal). When you turned up the volume on the stereo, it also made the TV louder (so you had to adjust manually).

Yes, the universal remote was universally rejected in my house. Which is why I was skeptical when Logitech invited me to test drive their new “advanced” universal remote with “intuitive layout”. It’s called the Harmony One and Logitech calls it a “significant evolution in home entertainment control.”

‘Okay,’ I thought. ‘Technology has come a long way in 15 years. Maybe they have figured out how to integrate all those components in a more seamless way.’

So I gave it a try. And, believe it or not, the Harmony One is ‘all that.’ It has been universally accepted by the entire family, including my cynical, hard-to-impress children. The remote doesn’t work straight out of the box – there is a bit of programming involved – but once the initial set-up is complete, it really delivers the goods.

First, you take a close look at your various components and write down the brand and model number for each (you have to be precise with this). Usually, the model number is located on the front of home stereo and DVD players, on the back of TVs and on the bottom of PVRs.

Then you load the product software onto your computer, a simple process that takes about three minutes. When you open the program, it takes you to a web page where you create a private account, with password. Easy-to-follow instructions guide you through the process of adding your components’ make and model numbers (from a database of 225,000 devices by more than 5,000 manufacturers).

It then asks how you intend to use them. For example, it asks ‘What sound system do you want to use with your DVD player?’ and you choose from TV speakers or the home theatre system (in my case, I selected home theatre for the DVD but TV speakers for cable – that’s what we prefer). The set-up guide prompts you by asking questions, and it keeps them to the minimum required by your components.

When this process is done, you connect the remote control to the computer via USB, and it loads your individual settings. The process is not as complex as it may sound, taking me just 30 minutes from start to finish.

Now, the moment of truth. I gave it the toughest test first. Using the ultra-sensitive, full colour touch screen (it responds to tiny electrical charges in the fingertip), I selected ‘Watch a DVD’.

With that one touch, the TV, DVD and home theatre systems switched on, the TV selected the right channel input, and the volume controlled the stereo – not the TV.

Then I selected ‘Watch PVR’ and the DVD and home theatre powered off, the PVR and cable came on, and the TV switched its input channel. The remote behaved exactly like my cable remote, allowing full access to channel guides, recordings, and so on.

We all know that, occasionally, the signal from the remote gets lost for some reason (you hold it at the wrong angle, someone walks in front of you, etc.). Even that problem is addressed here. The remote is interactive, with a ‘help’ button that actually works. Press it and it asks the most logical question, such as ‘Is the PVR on?’ You touch ‘no’, it tries again and, bravo, the PVR powers on.

Bloody brilliant! I really can replace all the remotes cluttering the coffee table with this one streamlined device.

The Harmony One retails for approximately $275. Whether you want to spend that much will depend on your home entertainment priorities but, to me, it’s worth every penny.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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