Reviewed by: David Carnoy
Edited by: John P. Falcone
Reviewed on: 08/11/2009
When we reviewed the Harmony One last year, we gave it an enthusiastic Editors' Choice and really lamented only the fact that there was no RF option for users who had components hidden in cabinets or in closets. Well, over a year later, Logitech has given us what we asked for--and even a little more--in its Harmony 900.
In terms of design, the remote looks almost identical to the Harmony One save for some small-but-notable tweaks that make it even better. For starters, Logitech has increased the screen resolution of the touch screen so it's now even sharper; this isn't a huge deal, but it does give the interface a cleaner look, and you can choose between four color "themes" that put a new skin on the interface, though the looks aren't radically different from theme to theme. (We assume additional themes will be available for download).
Additionally, Logitech has added a row of buttons in the middle of the remote that correspond to the red, blue, green, and yellow tabs you'll find on Blu-ray player remotes to control interactivity options during playback of Blu-ray Discs. (These buttons are also useful for mapping to various confirmation buttons that appear on DVRs and cable/satellite boxes.)
We'll touch upon more design elements in a minute, but the other big change we should talk about up front is the addition of RF (radio frequency), and its implementation on this remote. With previous Harmony RF models, you had to set up the remote and RF separately by connecting both the remote and RF module to your computer via the USB port. Every time you updated the remote, you had to update the RF module, which was a major pain if you had an intricate setup and had to take the RF module out of a cabinet or closet each time you updated the remote.
The RF module (far right) receives commands from the remote and converts them to infrared via the IR blaster modules (shown here unattached).
With the Harmony 900, Logitech's gone to a whole new RF system and has greatly simplified the setup and update processes. The big deal here is that you no longer have to connect the RF module to your computer; you can just leave it setup in your rack or cabinet and choose which components you want to control via IR (infrared, which requires line of sight) or RF from the remote itself in a special RF setup menu.
The half-hockey-puck-size RF module is powered by a small AC adapter (it's a duplicate of the adapter that charges the remote) and is designed to be tucked into the back of your cabinet, behind your components. You then plug two mini-IR blasters into the back of the RF module (there are A and B ports) and place the blasters somewhere just in front of your components. If you have your components in a cabinet with shelves, you can stick one blaster on a left shelf and one on a right shelf. The IR signals reflect off surfaces, so the two IR blasters should cover all your components, except perhaps your TV (which is always within your line of sight anyway). If two blasters don't cut it for your setup, you can add additional RF modules and blasters, but that will cost you extra.
The system we tested the RF with wasn't in a closed cabinet with doors and the TV sat on top of the horizontal component rack. We decided to let IR control the TV and RF control the rest of the components. Because we had one IR adapter on a lower shelf next to the AV receiver, we were a little worried that it wouldn't be able to control the cable box on a higher shelf. However, it turned out we had no problems controlling all our components, even though the system was in an open rack with three levels and a total of seven components (not including the TV). Alas, the only unit that we couldn't control was our PlayStation 3, which uses Bluetooth and has no IR receiver. In an ideal world the Harmony 900 would offer Bluetooth connectivity, but we can't fault Logitech for Sony's stupidity. Thankfully, there's now a workaround: Logitech offers a PS3-specific IR-to-Bluetooth converter module for $60.
As we said in our earlier review of the Harmony One, Logitech's done an excellent job with the design--both cosmetically and ergonomically--of the Harmony 900. The remote is sleek and sits comfortably in your hand. A lot of thought has been put into the button layout, with hard, backlit buttons that are differentiated well in terms of size and shape, so you can navigate by feel without looking down at the remote (at least when performing basic operations like changing channels, adjusting volume, and play/pause). While the remote does appear to be loaded with buttons, it actually has fewer of them than previous Harmony remotes, as designers have reduced the number of hard buttons to streamline and simplify operation. The remote is essentially divided into five zones of operation (they're designated by faint, silver line dividers), with the color LCD at the top constituting the fifth zone.
The touch screen on this model is as responsive as the Harmony One's. We also really liked the two glowing touch-sensitive buttons on either side of the screen that allow you to easily scroll between the "pages" of soft buttons on the screen (there's room for up to three layers of two buttons on the screen at once). Additionally, two glowing touch-sensitive buttons allow you to toggle between "options," "devices," and "activities." The touch-oriented interface really makes the remote a pleasure to use.
The touch-screen portion of the remote is responsive and easy to use.
The Harmony 900 ships with a docking station for juicing up the included rechargeable lithium ion battery; you simply place the remote in its cradle (unlike some earlier Harmony remotes, this model fits securely in its charging station). Not only is it nice to have a recharging option to save dough on batteries, another benefit of the dock is that if you're good about leaving the remote in its cradle, you'll always know where it is when you need it. Battery life is good--Logitech says you should be able to go a week or more without recharging--and it's also worth noting that the battery is replaceable, so when it eventually wears out, you'll be able swap a new one in.
As with all of Logitech's new remotes, the Harmony 900 features a motion sensor, so that when you pick up the remote, it automatically turns on. The LCD turns off after a short time of nonuse to conserve batteries. You can adjust the LCD's shut-off interval, as well as the brightness of the LCD, in the settings menu.
In terms of programming the remote, the Harmony 900 works in the same way that other Harmony remotes do. As we noted in our earlier reviews, programming a universal remote can be a frustrating and time-consuming process, involving punching a series of multidigit codes for each component in your AV system. By contrast, Harmony remotes are programmed by hooking them up to your Internet-connected Windows PC or Mac with the supplied USB cable, installing the model-specific version of Harmony software, and answering a fairly simple online questionnaire on the company's Web site. You simply choose your home-theater components from a list; explain how they're connected; and define their roles in activity-based functions, such as Watch TV, Watch DVD, and Listen to Music. For each function, you specify which devices and inputs the remote must enable. You can also choose which keypad functions will punch through to which specific devices--like always having the channel buttons control the cable box or the volume controls dedicated to the TV, for instance. After you've completed the questionnaire, the software uploads all the relevant control codes to the Harmony 900.
As simple as the remote generally is, some people may encounter a few snags when initially setting up their remotes. Luckily, the Logitech customer service is generally very good when you run into problems and the company has continued to make improvements to its software system for the better. From time to time, Logitech offers firmware upgrades for specific remotes, as well as upgrades to the Harmony desktop software. While there's still no way to manage multiple Harmony remotes on the same account (you're required to create separate user accounts, with separate names and passwords, for each of them), Logitech has made it very easy to swap in a new Harmony remote for an old one and transfer in that remote's system setup. For example, if you already had an older Harmony that you use with your main living room system, you could quickly swap in the Harmony 900, and then set up a separate profile for the old Harmony, which you could then use in another room.
To reiterate what we've already said in earlier reviews of Harmony remotes, if you have a complicated system, you can expect to spend some time fine-tuning the remote to get it to work just right, though it should be noted that our setup of the Harmony 900 went off without a hitch and we had full control over a seven-component system within 35 minutes (that included the RF setup). Logitech's Web site provides advanced, macro-style options for delay times, multistep commands, and other functions. And if you do run into trouble, Logitech's customer support--both via e-mail and telephone--is, for the most part, very helpful. (Note: you get 90 days of free telephone support from the time you first register your remote and set it up).
In final analysis, we really couldn't find anything to complain about other than that the remote's glossy, black finish is a fingerprint magnet and we still wish that Logitech would come up with a way you could manage multiple Harmony remotes from a single user account. Built-in Bluetooth support would be nice, but the add-on dongle works fine for PS3 owners. Outside of that, the only real issue is the remote's relatively high price tag ($399 list), which may scare off some people. But if you don't need RF, you can always default back to the IR-only Harmony One, which now retails at a more reasonable $200.
For those considering the tablet-style Harmony 1100, which also features RF, the appeal of that remote is that you get more onscreen button options, because the screen is much larger. For instance, with the 1100, when you go in TV mode as an activity, you're dropped into a screen that gives you access to more of your DVR's buttons (if you have cable or satellite box with a built-in DVR). On the Harmony 900, you have to press the "device" button to get more DVR options. However, we found that getting to our list of recorded shows required two button pushes on both remotes, so it was a bit of a wash in terms of speed.
In the end, really, it's a matter of preference. Our taste tends to run toward wand-style remotes, and we felt the Harmony 900 was more responsive and easier to use than the Harmony 1100. And unlike tablet-style touch screens, basic functions of the wand-style 900 can be largely navigated by touch, without having to look down from what you're watching on TV. Its RF setup is also significantly better, so until Logitech upgrades the RF module and blasters that come with its tablet-style remote, the Harmony 900 is clearly the better choice. It's arguably the best consumer remote with pro aspirations that we've tested to date.