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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

A Thing We Like: Living room Harmony

I suppose in some ways I am a collector of universal remote controls. Over the years I feel like I’ve tried them all, from old learning remotes to ones with programmable multi-step functions to ones you attach to your computer via a USB and program on a web site, I’ve tried ‘em all. For the last couple of decades I’ve had a multi-channel audio system in my living room—what can I say, surround sound for movies and TV shows is cool!—and that means a whole lot of added remote-control complexity. My TV remote controls the TV, but the audio comes out of speakers attached to a receiver/amplifier, which means I need two remote controls. Throw in a VCR or DVR or DVD player and you really need a universal remote.

My current model is probably my favorite. It’s not remotely perfect, but given the fundamental limitations of universal remotes (most notably that they don’t actually understand the current status of your electronics—Is it on? Is it on the right input? What’s the current volume?) it’s the best I’ve found. It’s the Logitech Harmony.

What I like best about the Harmony is that it’s actually two devices—an infrared broadcaster box that you can place in your room (or wire directly to devices via infrared emitters), and an RF remote. That it’s an RF remote means you don’t need to aim your remote at the TV for it to work; you press the buttons on the remote, and the broadcaster blasts out the appropriate infrared signals. It also works with Bluetooth and, because it’s on your local wi-fi network, your smart home devices. So I can tell my Amazon Echo to turn on my TV, and I can even use the remote to control some smart home devices. (I can also use any iOS device like a remote, if I’m not near the included remote.) Programming the remote is relatively easy, via an iPhone app that is only mediocre—but feels like an award winner compared to the web-based interface I used with my previous Logitech remote.

I’m particular with my remotes. I’m not interested in only using iOS devices to turn my TV on and off and navigate between channels; I want a physical remote that anyone in my house can use. The downside of my remote—it’s not an issue with the more expensive Harmony Elite—is that it doesn’t have a programmable screen, so I have to train myself and my family members about what button does what. The Elite has a touchscreen, which is tempting, but let me tell you—for remote controls, tactility rules. This is why I’m never going to accept a touchscreen as my remote control—if I have to look down to see what button I’m pushing, it’s an abject failure. I want to rest my finger on the buttons and know what command I’m going to send, without taking my eyes off the screen.

I’m not convinced that we’ll ever get a perfect remote control—mine would be a programmable system like the Harmony, but with buttons with customizable e-ink labels, and a robust automation interface to design complicated commands. But unless you do what Caavo is doing and intercept the status of every single device in your home theater, it’s always going to be tricky to program these things. In the end, the closer I get to having a remote that’s tactile, controls all our stuff, and doesn’t confuse anyone in my family, the better.

Now the Harmony, while being my favorite universal remote, is not my favorite remote control of all time. It’s the TiVo remote, known fondly to its users as “the peanut.” It feels good in the hand and has pleasant and clearly labeled buttons in a good layout. The version I’ve got is backlit and has a “slider” keyboard for text input. It’s great. And if I’m honest, when I’m watching our TiVo, I’m using that remote instead of the Harmony. It’s the best, if all I’m doing is using our DVR and not throwing in the Apple TV or any of our video game consoles.

[A Thing We Like is a column where every month, we tell you about—surprise!—a thing that we like. It might be a piece of software, a tech gadget, a board game, a book, a movie, a TV show, a comic—pretty much anything. If you’re looking for a suggestion of a particular type of thing, don’t hesitate to drop us a line.]

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