Harmony 880

In home theaters, as in all things, change breeds change.

HD-DVD add-on drives desire for surround sound;

surround sound leads necessitates new speakers;
new speakers force a rewiring of the entertainment center;
rewiring prompts reprogramming of universal remote;

The remote is trouble.

The trouble is that the Universal Remote in question is an RCA model circa 1998. It has admirably filled its role for the better part of a decade, but this too must end. The remote doesn’t completely support several of my newer components – rarely used functions require the original remotes, which in turn requires that those remotes be accessible. Also, as the remote has aged, some buttons have become far less sensitive and others have stopped working entirely.

The (mostly) dead remote leads to desire.
Desire, of course, leads to the internet.

The internet opens up the world of remotes. My initial search for a feature-for-feature replacement quickly gave in to a bout of gadget-lust. Harmony (now Logitech) sells a wide range of remotes that I’d often seen at church (well, my church) but had always classified as too expensive to be practical. $250 for a remote? What could it possibly do for that kind of money? Showing once again that, with age, I have not gained wisdom, I started investigating that very question.
It turns out they can truely replace all my existing remotes. The difference between ‘mostly replace’ and ‘truely replace’ is the difference between a pile of remotes sitting at the entertainment center, and a pile of remotes in a box in storage.

Another selling point is ‘one button control’ where one button starts everything up, or shuts everything down. With my old (not so) faithful RCA remote, you have to know which input the receiver should be dialed to, which input the tv must be set to, which volume control to use (reveiver or TV), and which button on the remote control allows you to talk to the correct component (VCR for the Tivo, Aux for the HD Cable Box – in case you are curious.) As simply ‘watching tv’ requires a half dozen button presses, house guests have often taken to finding other (smaller, older) TVs if I’m not be around to set the main system up for them.
Plus, if I significantly rewire the system, everything changes. Even in a household with two geeks, relearning the entire matrix of receiver/tv input combinations is a daunting task. So much so that I tend not to rewire things, just pile more cables into it.

Reading through the marketing material, forums, and reviews I started to appreciate the Harmony line. Once I found that Amazon sells (or sold) the Harmony 880 at nearly half off the retail price, I decided to jump in. Well, not so much jump in, but I told my self things like “I can try it out, it’s probably not worth the money, but I can always return it..”

Having lived with the remote for two weeks now, it certainly isn’t going back to Amazon. The inital setup took about an hour, using the very slick web-based application to define all my components and their connections. Downloading the programming to the remote (via USB) was painless and automatic. Also, very slick. After a couple of iterations that evening I boxed up all my existing remotes and put them in storage.
Two weeks later, the programming is even more refined, every button layed out intuitively, the ‘soft-buttons’ (on the color LCD display) ordered ‘just so’, the remote was finally put the the test. With my Mom visiting for the Thanksgiving Holiday, would this remote enable her to boot up the 360?
Early Monday morning, as I made my way downstairs, I was greeted by the plinks and bloops of Bejeweled 2. This would have been nearly impossible otherwise, unless I had the foresight to leave the entire system set up for the 360, and taught her to simply turn components on. This solution was much better. To be fair, we did first train her on how to use the remote. Where the ‘Activities’ button was, the press the ‘Play Xbox 360’ button, and to press the ‘Help’ button if things didn’t work (the help button brings up series of questions like ‘Is the TV on? yes/no’ which lets the remote bring up everything if something gets out of sync), but after that she was able to switch between the cable box, the 360, and the Tivo, all on her own.

The other side of the device, the less practical – and probably the more important – is the gadget factor. It scores a 10 on this count.
Color LCD screen? check
Charging cradle? check
Website storing all your settings so you never have to start from scratch? check
Being able to ask *on that very website* for help to program the remote? check (not that I’d need help, of course, but still..)
Cool blue backlighting? check
Internal gyroscopes allowing the remote to automatically activate when picked up? check (I’m not kidding)

These aren’t real selling points. Neither slickness of the programming software, nor the ability for it to display a slideshow of pictures on its screen are core remote functions, but they do speak to the polish of the product. With so many gadgets around that require me to adapt to them, this truely adaptable gadget is refreshing.

Is the remote worth the price? Well, that depends. Is the price of the remote a significant percentage of the value of the total entertainment center? If so, then you probably don’t need it. These remotes are more valuable, when you have more components to control, the more complex the system. Being able to seemlessly control 3 or 4 components at once doesn’t buy you anything if you only want to control the cable box and the television.
Unless, that is, you put a lot of stock into gyroscopes.
One can never have too many gyroscopes.

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