Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: Harmony 600 Universal Remote

My previous remote was a Sony VL-610, now unavailable but most similar to the VLZ-620. It worked fine, integrating with every component in my setup, even the PS3 via the Nyko Bluwave. Even though I could program it to do a lot, I anticipated having non-English speakers living with me, so when the Harmony 600 came on-sale for $32 at one of the daily deals sites, I jumped on it.

The selling point of the Harmony 600 is that instead of programming individual devices and turning individual devices on and off and switching between them, you program activities (similar to macros) and then use those. This has several features. First of all, you can indicate that the volume control always goes to the receiver/amplifier, for instance, instead of the volume control on the TV or what-have-you. While the VL-610 had this capability, I frequently found it hard to set it up that way (you have to deliberately not program the volume button on the individual devices and then tell it to use the amp instead, and I always forgot not to program the volume button). Secondly, the hours spent "teaching" the VL-610 are replaced by a simple, easy-to-use web-app that downloads the IR codes into the Harmony 600, which is a snap.

This approach is really nice when it works. For instance, I can now program the Roku Soundbridge to play music with one click. One button turns off everything, eliminating the need for your guests to remember anything about what mode it's gotten into. It even knows how to switch the inputs for your TV smartly, which is more than the remote that came with the TV itself!

When does it fail? It fails when your guests get the system into some weird state. It fails on the PS3 because it doesn't really know how to turn the PS3 off, so it'll turn the TV and the amp off and leave the PS3 on. That's really unfortunate, but for the PS3 which is really blue-tooth only, I can understand that.

The big annoyance for me is that there's no UI that I can see where I can over-ride the default settings. For instance, when watching a movie, I want the menu button to bring up the options button, but whoever programmed the blue wave control didn't know about that, and I have no way to reassign keys. The same would apply to nearly every other activity --- the existence of the softkey screen seems to have prevented logitech from thinking very hard about doing proper button assignment to activities.

All in all, at the current prices of $40 for a Harmony 600 versus $20 for the VLZ-620, I'd recommend the Harmony. Your time is probably worth way more than $20, and time spent programming the VLZ-620 is no fun at all. On the other hand, at the original retail price of $120 for the 600, buy the VLZ-620. The advantages just don't justify that price.
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