Sunday, January 18, 2009

Harmony 525

This is one of the family of devices I hesitated for too long to buy. Universal remote controls. First of all you have those real cheap ones that never seem to be able to take over functionality of half of your current remotes. They are too complex to program or learn instructions via infrared communication between your old remotes (the teachers) and the 'universal' pieces of junk you just bought (the students). So, being a sucker for electronic gadgets and all sorts of gottahavits for almost forty years, I became a conspicuous exception to the universal law of geeks by not having tried the Harmony family of Logitech remotes yet. Until yesterday. In all honesty, there was the price factor too. Too much money, I always thought, for a remote that I was convinced would be as difficult to operate as anything else I had and would never ever be able to functionally cover all those weird remotes of mine...

But yesterday, as I was window-shopping at an electronics shop (that didn't go broke yet) I saw that piece, the Harmony 525, which had two things that made me go for it. A beautiful form factor (I hate most of the other pieces in the Harmony line for looking like obese versions of Barbie dolls) and of course a price of 69 euros (sexy!) incl. VAT. What the heck, I thought. Worst could happen that it worked like sh*t... 69 euros lost, no big damage... less than a dinner for two at a mid-market tent.

I'm not gonna review this one here as there are piles of tech-reviewing sites out there, just google Harmony 525 and you got millions of responses, I guess... Only things I'd say though are the following:

I'm finally sold to Logitech's intelligent remotes. Honest! I actually replaced with this ellegant 525 ABOUT ALL my other remotes (almost a dozen, I think). Even obscure and totally unknown devices like a HDMI switch were recognized and with a little assistance the 525 learned few of their instructions it originally lacked in its database. Its most phenomenal add-on, especially for automation illiterate spouses and pensioners, is the Activities functionality. Instead of messing around with four or five remotes to set up the workflow (in my living room you almost need an engineering degree to streamline signals on the TV, with the Cable set-top, the Bose 321 and Apple TV via an Icy Box HDMI switch) the Activities give you access to simple commands (that you pre-programmed via a PC or Mac on the remote) that say things like: Watch Cable TV, or Watch Blu-Ray DVD, or Watch Podcasts (via AppleTV, that is), or listen to Music (Radio and CDs via Bose, MP3 via AppleTV). Even an iPod docking station with any of my iPods docked there proved to work fine.

The 525 proved actually quite simple to understand. It does two things quite well. Ok, may be more than two. But lemme tell ya! It first accepts the description of all your electronic and digital boxes (type, suppliers, models) and since it can call home via an interconnected PC or Mac it gets all the commands for these devices from an immense database of suppliers and products worldwide, available to your fingertips in a heartbeat. It then assembles the right instructions with the help of a rather primitive scripting language. It does this to achieve useful tasks for you. For instance, in my case, I got the following situation. I got a brand new Sony Bravia Full HD 40 inch LCD TV (well, 8 months old now). Poor sod, it was a week old when a lightening strike our chimney and burnt almost all my gear, in June 2008. Bravia gone to repair, back, not good yet, to repair again and 2 months later back again. Eventually, it was left with a permanent damage that out of its 3 HDMI inputs only one was left working. So I had to go buy a HDMI switch to serve the Apple TV, the Sony Blue-ray DVD player and the Telenet HDTV digicorder box. In order to watch a regular TV channel, I need to activate the HDMI switch to input 1, turn on the Telenet settop and activate the TV into its (sole working) HDMI-1. To switch to Apple TV from that, I need to shut down the Telenet settop, activate AppleTV and select input 3 on my Switch box while keeping the Bravia on HDMI-1. In times I've been absent for business for a couple of days and then came back, it used to take me some time to remember how to get them going again. Or, my bride kept calling me abroad to say that the DVD player was broke as there was no signal on TV... Go figure...

All of that seems to be gone now. The 525 displays target activities in plain English (or Dutch in my case) that I need to select and it then takes all the necessary steps sequentially to achieve my ultimate viewing and/or listening experience. Unbelievable! I'd be the first to admit. It works like a charm!

525's form factor is extremely effective too. Piece of tiramisu, to learn! Keys are organized in simple functional blocks. First from the bottom up, the (alpha)numeric keys with the four colored dedicated to Teletext at the bottom. Then, an OK key in the middle surrounded by four cursor-move directional ones as well as the commonly known chn+ and chn- (on the right) and vol+ and vol- (on the left) keys arranged in a cute circular configuration, separated by a 'Glow' button to turn all other keys and the LCD display visible in the dark. Above those, a set of long horizontal rubber keys for pre-programmed functionality with stereotypical functions found in most remotes I know: mute, exit, guide, info, etc... Above those, two rows of VCR type keys for play, stop, pause, rewind, fast forward, etc... Supercool! Finally the LCD display, turning blue with backlight in the dark, surrounded by four hard buttons, two on either side, that take their functionality from what's shown on the LCD's display. And at last, on top, three proprietory Logitech keys of critical importance, Activities, Devices and Help. Oh, yes. Almost forgot! Top-left, the universal power-off button that turns all active devices to 'off' when you'r done watching and/or listening.

In fact, all you need to understand in order to enjoy the most out of this 525 is the way it works via the prescribed Devices and the resulting Activities of your choice that interoperate those Devices. You get the best feel for it while you're busy programming it with the help of the accompanying software for the PC or Mac. Connect the 525 to your personal computer with a delivered USB cable, install the (driver) software and you're good to go. The remaining of the keys on the remote have been commonly used almost for ever in any remote I had operated before. It's kinda of funny, I only had the 525 for a day but it seems now that I even forgot my beloved simple Apple remote altogether and I only carry my MacBook with the 550 on my side any room I go to...

I'd even dare say that the 525 has much of an Apple Inc reminiscent form-factor. Well done Logitech. Eventually you've proven that you do more than just cool mice, I should admit.

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