Over the last couple of years, we've developed a fondness for Harmony Web-programmable universal remotes. The brand was originally developed by Canada's Intrigue Technologies, which was purchased last year by accessories giant Logitech. The new parent company finished out 2004 with a couple of models that were already in Intrigue's hopper, but the $249 Harmony 880 is the first Harmony remote to be fully conceived by Logitech's designers. It's also the first Harmony to feature a color screen and a built-in rechargeable battery along with a docking station.
Though slightly larger than its predecessors, the 880 retains a similar dumbbell shape, measuring 8.1 inches long by 2.3 inches wide by 1.3 inches deep and weighing 5.8 ounces. However, a couple of significant differences separate it from previous models. In addition to the screen's color capabilities (previous models were limited to black-and-white), the LCD is larger. The increased screen real estate offers room for a total of eight contextual icons, corresponding to adjacent hard buttons. That's up from six on previous Harmony models.
The 128x160-pixel color display is pretty low resolution (read: early Palm color screen), but it's a big improvement over the monochrome screens found on such models as the Harmony 688 and 676. One thing we didn't love was that the activity-based icons could have been a little cleaner-looking and easier to read; hopefully Logitech will tweak them in due time.
Previous Harmony remotes featured soft, rubbery buttons that sometimes weren't as responsive as we would have liked. For this model, Logitech has gone with all hard plastic buttons--generally a good thing, though buttons such as the video-transport buttons (record, play, rewind, fast-forward, pause, and stop) and the 12-digit keypad are still spaced very close to each other, so it's hard to operate by feel alone. However, it is worth noting that context-specific side keys--volume and channel up/down--are raised nicely in just the right places. All in all, we felt the button layout was pretty well thought out; it shouldn't cause too many irritations and seems friendly enough toward digital set-top boxes, DVRs, and even Media Center PCs, though you will have to map/customize certain buttons manually to perform certain tasks.
As noted, the 880 includes a docking station for juicing up the included rechargeable batteries; you simply lie the remote down in its cradle. Not only is it nice to have a recharging option to save dough on batteries, but if you're good about leaving the remote in its cradle, you'll always know where it is when you need it. The other nice feature that the 880 offers is its motion sensor: when you pick up the remote, it automatically turns on. You can also easily add your own digital images as backgrounds and screensavers--there's a slide-show feature--though we found that we had to crop our images into vertical shots or they'd appear hideously stretched on the screen. And it really wasn't a good idea to have a picture as a background because it made the icons difficult to read; stick with the default blue background.
Other than that, the 880 works 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 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 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 880. 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 still 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 880 performed just as well as previous Harmony remotes we've tested, and after a couple of tweaks, we were in command of a six-component system: HDTV, A/V receiver, DVD player, CD-jukebox, Xbox, and HD set-top box. Logitech says you should be able to go a few weeks without recharging, but obviously, if you leave the unit in its cradle, the battery will remain fully juiced. It's also worth noting that the batteries are replaceable, so when they eventually wear out--and they will--you'll be able swap new ones in.
In the final analysis, the Harmony 880 represents a nice step forward for Logitech. While it has some elements of a high-end remote (color screen, motion sensor, docking station), the $250 price tag is still fairly reasonable. In fact, the only real non-Logitech competition in this price range is the Home Theater Master MX-700, but it lacks the color screen and the rechargeable battery, and its PC-programmable macros require more hands-on massaging. In the future, we'd like to see an RF version (unlike IR, RF passes signals through walls and cabinets), which would appeal to people with multiroom setups or hidden components. But for those that have single room setups with all their components exposed, the 880 certainly makes an excellent choice.
Editor's note: Senior Associate Editor John Falcone contributed to this review.