Image: Hugh Threlfall
November 07 2009
A recent visit to a large London cinema reconfirmed a growing conviction that public cinemas and I need to part company. Appalling, cramped seats, painfully blaring sound… What else could a person not want?
So it’s back to the project of getting a decent Dolby 5.1 home cinema sorted out. This, however, will clearly lead to unwelcome additions to our growing menagerie of remote controls. These currently number six, with a total of 217 buttons, of which I know the function of about five. So I was quite excited about the arrival of Logitech’s Harmony 900, a new universal remote that aims to be the best and last remote you will ever need.
Now, I am drawn like a moth to light by simplicity. In my cluster of remotes, it’s significant that the one from the cleverest company, the controller for my Apple TV, has just six buttons.
Simplicity like this doesn’t come easily. I’ve had a few universal remotes in the past and they’ve been useless. Logitech has, in addition, made life difficult for itself by aiming for an über-remote which not only controls up to 15 devices, but can do so from 30m or more – and through walls and doors. This obviously rules out the normal infrared-type controllers; the Harmony 900 works on radio frequencies, which complicates matters in the drive to simplify them.
You might expect setting up the Harmony 900 to be nightmarish, but it turns out to be quite satisfying. It’s done online, with a clever set-up wizard that prompts you to enter the make and model numbers of your gadgets, whereupon the software programmes the Harmony with codes from a growing database of 225,000-plus devices from some 5,000 manufacturers.
The Harmony 900 is a beautiful thing to handle. It has an excellent colour touch screen that is unusually intuitive, with judiciously written commands where they’re necessary. It’s hard to imagine a £300-plus remote control feeling worth the money, but this achieves it. Not that it’s made of precious materials or anything – it’s still cast from God’s own plastic – but a lot of work has gone into making sure it fits in the hand and that the relatively sparse crop of 44 buttons is laid out logically and works for a living.
If there’s a problem with the Harmony 900 it’s that it’s a wee bit simple, as in slow-witted. A lot of electronics need to be going on to make life as simple (as in efficient) as possible, by performing such wonders as turning the TV and the Sky box on in one button-push. So while 90 per cent of our experience was fine – nay, pleasurable, with the notorious six old remotes put away in a drawer – it did occasionally lose the plot. In particular, the signal for “off’ seems to be the same as the one for “on”. So if one signal doesn’t make it (maybe the cat walks through the beam in the wrong kind of way, or you don’t aim the remote at your gadgetry for quite long enough), everything goes out of phase. So you tell it you want to watch Sky and the TV turns on while the Sky box turns off. Yet the Harmony has an excellent help feature that helps correct problems.
A more fundamental problem, arguably, is that you can’t quite help occasionally sneaking an old remote or two out of its hiding place because you know its ways better than the new über-remote. But this is still probably the best remote ever.