Toy review: Universal Remote

With my winnings in the football pool, I decided to buy a new universal remote control. We’ve had one for a few years, and it’s been great, but the back cover recently broke, and so we wrapped an elastic band around it to keep the cover on and the batteries in. It looked ugly, the batteries wouldn’t sit properly because the cover wasn’t as secure, and so it was getting flaky, so I got a new one. The Logitech Harmony H659 was on sale at Future Shop, $139 rather than about $200.

This thing is very cool. The big difference between it and most remotes is the concept of “activities”. With my old remote, and most that I have seen, you have buttons that switch among different devices, and then the rest of the buttons may or may not change depending on which device you’ve selected. So to watch TV, here’s what we had to do:

  • Press TV, press Power, make sure TV is set to standard input, channel 3
  • Press Receiver, press Power, make sure receiver is set to TV input
  • Press Cable, press Power

Turning everything off was at least six button pushes, up to ten if the VCR and DVD were on. That was a hell of a lot more convenient, however, than picking up the TV remote and turning the TV off, then picking up the receiver remote and turning it off, then picking up the cable remote and turning it off, then…

Now, when we want to watch TV, we press the “Watch TV” button. It turns everything on that’s not already on, and sets everything up properly. When you’re done, you press “Off” and everything goes off. There were ways to use fancy macros to do all this with the old universal remote, but it was enough of a pain to set up that I never bothered. Also, the remote was not smart enough to know, for example, that it had already turned the TV on, so if you hit the “watch DVD” macro, it would attempt to turn the TV on, and thereby turn it off. With this, the hardest part of setting all this up was trying to read the model number on the back of our (36″ tube) TV. The rest was easy.

The remote assumes that everything is off when you start, and then keeps track of the on/off state of the devices. If you manually turn something on or off, that will mess it up a little, but there is an easy method of recovery. If something goes wrong, you press “Help”, and it will go through everything one step at a time, asking you each time whether the problem is solved. This is helpful if, for example, you turn the DVD player on manually to insert a disk, and then press “Watch a Movie”. The remote thinks that everything is off, so it turns everything on except the DVD player, which it turns off. If you press the help button, the first question is asks you is “Did that solve the problem?” This is kind of a dumb question — no, simply pressing Help did not solve the problem. After you say “No” to that, it goes through the affected devices one by one and asks if they are on and tuned appropriately. If you say “No” at any time, it re-sends that particular command and asks you if it’s OK now. If so, it asks if the problem is solved and if not, continues through the rest of the devices. It’s straightforward enough that Ryan (who’s 8) has had no problems using it so far. Nicky has been fine with it as well, though he hasn’t run into any problems yet. Since he can’t read as well as Ryan, he may have some trouble, but Nicky has no problems yelling for someone to help him if he can’t do something (or even if he can but just doesn’t want to). The “tutorial” for teaching the family how to use the thing was quick and easy — choose one of the activities (watch TV, watch a video, watch a DVD, play the Wii, listen to music), and everything on the remote just works the way you’d expect. If you have a problem, just press Help and follow the instructions. That’s it.

There are six “soft” buttons at the top, and you can program them for any function in each mode. For example, in “Watch TV” mode, I have two of them set to “Page Up” and “Page Down”, so I can quickly scroll through the channels in the guide listing. In “Watch a Movie” mode, I have them set to DVD-related buttons, like Menu, Next Chapter and Prev Chapter.

The software you use to program the device is good but has one drawback — it’s a web app, so you must be connected to the internet in order to program the remote. Not sure why they couldn’t have a standalone app that can connect to the internet to download new supported devices and fixes and stuff. I have a laptop with wireless internet access, so it doesn’t really matter for me, though if my internet connection was down I wouldn’t be able to program the remote, which seems like a silly limitation. Also, if I were to buy one for my dad, he’d have to do everything over a dial-up connection which would be painful. The software itself is pretty good, though it’s all “wizard-based”, so it asks you what you want to do and gives you screens and options based on that. I’d like to see an “advanced” mode, where you have more detailed control so if I want to change one button, I don’t have to navigate through twelve different screens to get to the right one. The interface to the remote itself is high-speed USB, so once you’ve got the programs the way you want them, you plug the remote in, click “Update remote”, and wait a minute while it downloads everything and reboots it.

I’ve only had the thing two weeks, but I love it. The only thing it doesn’t do that the old one did is control the ceiling fan/light. The fan is an old Sears model (came with the house), and the new remote refuses to “learn” the IR commands from the fan remote. The old universal remote did learn the commands, though it was flaky, so Gail always had to ask me to turn the light on beacause you had to hold the remote an inch from the remote sensor on the light. Yes, this does rather defeat the purpose of having a remote control. We don’t use that light all that often anyway, so as long as we keep the real fan remote around, we’re good.


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