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Gadgets, Technology

A/V Harmony

November 19th, 2009 by Jeff | Dump Core

Recently, our family took a long, hard look at some stock options my wife had been sitting on for a while and discovered that, even in the current questionable economic client, these options were looking pretty good. Well, a bit better than just “pretty good”. How about we say, “even after taxes, ‘pretty good’ still looks like an understatement”. After agonizing for a while over whether we should pull them all now or wait for the chance for the stock to go up even further, we decided to pull the trigger and take them all at once. After immediately moving the money to the savings account (where it will earn the most interest while still remaining liquid), we sat down and rationed how to slice up our piping hot and fresh money pie. Healthy chunks have or will go into numerous investments, of course, including the boy’s college fund and both long and short-term investments with decent returns. But we also wanted to keep some of that for ourselves, just to have a little fun. We’re planning on getting Ben a nice play set next spring or summer, and earmarked some to buy a few “toys” for ourselves.

The biggest “toys” are a new 55″ (139.7 cm for you metric-heads) LED LCD high-definition television, wall mounted, and a Blu-ray capable home theater system. Let me tell you folks, I was one of those people skeptical of the “high definition” craze when I had no basis of comparison. But after watching good ol’ standard DVDs on this thing and comparing them to what we got on our old 57″ (144.78 cm) projection TV, the difference is amazing. And that’s with “standard” definition DVDs! I think we still haven’t played an actual Blu-ray disc in this thing yet. And while surround sound is generally relegated to a gimmick in my book, I will admit that at times it’s a pretty good gimmick. I only wish now I actually had time to watch anything.

But none of that is the point of this post.

Rather, this is about the unilateral proliferation of the ubiquitous remote control. You know what I’m talking about. Every A/V device comes with one, and no matter what the manual tells you, you can try to program it to control your other devices, but you inevitably can’t. Either one device partially works but the rest don’t, or there’s one or two critical buttons that you absolutely need that never get mapped, or your device x from manufacturer y is not supported by the remote for device a from manufacturer b. So you end up with three or more remote controls sitting on the arm of your couch, each dedicated to one device and only halfheartedly supporting one or more others, if you’re lucky. You might be able to use the DVD player remote to turn on the TV and control the volume, but you have to switch back to the TV remote to get the aspect ratio right or switch the input mode.

Our recent purchase made our ever-breeding collection of remotes even worse. We were fortunate enough that the Tivo remote fully replaced the cable box remote (since the Tivo controls the cable box anyway), but now we were stuck with the Tivo, the TV, the home theater, and the old five-disc DVD player (kept in the loop mostly for its multi-disc capacity), all leaving remotes on the couch. (After about ten seconds of thought, we opted to retire the old VCR completely, eliminating a potential fifth remote.) Turning things on or switching activities required the “remote shuffle”, switching from one device to another to get everything just right. Worst of all, many times there were only a handful of buttons on each remote that were really needed for everyday use, meaning a lot of space, plastic, and silicon was being wasted.

Like any good geek, I thought that there had to be a better way. Larry Wall‘s first and second virtues of a great programmer are laziness and impatience, and I have both in spades. (Hubris, the third virtue, is something I struggle with as I have a chronic case of humility.) If only there were a way for me to consolidate all those useless logs into one, a single device that would let me push a single button and have everything just do what it needed to do: turn on what needed to be on and only those devices, put the TV and home theater on the right inputs, adjust settings for a device for one activity and then again when the activity changes, and make sure everything gets turned off when we’re heading out the door.  I wanted something “scriptable”, something that with one button press would send off a chain of commands and “just do it”. Yes, there are “universal” remotes with macro languages out there that you can program to do just that. But I’m lazy (virtue #1); I wouldn’t mind a good starting point where most of the work is already done, and I don’t want to exert any more effort that I have to to make everything “just right”.

If you hadn’t guessed, we eventually purchased a Logitech Harmony remote, a Harmony One to be exact. For those whose definition of a “universal remote” consists of a $25-50 cheap plastic brick you can pick up at any drug store that “learns” by you pressing buttons on the old remote while pointing it at the new one, the Harmony line might seem like overkill. With prices starting around $100 and skyrocketing from there, Harmony remotes aren’t cheap. But for the premium price you get a ton of premium features that quickly make you wonder why you ever put up with the remote shuffle in the first place.

Harmony remotes are driven primarily by a single online database of devices. Using the Harmony software, you enter all the model numbers and it will look them up in the database, returning a pretty good mapping for all their remote keys. The database is pretty extensive, with tens of thousands of devices from thousands of manufacturers. Even our brand new TV (just released when we purchased it according to the manufacturer’s website) and home theater (which still doesn’t show up on their website) were there, ready to go. Best of all, all of the Harmony remotes share the same database, so the cheapest of the line can control the exact same devices as the most expensive. Of course, sometimes the database entries are inaccurate or incomplete since they are often populated by other users. However, Harmony remotes can learn just like the cheap URs can. I’ve been able to add a number of buttons from our home theater remote that were missed in the database import, and hopefully others will be able to share that effort.

To control your devices, Harmony uses an “activity” based process that may take a little bit of getting used to. You first need to decide what activities you plan to perform with your devices, such as “watch TV”, “watch DVD”, “play a game console”, etc. Once you have this list, you select what devices are needed for each activity and either let the software map the buttons for you or manually map them yourself. For example, our “watch TV” activity involves the TV, home theater (f0r audio), and Tivo box (which controls the cable). Many of the buttons on the remote map to the Tivo’s controls, so that’s how we switch channels, control video flow, etc. The volume and mute buttons are mapped to the home theater (the TV speakers are turned off). For the Harmony One, old remote buttons that don’t have an easy mapping (like the infamous Tivo “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons) are mapped to “soft buttons” on an LCD touch screen; cheaper Harmony remotes have a simpler text LCD with hard buttons next to each option. Default mappings are easy enough to modify with the Harmony software. When the activity is started, all the relevant devices are turned on if necessary and are switched to whatever inputs and settings you specify. While you remain in that activity, the buttons remain mapped to where you set them. At any time you can switch to a “device mode” that controls a single device exclusively, mapping all the buttons to control that once device. Once you’re done with taht, you can simply switch back to activity mode to restore the activity mappings. When you finish the activity or switch to a different one, devices are turned off and reconfigured as necessary to fit the new role and your button mappings change as appropriate. Hitting the “power” button doesn’t technically turn everything off, but rather ends the current activity and turns off all the devices currently in use… which is often the same thing.

The Harmony is not without its quirks, of course. As previously mentioned, the database isn’t always accurate and most likely you’ll need to learn a few commands and remap a few keys. This is simple enough and just requires a few minutes button pressing and a sync with your computer. Initial setup isn’t for the faint of heart, so non-techies may want their favorite tech-savvy relative set things up for them at first. After that, though, using the remote can be very intuitive if your key mappings are set up correctly. Although technically not the Harmony’s fault, some devices still require you to tweak things after an activity has started. For example, our TV does not provide a direct way to specify the aspect ratio (i.e. you have to cycle through the options by repeatedly pressing a single button), so that can’t be scripted as part of the activity. However, it’s easy enough to map the TV aspect ratio button to a soft button in any activity, making that function readily available at all times. It obviously can’t control hardware switches—for example, our five-disc DVD and the Wii share the same component video input on the TV, so a small splitter box combines both streams into one—so you may still have to walk up and flip a switch every now and then. And while it often does a good enough job of it, the remote occasionally forgets what state a certain device is in and turns it off when it’s supposed to be turning it on. That, however, is simple enough to fix using an integrated help function. (You can’t just go in and turn the device back on in device mode, though; you have to use the help so the device state manager knows that the device is supposed to be on.)

So now we have a single remote controlling, either directly or indirectly, five A/V devices. We’ve only pulled out the old remotes once or twice, primarily to learn the missing keys and add them to the Harmony database. We feel more confident that we can hand this remote to one of our less tech-savvy relatives and not come back with infinite picture-in-picture nesting going on and with all the colors shifted blue. I definitely think this thing was a worth-while purchase for us, and I’d heartily recommend it for anyone tired of doing the remote shuffle.

(I should add the disclaimer, of course, that I was not paid for this “endorsement”, nor was I given any promotions, samples, or “freebies” in return for a favorable review. No, I’m just a happy customer who paid full price for a nifty device that I really enjoy and I want to share that enjoyment with others. Make of that claim anything you see fit.)

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