Review: Logitech Harmony 900 Universal Remote Control

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All things in life, as with the Force, have a Light Side and a Dark Side. The Logitech Harmony 900 Universal Remote Control has both.

A bit of a background
I have a history with Logitech Harmony remotes and currently own a Logitech Harmony 720. I’ve always found them challenging to program and set up. As well, in my experience, Logitech has never really succeeded in pairing ‘Activities’ (watching TV, listening to streamed music, etc) with my devices or components. My wife sets up and maintains our current Harmony remote — I get frustrated with it. :smileyvery-happy:

So, when I was offered the chance to take a look at the Logitech Harmony 900 I was curious. Has Logitech been able to address my concerns? Let’s find out…

What’s in the box

  • Touchscreen IR / RF remote
  • Rechargeable battery
  • IR Blaster
  • Two Mini IR Blasters
  • Two power supplies
  • Recharging base/cradle
  • Management software disc

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A tale of two computers
The first part of setting up a universal remote control usually consists of installing some sort of remote management software on your computer.

In this case, Logitech provides a disc in the box. I promptly ignored it and went to the website to make sure I had the latest version of the installer — which turned out to be two versions newer than the one in the box.

#Protip: Always check for new installer versions online first. Often times you’ll save yourself a headache.

 

OSX You Say?
So, OSX installer safely downloaded and installed on my current-model MacBook Pro. Fire it up, follow the directions, connect the Harmony 900 remote to the MBP with the handy included USB cable and….

Nothing… other than what you see in the troubleshooting screen below. After making sure I didn’t have a firewall interfering, and attempting to configure the USB drivers as indicated…

 

Troubleshooting Harmony 900, 1000, or 1100 connection issues with Mac OS X Snow Leopard (10.6) and Lion (10.7) - Logitech FAQ.jpg

Nothing. Same problem persists. Ok, roughly 1.5 hours gone by now. Lucky for me that I have another option available, so, let’s see how this works under Windows XP.

Old, but stable Windows XP
I really wanted to keep the remote management software localized to my MacBook Pro laptop, so I decided to install it on the Windows side of my unit. #Sidebar: Yep, I run Windows XP on my MacBook Pro. I use a handy virtualization package called VMWare Fusion which creates a virtual Windows computer inside the Macintosh. Handy for playing some Windows only games, or working on things like this.

And, in this case, the installation went flawlessly. Despite the fact that I was running XP in a virtual session inside OSX. The computer found the remote, did all the appropriate grunting and wheezing, and then we walked through the remainder of the setup process.

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The Set Up
And, Logitech wins. They’ve finally got the device setup and activity paring process drop-dead easy. Yes, even a frustrated techie should be able to set up most devices by answering a simple set of device and activity-related questions. If you’re familiar with the ‘Wizard’ concept you’ve got the picture.

My setup is a bit more complex than simply trying to control a home media centre. I have a small TV in my kitchen, that gets TV signal from a Set Top Box in another room around the corner and down the hall.

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First let’s talk about the hardware usage and placement. Since the Set Top Box that controls the TV signal is in another, I’d be controlling it using the RF / IR blaster when I’m in the Kitchen and changing channels.

The Harmony 900 would basically use IR to talk to the Kitchen TV to turn it on, and adjust the volume. Then it would use RF to talk to the IR blaster, telling the IR blaster to send the correct IR signals to control the Set Top Box.

Another use for the IR blaster and mini IR blasters is if your equipment is hidden behind a cupboard or wall panel. This tech works great and allows you to use the Harmony 900 in a multi-room configuration, as I did.

So, in my setup, I’d be using the Harmony to manage the following Activities:

  • Watch Kitchen TV
  • Watch TV (in the other room)
  • Stream movies via Apple TV
  • Watch DVDs or listen to CDs
  • Power up & basic control for Xbox

Lots of different things to do, with a few different devices, and the Logitech Harmony 900 software walked me through activity and device configuration quite easily.

I was a bit concerned that the Harmony 900 wouldn’t work with the Apple TV 2, but no worries, it did.

The only real configuration hitch was when trying to connect a HDMI switch. The device wasn’t in Logitech’s database, and the remote was previously used as a dog chew toy and totally destroyed. So there was no way to ‘teach’ the Harmony 900 to control the switch.

Usage
The Harmony 900 is a large remote; about the size of a large telephone handset. Being a rechargeable remote, the base and remote unit do have a fair sized footprint, but will easily fit on a shelf or coffee table and take considerably less room than the three to five remotes it replaces. A good tradeoff if you ask me.

I really liked the bright colour display touchscreen, though the touchscreen does collect fingerprints quite easily.

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Many Rooms. Many Devices
I also liked the ability to use it as a multi-room remote with the IR Blasters. My configuration is a little non-standard, yet it worked as I had hoped it would.

If you have multiple rooms with multiple devices, you can easily configure various device and activity combinations so that you really only need one remote for your entire household. The Harmony 900 will control up to 15 devices, and the learning capability means that you can really control anything that is IR, even a fireplace or air conditioning unit.

Though that’s less practical if you’ve got a family doing different things in different rooms at the same time. Which leads me to another niggle – each remote needs to be associated with your Harmony account. It’s a minor thing, but all your remotes need to be registered with a Harmony account. In other words, you can’t use the Harmony remote if you don’t have an Internet connection.

Conclusion
I’m converted. Kinda.

The fact that I couldn’t setup and configure the Harmony 900 using my MacBook Pro under OSX is a problem. Logitech is aware of the issue, and have a workaround in place — which seems to work for most people.

Some think its a Java issue or 32bit/64bit issue. I’m not sure why it didn’t work in my case, but I don’t think I’m unique. If it says ‘Mac OSX 10.3 or later’ on the box, it should work and I shouldn’t have to do a few hours research on the issue online to get it to work. If I didn’t have a Windows option available, this review wouldn’t have happened.

Upside!
Once I did get it set up though, I was very pleased by the improved setup and use experience. The real ‘win’ for me was the ease of device configuration and the integration of the IR blaster hardware. It allowed me to control RF devices that aren’t in line-of-sight with the handheld remote, which really increased the usability of the remote in my home situation. Basically, it does what any good appliance should do — it makes life easier.

So? Do you have experience with the Logitech Harmony 900, or other Harmony remote? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments!
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2 Replies to “Review: Logitech Harmony 900 Universal Remote Control”

  1. Brad, I would like to ask you what you thought about the Harmony 900 vs the 720. I have a 720 (dying) and am considering the 900. There are warnings that the 900 “does not support the programming of customized multi-step macro commands beyond those of the automatic activity-based menu system.” I am not sure if this means it does less than the 720? I have customized my 720 activity menus to a degree (simply turning on and shutting off applicable A/V components but not touching lights or a/c or anything beyond the A/V components). I like the way this works. Will I lose this control with the 900, or are they talking simply about the “extras”? I like the 900 because of the intuitive wand design (can stand tablet types) and ability to manipulate buttions without having to look at it.
    Thank you for your feedback.
    Mike

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