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--more than $200--for a remote. It's precisely that audience at whom the Logitech Harmony 520 is targeted. At $100, it's the most affordable Harmony to date. It's available exclusively at Sears, Target, and Wal-Mart, though you may find the 520 for sale elsewhere on the Web.
The Logitech Harmony 520 may be an entry-level Harmony, but it's still one of the sleeker universal remotes around. It measures 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 used by earlier Harmony remotes. The 520's black-and-silver cosmetics look less garish than the Xbox-themed motif of the and all but identical to the slightly darker black-and-gray --the two models with which the 520 shares a very similar design and nearly identical functionality).
The Logitech Harmony 520 crams a good number of buttons onto its modest frame, including a complete numeric keypad, a four-way directional pad, and full playback transport controls. The only differences between this remote and the Xbox 360 version are the eight fewer keys on the 520. By comparison, the 360 version has four Xbox 360-specific buttons (X, Y, A, B) that are slipped in below the transport controls and four other buttons (clear, display, title, enter) directly below the numeric keypad. As with that model, the functional highlight of the 520 is the backlit LCD display. 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 engage activities and macros. For the most part, the overall button layout is pleasure to use, but we lamented the somewhat mushy rubber buttons and felt those on the numeric keypad were a bit too tiny and grouped too closely together, which sometimes caused us to misdial 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 really 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-based 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 into Logitech's customer service department for advice. The folks there are good at helping you fix things, though we did run 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 does offer 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 520 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 520 is an impressive bargain, given its $100 price tag. 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 the more expensive Harmony 880. But its two sibling remotes--the Logitech Harmony Advanced Remote for Xbox 360 ($130 list) and the Harmony 550 ($150)--may very well be better deals. Both use a chassis that's nearly identical to the 520 but include more buttons: eight more on the 360 remote and six more on the 550. Those extra buttons can be programmed for innumerable functions (day plus/minus, aspect-ratio toggle, special menus) that can come in handy for power users, and the 360 remote is already widely available for less than $100.