Harmony 510 Universal Remote
Price: $100 (list; see note below)
Requirements: Mac OS X 10.3. Universal.
I remember when the first TV remote controls were available. Then came cable boxes, and suddenly the notion of keeping up with a collection of remotes scattered across the living room was a reality in many households. The “cable-ready” TV offered a (temporary) solution to this, but things like stereo signals and the possibility of surround-sound quickly multiplied the collection of remotes in many households.
These days, the cable box (or the dish box, if you prefer) is back, and many homes have more remotes than ever. If you’re like me, you either can’t or don’t want/need to afford the higher-end equipment that allows most devices to work cooperatively, and you inevitably have an anomalous device (like an Apple TV) that even the higher-end gear has difficulty with. In my system, I have five separate components in my living room alone (each with their own remote):
- A Dynex LCD HDTV
- An Onkyo 5.1 A/V Receiver
- A Dish Network DVR/Signal Converter
- A Sony DVD Player
- An Apple TV
While some of these play nicely together, I have longed for a unified system to control them all. Of course I’ve tried some of the $20 “universal” remotes from Walmart, but these are extremely complicated to set up, never work as well as promised, and they are far from intuitive in their operation. Is it possible to put a truly universal remote in place that is straightforward to set up and which works as promised?
The short answer is: absolutely, yes.
The Harmony Family
Logitech has an extensive family of universal remotes—the Harmony remote family—that cover the most “basic” needs up to complex tasks. Currently, they offer five models, from one for (barely) less than $100 up to one that is fully touch-screen controlled (for nearly $400).
The whole Harmony family is Mac-compatible and is very easy to set up (see below). Some are compatible with more devices than others; fortunately, Logitech has provided an easy-to-use compatibility checker to determine which remotes are suitable for a given system.
I bought the 510. The main reason, I confess, was the price—I was limited in my budget and wanted to spend as little as I could; the 510 is the lowest-priced model. I was pleased also to find that the 510 was fully compatible with all of my devices, even though some are not new models and others are off-brands.
One of the great aspects of the Harmony remote family is that it is very straightforward to set up. Most universal remotes are set up by use of multiple pages of codes, and a lot of trial and error. The Harmony remotes use a setup that is more straightforward: all of them connect via USB to a Mac or a Windows PC.
A setup utility (a free download) controls the whole process. The user indicates the devices, according to brand and model, that he wishes to control with the remote. Then “activities” are set up. From “Watch a DVD” to “Listen to Music,” activities gives you quick access to functions, making usage cleaner and easier (more on this in a moment).
I love the concept of setup with the Harmony remotes, and I found general setup to be as easy as promised. Setting up some activities was easy, as well. But in my system, my A/V receiver controls both audio and video sources—important, since I have three separate video sources feeding into the one TV. Activities setup didn’t give me the option to do this in the initial setup, and it took some poking around to figure out how to get things set up properly. (But it can be done.)
The setup utility does follow up after setup, offering some troubleshooting help if everything isn’t working as planned. But the troubleshooting help didn’t solve my multiple-video-sources problem; I had to figure that out on my own.
One more note on setup: some extra steps were required for getting the Apple TV to recognize the Harmony as a valid remote. But this isn’t the Harmony’s shortcoming; I don’t really consider it a shortcoming at all, but simply another step in the setup. The “fault” for it, though, lies with the way that the Apple TV deals with remotes.
Now that my Harmony remote is set up, and my video sources troubleshot, it works very well. I have four basic activities set up, and they all do what I expect them to about 95% of the time. With everything powered off, a single press of a button for “Watch TV” turns on the Dish receiver, the A/V receiver, and the TV, and it sets the A/V receiver to the correct audio and video sources. This was a two-remote, three-button-push minimum (and possibly four or five button pushes) before.
Likewise, from the above I can push another single button and my Apple TV will become active, along with the A/V receiver switching audio and video sources. Or I can power everything down with a single button-push.
I don’t lack any of my functions on any of my devices—another complaint that I had with any other universal remote. I can call up the DVR controls for my dish receiver, perform remote setup with my A/V receiver, and turn on closed-captioning on my TV. Even the Apple TV, which has the quirkiest interface of all of my devices, is fully controllable by the Harmony.
When it comes to that, I frequently prefer my iPhone as an Apple TV remote over the Harmony, for the same reasons I prefer it over the little white Apple remote: it simply offers more control, with faster access to content. But unless I’m going to scroll through a long list of artists or song titles, or type something into the YouTube search, I’m usually content with the Harmony for the Apple TV.
The Harmony occasionally fails to control every device as expected. For example, when powering down it might turn the TV off, but not the dish or A/V receiver. Or it will omit switching the video source on the A/V receiver, so the audio will switch from Apple TV to DVD but the video won’t. (I should note here that this has only happened when I’m trying to use one of the comprehensive controls, like an Activity or a global power-down; the controls and functions for individual components work with 100% reliability.) I attribute these failures to the likely possibility that the IR signal didn’t properly reach the IR receiver, but that’s my speculation; however, the Harmony’s screen actually reminds you to keep the remote pointed at the devices, suggesting that my speculation has grounds.
One other (minor) complaint about usage: I would like to be able to create more specific activities. For example, I’d like to have an activity that is “Watch DVR Recording” that would not only switch my components on and to the proper A/V settings, but that would also invoke the DVR menu and even pre-select the “My Recordings” option in the first menu. I would be surprised if this sort of setup isn’t possible with one or more of the higher-level models in the Harmony family. Indeed, it might be possible in mine—but if so, I haven’t been able to figure out how to do it.
A Note on Price
The prices are listed on the Logitech Web site for each remote, and these are good ballparks for getting a sense of what to expect to pay for these devices. Naturally, one might expect to find some variation on other Web sites, like Amazon.com. But I found that prices varied substantially and was surprised at the savings that could be had with just a little comparison-shopping.
I bought my Harmony 510 for a full 25% less than the price listed at the Logitech Web site, and I was given free shipping to boot. I’ve seen other Harmony remotes offered for nearly 50% off of the listed price. All of that is to say, it is well worth your time to shop around for a better price.
The Harmony remotes are attractive devices, and the brand suggests hope in a category that normally disappoints; still, the price might be high enough to give some people pause. My advice: pause no longer. I love my Harmony remote and consider the price money well-spent. While there are some minor nuisances and bumps in the setup and usage of the Harmony 510 remote, a little perseverance in setup and attentiveness in use renders the Harmony a great addition to my living room.