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Just a Thought - The Last Remote You'll Ever Need

by - August 23rd, 2004

In Threes:

I recently made a big purchase; well, it was big for me and my somewhat meager checkbook: I bought a plasma TV. I have been eyeballing plasma TVs for quite some time now, and just as the confluence of recent events in my life allowed me to buy an iPod ( you should see the smile on my face at the mention of my iPod), I was able to find and buy an absolutely stunning 42" plasma set that has a built-in NTSC and ATSC tuner. WOOOO-HOOOOO!

As you might imagine, I'm a relatively happy camper right now. I say relatively because just as events allowed me to have the funds to buy this TV at the same time my 13 year old tube set decided it would push out its last electron, not two weeks later did the same flow of occurrences put me in need of those same funds for something a bit more urgent; namely, hurricane Charley.

For the curious and concerned, though the bulk of Charley passed over my neighborhood here in east Orlando -- we endured sustained winds of over 90 MPH, with gusts of over 100 MPH for what seemed like hours -- no one was hurt and the damage to my home was relatively light. Others in my immediate neighborhood did not fair as well, however, and my neighbors and I have been helping where and when we can.

But I digress..., back to the TV.

The TV is the last part of the entertainment system that I've been setting up for more than a year now. Like many of you who have cobbled together receivers, DVD players, and speakers into system that can not only wake the dead, but would give them a reason to stay up, hang out, and consume popcorn, my system is a collection of parts from different manufacturers. It all works together well, looks good and sounds great. Also, like many of you, as I've put together my system I found that I had also become a collector of remote controls; I've got five, and it dawned on me just how silly it is to have these supposedly convenient technological wonders cluttering up my coffee table.

Harmony Remote
Model SST-659

About three months before I got the TV, a company called Harmony was nice enough to send me a remote, the Harmony SST-659, to check out. Harmony was recently bought out by Logitech, but, thus far, little about the Web site has changed.

The Harmony SST-659, and the newer 688 are programmable remotes that are supposed to make your life easier by allowing you combine the functionality of all of your separate remotes into one. Not a new idea, to be sure, but what makes the Harmony Remotes different is how you set up the remotes, how you use them, and how they interact with your equipment.

The Setup:

The Harmony Remote comes with software that you install on your Mac running OS X, or your PC running Windows 98SE or above. You also need to have a Web browser, Safari for Macs, Internet Explorer for Windows.

(Note: The Harmony Remote will not work with the Mac version of Internet Explorer. Mac users must use Safari.)

Devices in your system on the left, actions on the right.

Like many of the more expensive remote controllers, the Harmony Remote uses your computer and the Internet to ease the burden of programming the many functions your new remote must learn. Harmony's Web site allows remote owners to add and remove equipment, features and functions fairly painlessly. You create a profile by entering in the make and model of your equipment, then you create a list of 'activities', like 'Watch TV', or 'Listen to Music'. Once that's done the site creates a file which is then loaded into your remote. This file contains all of the commands found on your disparate remotes, along with some other information about which I'll talk about in a moment.

After you've got your list of equipment and functions set, you then download them into the remote. On paper this all sounds fairly easy, and, for the most part, it is. What I found was that while the Web site goes to great lengths to step you through the process of setting up your remote, there are times when you may find some of the instructions confusing, and you may wind up hopelessly lost.

For instance; my new TV has an ATSC turner which subdivides certain channels on my cable service, so channel 81 might be subdivided into 81-1, 81-2, and so on. The Harmony Remote does not understand the '-', so you have to program the dash in.

The process to do this included downloading a file, then getting the Harmony Remote to learn the dash by syncing it with your TV remote. If you manage to get to the syncing part without first running the downloaded file, you wind up with a remote that hasn't learned anything, and the only indication of whether you've been successful or not is by checking the list of commands your Harmony Remote knows to see if the new command is listed. If it isn't you have to go through the process again, and the software isn't smart enough to know that you've already downloaded the needed file. So, after several tries you wind up frustrated with several strange files sitting on your desktop (or where ever you've put them).

My advice is to read the instructions on the screen carefully and follow them to the letter, if you do so you will likely get through the setup of your remote without much of a hassle.

In Harmony:

Once your remote is set up things get infinitely easier. The Harmony Remote lets you watch a movie, TV programming, or listen to CDs by simply pressing a button. If you've setup everything correctly the remote will not only turn on the appropriate equipment -- your DVD player will not come on if you wish to watch TV, for instance -- but the remote will also set the appropriate inputs and outputs for you, so that everything is set just the way you like it; when you watch TV for instance, the Harmony Remote will turn on and set your receiver to the proper input, and turn on your TV and set it to your favorite channel. Sweet!

Switching between activities is a cinch too; just select another activity from either the buttons or from those displayed on the LCD screen and the remote will turn off what you don't need and turn on what you do need.

The business end.

One thing to note: The Harmony Remote is a state-unaware device, this means that it always assumes that your equipment is in whatever state the remote left it in, whether it is or not. This can be a problem if, for instance, you turn on your DVD player to load a disc before selecting the 'Watch a Movie' activity on the remote. The remote will have assumed that the DVD player was off and will attempt to turn it on, which may actually turn the DVD player off. Confusing, I know.

The Harmony Remote combats this problem by providing a really useful 'Help' button: Press it and read through and answer the questions on the LCD screen, and the remote will guide you through correcting whatever problem you might have, and getting everything back into sync.

Other Nice Features:

One of the neatest features of the Harmony Remote its ability to display TV listings in its LCD window. You can setup your remote to list shows in your local area, on whatever service you use; cable, satellite, or local channels, select your favorite channels, then load them on your remote. Once loaded and while watching TV, you can browse through the listings of your favorite channels, even see what's on at other times of the day. If you find something you want to watch, just select the listing (not the channel), and the remote takes you there. How cool is that?

The Harmony Remote also lets you access many, if not all of the functions provided by the remotes that came with your equipment. It can do this because the actual remote codes are loaded into your Harmony Remote from a database maintained online. The database is updated with the latest remote code information, so you never have to deal with lists of silly remote code numbers. On the off chance that your particular equipment's remote is not in the Harmony database, Harmony offers suggestions for remotes that may have functions similar to yours. And, of course, you can teach your Harmony Remote the codes it needs to operate your stuff, but most likely you will never have to.

Wrap Up:

For the money -- The Harmony Remote 659 retails for US$199.00 (US$138.94 - Amazon, and the H688 is at Amazon for US$173.95), I don't believe you'll find an easier to use remote than the Harmony model SST-659 remote: Its big so it won't get easily lost in coffee table clutter, has enough buttons to keep any remote freak happy, and the LCD screen is a joy. I also got a kick out of the TV listings.

While I wish Harmony would revamp their Web site to be a bit more forgiving, I think most folks won't have a problem setting up their remote, and once set, everyone will appreciate the feature packed into this remote.

The folks at Harmony say that activities can be set up to control any device that uses infrared. If it is not in their database you must teach the remote, but once taught, the Harmony Remote could conceivably control any infrared device connected to your Mac. Sweet!

If you've taken the trouble to put together a nice entertainment center then you'll want something nice and easy to control it; the Harmony Remote fits that bill nicely.

In TMO's review rating, I'd be happy to give this remote 4 out of 5 stars.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

You can send your comments directly to me, or you can also post your comments below.

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