Editors' note: Confused about how this model stacks up to other Harmony remotes? See CNET's "Which Logitech universal remote is right for you?" for updated comparisons and recommendations.
CNET has recommended Logitech Harmony universal remotes for years--in fact, we were recommending them since before Logitech bought Harmony's Canadian parent company in 2004. But no matter how enthusiastic the recommendation, there are always those of you who absolutely refused to pay $100 or even $50 for a remote.
Well, Logitech has finally called your bluff. The company now has a $20 remote: the Logitech Harmony 200. It only controls three devices and it won't give you nearly the same flexibility as more expensive Harmony models, but the Harmony 200 is a great remote for controlling a basic living room or bedroom TV that also has a cable/satellite box and a disc player or even a VCR.
How a Harmony differs from other remotes
The Harmony 200 is a smaller version of 2010's Harmony 300 with a few small tweaks. Today the Harmony 300 sells for around $30. That's already very inexpensive, but the $20 price of the Harmony 200 puts it in direct contention with those supercheap universal remotes you can buy at the drugstore.
Those drugstore remotes are invariably packaged with a little sheet of paper that has hundreds of numerical codes to control your TV, cable box, disc player, or whatever. The remotes "work," provided your devices match up, but their trial-and-error-based setup is a pain and they often lack the specialized keys that are common to modern DVRs, cable/satellite boxes, and Blu-ray players.
Instead, you program a Harmony remote using your computer (Mac or Windows PC) connected via the included USB cable. Logitech's wizard-style software does the heavy lifting.
In other words, if you've ever moved music from your computer to your iPod or cellphone, you probably won't have any trouble programming the Harmony 200. The setup process incorporates graphical prompts and natural language question and answers--considerably more approachable than a sheet of printed four-digit codes.
The Harmony setup process
You start by setting up a required account at myharmony.com (you'll just need an e-mail address and password). The site will then automatically install software onto your computer. Old-school Harmony customers, take note: this is the new and improved Harmony software, a streamlined browser-based version that's much easier to use than Harmony's previous software. On the other hand it offers little to adjust settings (advanced users can still utilize the old, more customizable software).
The setup wizard asks very simple questions, so users need only to know the make and model of the products they wish to control, and how they are connected (e.g., which input on the TV the DVD player is plugged into: HDMI 1, Component 2, and so forth).
Once the three devices are identified, the system automatically downloads the correct codes from Logitech's massive database to the remote via USB. (It includes hundreds of thousands of products from thousands of brands.)
On the off-chance that you have a new or obscure device that isn't yet in Logitech's database, the software will guide you through the "learning" process. It involves pointing an existing remote at the back of the Harmony 200--where an infrared (IR) receptor is housed--so the software can absorb and assign the appropriate commands.
The software handles two other functions. The first is customizing the button functions for each key on the remote. Most of the keys are preprogrammed by default (play, pause, numeric keypad, etc.), but you can still personalize what they do. Using a graphical version of the remote on your PC screen, you can simply drag and drop functions for each device to the corresponding button. Specialized buttons for set-top boxes or game consoles (such as aspect ratio or the "A," "B," "C" buttons found on many cable-based video-on-demand systems) can be mapped to the four colored buttons in the center, for instance. It's about as intuitive as it gets. The software also lets you assign "punchthrough" commands so, for example, your sound bar (and not your TV) can always handle volume changes.
The second software customization is preparing the "Watch TV" button at the top of the remote. Using the software wizard, you let the system know which devices need to be powered up and set to which input so you can watch TV (e.g., TV on, switched to HDMI 2 input; cable box on), giving you a one-button way to turn the system on. (If your devices use identical power on and power off codes, the "Watch TV" button will also shut everything off; otherwise, you'll need to power down each device one at a time.)
This is the sort of automatic activity-based programming that Harmony remotes are known for, but on the 200, it's limited to the single "Watch TV" function. If you want more ("Listen to music," "Watch DVD," "Play video game," and so forth), you'll need to upgrade to the Harmony 600 or above. Likewise, if you've got a remote with a large number of specialized buttons, the Harmony 200 isn't your best choice. And, with any universal remote, the normal caveats apply: you'll need good line of sight to your gear's infrared receptors, and the automated input switching won't work well unless your products have discrete inputs (most TVs and receivers from at least the last five to eight years should).