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TUAW Review: Logitech Harmony remote and the Mac

I recently obtained a Logitech Harmony universal IR remote control, and while the Harmony series is not that new, I thought it would be worth taking a look at here on TUAW. I haven't seen that much about using the Harmony with Macs, so in the following review I'll go over setting up a Logitech Harmony with the included Mac software.

The Basics

The Harmony line of remotes from Logitech allows you to set up your universal remote with your Mac, by connecting the remote with USB. Using a wizard-based software interface, you enter in the model numbers of all your IR remote controlled equipment and it will download all the remote codes from its online database of 100,000+ entries. You can then customize your Harmony's buttons in any way you please to simulate any button your your OEM remote. Naturally enough, these supported devices include both Macs and Apple TVs.

If that's all it did the Harmony would be worth it, but it goes far beyond this remote emulation by offering what they call "Activities." Activities are just what they sound like: specific activities that you might use your A/V equipment for (e.g. watching a DVD, playing a game console, listening to a CD, etc.). In essence, Activities are basically little macros that you can set to do a series of discrete steps involving several pieces of equiment. So, for example, if I want to play a game on my Xbox 360 all of the following needs to occur:

  1. My Samsung HDTV needs to be turned on and set to the PC (VGA/RGB) input
  2. My amplifier needs to be turned on and set to optical input 2
  3. My Xbox needs to be turned on

With one keypress the Harmony remote can do all of that, emulating three separate remotes (TV, amp, and Xbox).

In addition to the hard buttons on the Harmony remote which vary by model, each one also includes a screen or touch screen with soft buttons. These soft buttons can be programmed to launch an Activity or emulate any button on the OEM remote.


Setup

Setup is straight-forward. The Logitech Harmony Remote Software application is a standard Mac installer package. Unfortunately, like some other unruly Logitech software it just does what it wants without asking, which includes installing a "Logitech" folder in your Home folder which stores your preferences (this obviously should be in the ~/Library/Application Support directory). Anyway, once you've got it installed you need to setup an online account and then tell it what model of Harmony remote you have and what you want to control with it. You'll need to get the exact model numbers of all your equipment, preferably by writing them down directly off of your devices.

Adding a new "Device" to control is easy. You select the kind of device it is, and then the manufacturer. Finally you just need to enter in the exact model number. So, for instance, you can see here I'm adding my Samsung LN-T4665F LCD television:

It's important to make sure you get the model number right. Once you click Add it downloads the relevant codes from the Internet and you're good to go. There is a default button mapping which works just fine. However, you can also edit that by choosing whatever functions you want from a series of drop down menus.


In addition to the Standard Buttons (i.e. the physical buttons on your remote), you can also set up button mappings for the soft buttons which are located either next to the screen or (in the case of the touchscreen models) on the screen itself. These are grouped together in "pages" which vary depending on your model. I have the Harmony 550 which has 4 soft buttons around the screen, so each "page" can have four entries. You can have a number of these pages.

In my setup below, you can see that the first (default) page that is displayed with the TV is the active device allows me to switch between my various HDMI inputs to view my various different sources (PS3, Cable DVR, Xbox360).

You can customize everything, hard and soft buttons for each of your devices, including the labels.

You go through this process for each of your devices: TV, amplifier/receiver, game consoles, DVD player, Apple TV, Macs, etc. Don't worry though, you don't have to customize the buttons at all. The defaults generally work just fine, so if you don't want to play with the button mappings you can just use the defaults.

Incidentally, the database of equipment is enormous, and in all likelihood everything you have will already be in there. However, if you have something unusual the Harmony is also a learning remote. So you can have it learn a new command easily from your OEM remote. In fact, I had to do exactly this for my Comcast PVR. I discovered a skip 30 second hack for my OEM remote, but the Harmony database did not have that code. So it was easy enough to add it by just connecting the Harmony via USB and then pointing my old remote at the bottom of the Harmony and pressing the relevant button. You can add any number of commands this way, but again let me emphasize that it is very unlikely that you'll need to do this. I only had to add one command for all of my equipment.


Activities

Once you've got your devices set up, now comes the best part: Activities. The Harmony software will automatically suggest some activities for you based on your hardware: watch a movie, play a game console, etc. When you select one of the suggested activities (or create a new one) it asks you a series of questions. For example, for the "Watch TV" activity it first asked me what I wanted to use for sound (the TV or my amp), then it asked for which input on the TV I wanted to (i.e. which input my Cable PVR is connected to), finally which input on my amp it is connected to.

So now when I select the "Watch TV" activity it does all of the following:

  1. Turn on the TV and set the input to HDMI 2.
  2. Turn on the Motorola Cable PVR
  3. Turn on the amp and set the input to coax

Naturally enough you can also customize the activities to your heart's content, including changing the default hard and soft button mappings.


Using the Remote

Using the remote is just as you'd imagine. To start one of the Activities macros you just hit the Activities button and then select the appropriate one from the on-screen menu. There's also a Devices button that allows you to use your remote with just one of your devices.

One the best features of the remote is the live help function. If you run one of the Activities and something goes wrong you just need to hit the Help button. Generally, the problem is caused by not pointing the remote at your equipment for long enough so it will retry sending some of the IR codes. The remote will then ask you (on screen) whether the problem has been fixed (yes/no). If you hit no it will then step you through the possible problems with a series of yes/no questions: "Is the TV on?" "Is the TV input set to HDMI1?" "Is the amplifier input set to optical 2?" etc. etc. Soon enough it'll track down the problem and you'll be up and running.


Conclusion

Overall the Harmony series of remotes is brilliant. If you have more than a couple of remotes on your coffee table you'll love it, particularly if you have somewhat non-technical members of your family that have difficulty with juggling a bunch of separate remotes.

The Mac integration is not bad, but far from perfect. The Mac software is, frankly, rather kludgy and functions like a web page. There's a reason for that; it basically is a web page, and you can actually program the Harmony directly in your browser (http://members.harmonyremote.com) rather than using the included software. The interface is really quite similar. Once you setup your remote online you can then download a small file which will launch the Harmony application and transfer the settings to your remote via USB.

The rather un-Mac-like software aside, the Harmony is a must-have for anyone with a lot of equipment. Basically, any of the Harmony remotes (starting around $85 online) will give you access to the unique Activities based functionality, but Logitech just recently released a new model, the Harmony One ($250), which raises the geek-lust factor even higher.

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