When you're spending $400 on a remote, you know you've come a long way from those circular knobs on the front of the TV that required getting up from your seat to switch stations.
Logitech's (LOGI) Harmony 890 Advanced Universal Remote costs more than many of the TV sets and stereo components it controls. It promises to change channels on your TV, turn up the volume on your stereo, pause your DVD player, and manage a multitude of other devices. The 890 uses radio frequencies in addition to infrared, so it can control devices behind cabinet doors or even in rooms a floor away.
If it sounds a bit too ambitious -- well, it is. A big problem with universal remotes is that the TVs, set-top boxes, and stereos they control are so intricate that no all-in-one remote can possibly handle every function with grace. Give the 890 credit for trying.
ABORT! ABORT! It starts with a clear, color screen the size of two postage stamps. On either side of it are eight buttons, whose functions change as you scroll from one screen to the next. That way, the device can substitute as a remote for everything from a 10-year-old TV set to a brand new TiVo (TIVO) box. It also can handle climate control, security, and lighting systems.
The other clever touch from Logitech is the rich online database of the functions of more than 80,000 different devices the Harmony can control. Setting up the 890 requires plugging it into the USB port on a Web-connected PC to download the latest data for each device.
Trouble is, the software doesn't quite match the ingenuity of the Logitech service. As I downloaded all the codes needed to manage my gadgets, I got this peculiar message: "CALCULATE CONFIG CHECKSUM - No response - operation aborted!" The Logitech folks told me the problem wouldn't affect the device -- and indeed, it hasn't. But I repeated the download process several times before just giving up and moving on. And I got a similar message trying to set up the radio-frequency wireless extender, necessary to control devices behind doors that infrared can't penetrate.
UNIVERSALLY COMPLICATED. Yet there's an even more fundamental challenge with the device: It simply can't replicate the remotes that come with certain gadgets. Take my set-top box. I have a Motorola (MOT) DCT6412, which includes a high-definition digital video recorder. With the 890, I need to scroll through three screens to get to the button that calls up the programs I've recorded. On the Motorola remote, there's one prominent button, front and center, that's just screaming out to me to push once I turn on the set.
With my TV -- a 30-inch-wide-screen number from Philips Electronics (PHG) -- I have buttons on the remote that make it easy to jump from the widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio to the conventional 4:3 picture ratio. It's a nifty little feature, particularly when I'm watching widescreen DVDs. On the 890, the button for that function is five screens in. What's more, the universal remote offers a host of functions, such as a picture-in-picture option, that just don't exist on my TV.
The Harmony 890 is awfully good at managing functions for so many different devices. It was able to control everything from a two-year-old Netgear (NTGR) digital music server to a new Microsoft (MSFT) Xbox 360 video-game console. But if the overall measure of the device is whether or not it supplanted my other remotes, then Logitech didn't pass the test. For four Benjamins, that's just a bit disappointing.