Ending Remote Madness .. the Harmony Internet Remote

by Owen Densmore

Related link: http://www.harmonyremote.com/

I've recently setup a new suite of TV and related peripherals: Cable box, VCR, and DVD player. Although this is fairly modest, it resulted in 4 remote controls, one for each component. It was driving me nuts to remember to do this just to watch TV:

  • Turn on TV and Cable Set Top Box (STB)

  • Change TV to channel 3

  • Change TV input to antenna 2

  • Use STB remote for channel selection

  • Use TV for mute and volume

Then, to record a video tape, I had to:

  • Turn on VCR

  • Change TV input to antenna 1

  • Use VCR remote for channel and menu

  • Use TV remote for mute and volume

  • Use VCR remote for tape record, pause etc

It sounds trivial, but as you know, you constantly forget which remote to use for what, and indeed constantly confuse the TV remote for the VCR remote and so on. It was driving me nuts!  What to do??

Standard "universal remotes" did not help. They were the equivalent of wrapping all the remotes together with a rubber band!  I still had to change between the VCR mode and TV mode etc.  So basically all the universal did was reduce the clutter.  And they never really worked right .. they constantly lacked features needed by my particular component.

Harmony RemoteWell, naturally, I turned to the web. Would you believe there is an entire website (Remote Central) devoted to remotes?!  Their extremely detailed tutorial/review, along with several other fine reviews such as Don Norman's and this ZDNet one, led me to try the Harmony SST-768 Remote.

Now, to give you an idea how desperate I was, this remote costs quite a bit: $299 from the Harmony site! There are other Harmony remotes that cost less, and it is easy to find the 768 for less that $200 on the web.  But none the less, that's not cheap!  But boy is it worth it. (Click image for larger view)

I won't go into all the details (the above links are great) .. suffice it to say, you plug the remote into your computer via USB, beam into the Harmony web site, create your user account, and configure your remote using a "helper application".  Works fine for Macs and PCs both.  Alas, no Linux at this point. The device has an LCD screen for programming and custom menus. And most of the customization takes no programming, just parameter setting via the Harmony web site.

ActivitiesWhat makes this device unique is the "Activity Centered" (or task oriented) approach it takes.  For me, the standard activities are "Watch TV", "Use VCR", "Watch DVD".  Sounds simple, yes?  But only weeks ago, these brought fear to my heart!  Which TVInput?  Which remotes?  Which controls volume etc?  But now I fearlessly pick up the remote and charge ahead.  I've even started wiring up my system in quite complex ways: different video paths for "premium" (i.e. encrypted) video and "standard" (i.e. non-encrypted) cable video, and record one channel and watch another.  The wad of cables and splitters behind my TV is truely impressive now!  But again, no fear, Harmony can easily handle it all. (Click image for setup page)

Now to be fair, not everything went quite that smoothly.  My cable box would not turn on correctly initially.  But an email to their support staff got the answer: the Power On Delay parameter for the cable box needed to be a bit higher than the default.  But between the Harmony site's support team and the Remote Central Chat Forum, I found the answers I needed.

And as I got more expert, I found other difficulties.  For example, when I wanted to record one channel and watch another, I would start the recording via the Use VCR activity, and then "change Activity" to Watch TV.  But that turned off the VCR (Harmony turns on/off all your required devices for you)!  A quick fix was to have the Watch TV activity also use the VCR.  But way, way better was Harmony's Customer Service folks adding a new Device Power Option and posting it to the Chat Forum.

It is interesting to see how the internet fits in.  First of all, Harmony has a HUGE database of device controls, many of them contributed by users "training their remote" in the usual way: aim the remote at the Harmony device.  But this gets uploaded to the Harmony site so that by the time you and I get there, the device codes are pretty solid.  And naturally, the Chat Forum and support pages help debug problems.

But another way the Internet works with the harmony is that it can store several weeks worth of program listings right on your remote!  Yup, sorta TiVo-ish.  So you pick up the remote, and look at the channel listing which can toggle between "26-ESPN" to "26-Sports Center" on the LCD display for the remote. And you can look ahead an hour or so as well.  Very nice.

Have you found good solutions to the "Remote Madness"?


2004-01-03 03:26:11
remote control your mac, too
it might be obvious, but if you bought a Keyspan Digital Media Remote (http://www.keyspan.com/products/usb/remote/), you could remote control your mac, too.