Universal Soldier…err Remote (Logitech Harmony 520 Review)

After many years of juggling up to 5 remote controls just to watch a DVD (I have about 14 in total), I finally decided it was time to find a better solution, and since the Harmony 520 is on special at BigW this week (for $118, RRP is $199), it seemed like as good a time as any.

After getting it home, it took about 2 hours to set up (mostly because of difficulties with switching to the correct AV input on my TV), here’s my mini review:

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Things I like:

  1. The software is easy to install and use, adding devices and setting up activities is very intuitive. If you are lucky enough to have common devices and you use them in a pretty standard way, I can see the setup taking less than 30 minutes. I ran into some trouble because my TV is a bit odd in how it switches AV inputs, but the troubleshooting aspects of the software are very helpful and with some fiddling I eventually got everything working as intended. The problem with my TV was that you can’t switch AV inputs with a single button, or even the cycling of more than one button, the AV inputs have a channel number like all the other (i.e. 7, 9, 10 are TV channels and 196, 197, 198 and 199 are the AV inputs) so I had to do some fiddling to make the remote send a 2 second delay, then hit the 1 9 6 or 1 9 9 buttons to get to the wanted AV input..the software supports all this wackyness via the troubleshooter.
  2. Related to 1), the procedure to update the software and firmare was painless and quick.
  3. I have replaced 6 remotes with the 520, the ritual I used to perform for watching a DVD or watching something on XBMC now involves a single button (rather than picking up and putting down 3-4 remotes).
  4. My main concern with this remote was how it would handle controlling the xbox and XBMC. The 520 handles XBMC very well, I had to manually map one button to “display” but apart from that it works as you would expect, if only the XBOX supported remotely switching on (the 360 does, but the original xbox doesn’t).
  5. It has an IR transmitter on the front and the back of the remote, my projector is behind where I sit, so this means that as long as I hold it slightly above my head from sitting position it turns on all the devices and the projector when I want to watch a DVD, probably not something most people will notice but I love it. Also, the IT transmitters seem very strong..even when I blocked the rear IR sender the signal still managed to bounce from the front of the room to the projector to turn it on (about a 10m round trip), this is something none of my standard remotes can do.
  6. If something isn’t working as intended, the HELP button on the remote usually solves the problem. For example, if you hit “Play a DVD” and the DVD player doesn’t switch on for whatever reason, just hit the HELP button and the remote seems to re-send a selection of signals, then asks you if that solved the problem (i.e. it probably sends out “turn tv on” “turn dvd player on” and “turn amp on”). If that doesn’t fix the problem – it usually does – then it will cycle through other options, asking you at each step if that solved the problem, nice!
  7. The config is stored on a central server, so if at some stage I decide to upgrade to an 880, I should be able to program it with all the same functions in less than 5 minutes.

Things I don’t like:

  1. I’ve probably been spoiled by my Loewe TV remote, which is made of some kind of metal and has hard plastic buttons, it’s very solid and I am confident that in a pinch I could use it to fend off a home invasion, however, the Harmony 520 feels very light and plastic. The rubberized buttons also bug me a bit, some of them are very small and when you press a button on the numeric keypad all the buttons wiggle around like there’s a bag of worms in there, it just feels a bit cheap (well, it *is* cheap, so this isn’t a complaint, just an observation..the TV remote came with a $3.5k TV).
  2. The shiney surfaces on the 520 are prone to fingerprints, a minor complaint, but since the shiney surfaces make up more than 50% of total surface area, it bugs me.
  3. The software to program the remote is web based and therefore prone to times of high load on the server and slow internet connections. I’m on ISDN so some of the activities took a while to accomplish, but this could be attributed to a high server load last night as evident by some errors I was getting when trying to add new devices via the remote software (google tells me that the error I was getting was exactly that, high server load). However, I was able to log into the website interface at http://www.harmonyremote.com/ and it let me add new devices and do _most_ of the programming (the actual software still has more – and better – functionality).
  4. The online database of devices appears to have a bit of corruption. This is probably a side effect of letting users enter their own devices but as an example, my TV had 3 entries two of which were the wrong model number (the model listed that was close to mine don’t exist, so I assume it was a typo by someone)..just use some intelligence in selecting devices and it should be ok.
  5. There are other models available internationally that have RF capabilities and extra buttons, but only the 520 is available in Aus..perhaps we’re just simple folk and Logitech didn’t want to confuse us with options.

Stuff I’m still thinking about:

  1. I’m not sure about battery life yet, I’m pretty sure that using 4 AAA alkalines running an LCD and backlight is going to be a profitable venture for Duracell, when the provided (2 sets!) batteries run out I’ll be trying some rechargables.
  2. WAF is undetermined as yet, but I’m pretty sure it will be high.

Conclusion(because I know you just skipped here, you lazy bastards)

Overall I’m very very happy with this device, for just over $100 I have replaced all 6 remote controls in the media room and while I may need to return to them for some more advanced options the basic functions of each is handled very well by the Harmony. Highly recommended.

NINJA EDIT: It seems that the “rear IR” port isn’t actually a transmitter but a reciever, for learning. So the front IR port must be very strong, either way, it’s a good thing.