Last year, Canada's Intrigue Technologies produced one of our favorite universal remotes, the Web-programmable Harmony 659. As fine as it was, that model did have some imperfections, most notably a slightly flawed keypad layout that was missing dedicated DVD chapter advance and rewind buttons. With this year's Harmony 688, available in black or silver for a list price of $249, Intrigue--now owned by Logitech--seeks to correct those flaws with some small design changes.
Both remotes are the same size (8.06 inches long by 2.3 inches wide by 1.3 inches deep) and look similar to the ergonomically friendly, dumbbell-shaped TiVo remote. In rethinking the Logitech Harmony 688's key layout, Intrigue decided to go with a centralized, densely packed button configuration. The center of the remote sports an oval of 16 keys surrounding a five-way navigation pad. Directly below the oval are the video transport buttons (record, play, rewind, fast-forward, pause, and stop) and a 12-digit keypad, while an 84x48-pixel LCD flanked by six context-specific side keys dominates the upper third of the remote. The LCD and all of the buttons are brightly backlit for easy navigation in a darkened home-theater environment. You should get two to three months of usage before the four AAA batteries that power the unit peter out.
Button debates aside (we'll have more on that in a minute), programming most universal remotes involves a frustrating and time-consuming method of punching in a series of multidigit codes for each component in your A/V system. By contrast, Harmony remotes are programmed by connecting them to your Internet-connected Windows PC or Mac with the supplied USB cable, installing the driver 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--always having the channel buttons control the cable box or volume on the TV, for instance. After you've completed the questionnaire, the software uploads all the relevant control codes to the 688. You can also periodically upload channel listings and call them up on the LCD, but that service is free for only your first two months of use.
The process involves some trial and error. You must verify that the commands work with your equipment as intended, then modify them as necessary. Fortunately, the Web site provides advanced, macro-style options for delay times, multistep commands, and other functions. Even better, the remote's Help key aids in troubleshooting by asking natural-language questions on the LCD. For instance, the screen might read, "Is the digital set-top box on?" And Harmony's e-mail-based customer support is excellent; problems are assigned a help ticket number and followed through to their conclusion.
The Harmony 688 performed just as well as the Harmony 659 in our tests. Choosing Watch DVD, for example, triggered a series of automatically programmed macros that powered on my DVD player, TV, and A/V receiver and toggled the TV and receiver to the correct inputs and presets. And while other remotes can be programmed with these sorts of intricate macros, it's the Harmony's ability to know the state of each device that sets it apart from the competition. For instance, switching from Watch DVD to Watch TV will turn off the DVD player and turn on the cable box and automatically switch the TV and A/V receiver to the appropriate preprogrammed inputs and levels for each. Lesser remotes would require everything to be powered down first, so they would all be starting from a common off position.
Where does the Harmony 688 fall short? It doesn't have the radio frequency (RF) capability of Universal Remotes' URC line, so it may frustrate advanced users looking for multiroom solutions. More significant, though, is that the bold keypad layout is, in some ways, a step back from the Harmony 659. The centralized five-way navigation pad, oval-shaped control ring, and video transport buttons correctly put the bulk of the DVD, DVR, and digital set-top box commands (menu, info, guide, page up/down, and track up/down) easily within thumb's reach. Unfortunately, the mushy rubber buttons and contiguous key layout make it very hard to distinguish keys by feel, especially compared to the well-spaced, harder chiclet-style keys of the 659 and Universal Remote URC-200 Automator.
In the final analysis, the 688's ergonomic issues are nitpicks, not deal breakers. Harmony's Web-programming interface and task-based control scheme are long overdue improvements to the universal remote category. Both the 688 and the 659 remain among the best remotes we've ever tested. We highly recommend them.
Note: This model is alternately known as SST-688 and H688.