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Universal Aggravation

Yes!” was the almost universal response to my idea of opening this column about universal remotes with a soul-satisfying photograph of one being smashed to smithereens. I can’t think of another class of gadget that is such a universal example of beneficent technology run amuck. If you are anywhere near my age, you’ll remember when the remote was a simple wonder you just pointed at your TV to change its volume or channel—the very foundation, one might argue, of the seductive couch-potato lifestyle. But, of course, that was before entertainment systems came along—before VCRs, DVD players, and surround sound, let alone satellite TV controllers, media PCs, digital video recorders, remote-controlled lighting, etc., etc.

Now, as many of you may know from painful personal experience, when you add yet another entertainment component to your system, it likely comes with a remote that is supposedly universal, i.e. able—via codes, a learning mode, or some combination thereof—to take over for all the other remotes stacking up around you. But did you ever get one to do everything you wanted it to? Me neither. Plus I’ve tried a whole series of nondenominational universal remotes that also promised to put all the others in a drawer but never did. And the frustrating phenomenon tends to be even worse on a yacht, where we generally spend less time and are therefore less familiar with a system’s nuances and where some of the gear may be more exotic and/or harder to reach by normal infrared (IR) remote. Thus the universal “pass me that hammer” impulse!

Which is why when upgrading my own TV system last winter, I decided to look for a truly effective universal, even if it meant throwing a larger pile of money at the problem. I didn’t have to look that hard. The Logitech remote series has an excellent reputation and a sizable market share. My experience setting up the 890 model suggests that both are well deserved and also demonstrated how many complex factors go into what ends up as an elegantly easy remote.

The 890, like all Harmony models, is set up using a computer, which I liked a lot. Instead of keying in some obscure code—often several times before you get it right—you hook a Harmony to a PC or Mac with a USB cable and, via the included software, access Logitech’s online database of more than 100,000 devices from more than 3,000 manufacturers. My motley assortment of components was all there, so in moments I was onto the next step of defining “activities.” You see, besides all of a particular device’s remote codes, Logitech’s database knows what inputs and outputs it has. Thus the Harmony software can nicely guide the creation of, say, a “Watch DVD (Toshiba)” activity command, which in my case, as seen in the screens below, means switching the TV to its HDMI input, the sound system to its VCR2 input, and so forth.

The Harmony 890 lights up when tilted and is rechargeable.

VCR2 input? Yeah, well that’s one of those anomalies—like my having two DVD players (long story)—that plague so many systems and why something as theoretically simple as watching a movie so often means asking the hubby, or the captain, to get it started. Not in my home anymore! Once this command was downloaded to the remote’s LCD screen, it did exactly what it says! By the way, the same makes-sense activity-based concept can be seen in some electronics manuals—a chapter named “How to make a route” being a tip-off.

It did turn out that Logitech failed to deliver all of the commands on some of my existing remotes but also that it was easy to use the old remotes to teach the new one. Similarly, the software didn’t set up all the 890’s fixed buttons and nameable soft keys just the way I wanted, but again, it was easy (even fun) to get everything just so. Doing it with a PC monitor and keyboard certainly helped. I also checked through the database and found numerous devices, like the KVH M3 satellite TV system and various Clarion stereos, commonly found afloat. I even tried setting up an entirely “off-base” remote and activity, and though it was a fake—note screenshots and Garmin displays—I’m convinced that such advanced programming is quite doable.

Harmony’s setup software helps you specify devices, tweak buttons, and even learn old remotes, all so that simple remote commands really work.

But a big issue with multicommand-at-once remotes like the one from Harmony is so-called “device state.” Since on/off switches are just that, not separate, everything gets whacky if any one device is not in the on/off state the remote thinks it is. While truly high-end units have sensors so they can actually feel state, Harmonys have a clever help system that questions you about the various on/off states and then corrects them. The Harmony 890 can also solve the components-in-a-cabinet issue that’s common onboard yachts, since it can send radio frequency (RF) commands as well as IR and includes a little wireless RF receiver that can rebroadcast IR inside a cabinet or entertainment closet. The 890, which sells for $400, also knows Zwave, a standardized (now there’s an idea!) command language for operating not just entertainment components but also lights, drapes, and more.

However, the 890 is not perfect. A person with big fingers, for instance, might find its relatively dainty buttons too small. And any universal remote with lots of dedicated buttons, though easier to use by feel, is apt to present you with mystery or do-nothing buttons during some activities. Apparently that’s why Viking Yacht’s subsidiary Atlantic Marine Electronics (AME) has moved on. While noting that AME had used 890s on many projects and they worked well, sales manager Todd Tally told me that AME has now switched to Nevo, which are partially touchscreen and, according to Tally, more intuitive. “Oh, how the quest for simplicity for customers on their boats is an endless one!” Tally says. Indeed!

Other universal remotes favored by marine electronics installers include powerful models from Pronto, Marantz, and Crestron. But I’m happy with my Harmony 890, and it taught me that some well-thought-out universal remotes can handle all the remote controlled gadgetry we have assembled around ourselves, or least in this particular household, on this particular day. And if they can’t, well, I’ve still got my hammer.

This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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