We've long been fans of Logitech's Harmony line of universal remote controls. As good as they are, however, there's still a large segment of the population who just won't pay iPod prices for a remote. It's precisely that audience at whom the $150 Logitech Harmony 550 is targeted. That said, the 550 is the most expensive of the three models in Logitech's Harmony line that feature nearly identical design and features (the other two being the $130
Like its siblings, the Harmony 550 is a sleek universal remote measuring 8.25 inches long, 2 inches wide, and 0.75 inch at its deepest. It has a slim and straight design, which we prefer to the skinny-in-the-middle-fat-on-the-ends shape of previous Harmony remotes. The 550's black-and-gray cosmetics look statelier than those of the 520 and less garish than the Xbox-themed motif of the Harmony Advanced Universal Remote for Xbox 360.
The Logitech Harmony 550 crams a good number of buttons onto its modest frame--six more buttons than the 520 has but two fewer buttons than the Xbox 360 remote--including a complete numeric keypad, a four-way directional pad, and full playback transport controls. The functional highlight of the 550 is its backlit LCD. Flanked by four programmable keys that you can label differently on separate "pages," it allows the Harmony to emulate even the most esoteric buttons as well as to engage activities and macros. For the most part, the button layout is pleasure to use, but we're not fans the somewhat mushy rubber buttons. Also, the buttons on the numeric keypad are a bit too tiny and grouped too closely together, which sometimes resulted in our misdialing our channel changes.
The Harmony 520 uses four AAA batteries. With the energy-sapping, neon-blue backlight left on--completely on purpose, we might add--it ran for a little more than a week. While that's an extreme case, it highlights one of the remote's biggest flaws; it could have benefited from a recharger dock, such as the one found on its big brother, the . Instead, you'll probably want to invest in a set of third-party rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride batteries.
As with all Harmony remotes, you add your devices and set up Activities using either a computer- or Web-based interface (the remote is both Windows- and Mac-compatible). All Harmony remotes boasts compatibility with more than 100,000 devices, and when we fired up the software and scrolled through the company list, we didn't see any reason to argue that bullet point. The scope can be a bit daunting for beginners, since there are a few dozen component types listed, such as TV, A/V receiver, and DVD player, and hundreds of manufacturers within each one of those. Thankfully, the software is pretty forgiving, and as long as you have the company name and model number, it should be able to cull the commands for your product. That said, if you have a complicated setup, chances are you'll end up calling Logitech's customer service department for advice. The folks there are good at helping you fix things, though we ran into an issue where we couldn't sync due to a Java error and ended up having to go through the irritation of removing and redoing an activity to update the remote. In other words, the software isn't perfect. On the brighter side, Logitech offers regular updates for both the remote's firmware and its PC-based software.
All told, we tested roughly 25 components--TVs, A/V receivers, DVD players, video game consoles, cable boxes, and home-stereo systems--and we could not find a remote-enabled product that was not listed or would not work once we uploaded the profile to the remote. It can hold a maximum of 12 devices in its memory, which should be plenty for any one entertainment center.
Along with the ability to control devices individually, the remote includes the Activities function that we liked so much in previous Logitech Harmony remotes. In essence, it allows the Harmony 550 to control different components simultaneously, and it works more intuitively than a standard device-centered remote. For example, you can program a Watch DVD activity that turns on your TV, A/V receiver, DVD player, and speaker system; sets them all to the correct channels or inputs; and even starts playing the DVD. While the movie is playing, the controls you designate will punch through to the appropriate device: the DVD controls and the numerical keypad to control the DVD, the volume up/down buttons to control the speakers, and the power button to turn the whole thing off in one fell swoop. With a little care, we were able to get all of the important functions incorporated into the activities that we programmed; for those that we missed, we simply toggled back to the Component Control mode.
As far as PC-programmable universal remotes go, the Logitech Harmony 550 is a compelling universal remote. From a design standpoint, it's much better than the majority of the remotes on the market. Its functionality is top-notch as well, and we found its ergonomics to be an improvement over that of the more expensive Harmony 880. Its biggest competition will no doubt be its two sibling remotes--the Logitech Harmony Advanced Remote for Xbox 360 (white color, two more buttons, $20 lower list price) and the (six fewer buttons, $50 lower list price). For our money, more buttons are always better on a universal remote, so we'd pay a bit more for the Harmony 550, or for Xbox 360 owners, the Xbox 360 remote.