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Editors' note: Confused about how this model stacks up to other Harmony remotes? See CNET's Which Logitech universal remote is right for you? for updated comparisons and recommendations.
Logitech's line of Harmony universal remotes has been gobbling up market share for years, but the common complaint of many users has been that they remain too expensive--the good ones invariably cost $150 and up. But that's changing for 2010: Logitech has unveiled a trio of new universal remotes with prices ranging from $100 to just $50. Based on the same general design as the Harmony 700 ($150 list, controls six devices) are the Harmony 650 ($100 list, five devices), Harmony 600 ($80 list, five devices), and the entry-level Harmony 300 (reviewed here). The 300 carries a list price of $50, and can already be found online for closer to $40.
(Note: The Harmony 300 has a black matte finish, and the Harmony 300i has a glossy finish that's more prone to smudges and fingerprints. That--along with the fact that each model is only available through some exclusive retailers--is the only difference between the two products.)
To hit that ultra-affordable price point, of course, there had to be some compromises. The 300 controls only four products, it lacks the LCD screen found on the step-up 600 and 650 models, and most of the buttons aren't backlit. It also has only a stripped-down version of the activity-based control functionality that Harmony models are known for; there's just a "Watch TV" button to fire up your TV, audio receiver, and cable/satellite box, and switch them to their proper respective inputs.
Otherwise, control is accomplished by toggling to one of the four device keys, and then choosing your commands. The device keys are prelabeled (TV, Cable/Sat, DVD, VCR/Aux), but you can assign them to anything you'd like. Those four keys are also the only backlit ones on the remote; that said, the button layout is intuitive enough that you probably won't have any trouble navigating your fingers by touch in a darkened room.
In addition to the device and "Watch TV" buttons described above, the top section also includes the power button, TV input toggle, and five dedicated numbered buttons--assign them as favorite channels, or to other functions you'd like. Below that, things are almost completely unchanged from the layout of the Harmony 600/650/700 models. The middle section has five-way directional keys, channel and volume controls, and some standard DVR keys (Menu, Guide, Info, Exit). On the bottom third of the remote, you'll find standard video transport controls (play, pause, rewind, etc.) and a 12-digit numeric keypad.
Since we were already fans of the design and layout of the similar Harmony models, we liked the carry-over here of the presence of a dedicated page up/down rocker (good for paging through lists on electronic programming guides), four color-coordinated buttons (for assigning to those unique controls on cable boxes and game consoles), and having both fast-forward/rewind and chapter skip forward/backward controls as separate buttons. The 300 also adds dedicated "List" and "Live" buttons not found on other Harmony models, which is perfect for DVRs.
The Harmony 300 is powered by two AA batteries (included). As expected at this price point, there's no rechargeable battery or cradle option, as found on the Harmony 700 and higher models. But you can always invest in two pairs of your own rechargeable batteries, and swap them in and out as needed.
The setup process of previous Harmony remotes involved installing software on your Mac or Windows PC, inputting the make and model of your home theater gear, telling the software how it was connected, and then uploading the resulting info to the remote via a USB cable. For the most part, it worked well, but the learning curve--though generally simpler than many other universal remotes--could still be intimidating for tech novices.
For the Harmony 300, Logitech has overhauled the setup process with an eye towards simplicity. You start by setting up an account at myharmony.com (you'll just need an e-mail address and password). The site will then automatically install software onto your Mac or Windows PC. The software is basically a browser-based, idiot-proof version of the previous Harmony iteration. The setup wizards now ask very simple straightforward questions, so users need only to know the make and model of the products they wish to control, and how they are connected (e.g., which input on the TV the DVD player is plugged into: HDMI 1, Component 2, and so forth).
Once the four devices are identified, the system automatically downloads the correct codes from Logitech's massive database ("more than 225,000 devices from more than 5,000 brands," according to the company's press release) to the remote, which connects to your computer with the supplied USB cable. (The remote has a standard mini-USB jack, so it's easy to find a replacement cable if you misplace the included one.) By contrast, other universal remotes in the sub-$50 price range usually require you to go through a frustrating trial and error procedure of inputting numeric codes and verifying whether they work with your device.
On the off-chance that you have a new or obscure device that isn't (or isn't yet) in Logitech's database, the software will guide you through the "learning" process. It basically involves pointing an existing remote at the bottom of the Harmony 300--where an infrared (IR) receptor is housed--and tapping the requested buttons so the Logitech software can absorb and assign the appropriate IR commands.
The software handles two other functions. The first is customizing the button functions for each key on the remote. Many of the obvious keys are preprogrammed by default (play, pause, numeric keypad, etc.), but you'll still want to personalize things to your liking. You can do this on other Harmony remotes, but the new software makes it easier and more convenient than ever. Using a graphical version of the remote on your PC screen, you can simply drag and drop functions for each device to the corresponding button. Specialized buttons for set-top boxes or game consoles (such as aspect ratio or the "A," "B," "C" buttons found on many cable-based video-on-demand systems) can be mapped to the colored buttons in the center, or the five numbered keys at the top. It's about as simple and as intuitive as it gets. The software also lets you assign "punchthrough" commands for volume and channel buttons, such as always designating the TV to control volume and the cable box to control channel changes, even when another device is selected.
The second software customization is preparing the "Watch TV" macro. Using the software wizard, you let the system know which devices need to be powered up and set to which input so you can watch TV (e.g., TV on, switched to HDMI 2 input; cable box on; AV receiver on and switch to HDMI 1), giving you a one-button way to turn the system on. (If your devices use identical power on and power off codes, the "Watch TV" button will also shut everything off; otherwise, you'll need to power down each device one at a time.)
This is the sort of automatic activity-based programming that Harmony remotes are known for, but on the 300, it's limited to this single function. If you want more ("Listen to music," "Watch DVD," "Play video game," and so forth), you'll need to upgrade to the Harmony 600 or above. Likewise, if you've got a remote with a large number of specialized buttons, the Harmony 300 isn't your best choice. And, with any universal remote, the normal caveats apply: you'll need good line of sight to your gear's IR receptors, and the automated input switching won't work well unless your products have discrete inputs (most TVs and receivers from at least the last five to eight years should).
We programmed the Harmony 300 to control a Panasonic TV, Scientific Atlanta DVR, JVC AV receiver, and Sony PlayStation 3. (Because that last product doesn't include an IR receiver, you'll need to invest in the Logitech Harmony Adapter for PlayStation 3--it works perfectly, but costs more than the Harmony 300 itself.) The Harmony 300 performed flawlessly, working just as well as previous Logitech models we've tested. The IR emitter is quite powerful, and as long as the remote was pointed in the general direction of our gear, there weren't any missed commands. We also liked the general feel of the remote as well. Yes, it's a bit large--you'll either need to shift your grip so your thumb can swipe farther up or down, or you'll need to go two-handed--but it's as good a compromise as you can get, given the overall button layout and the number of keys available.
Our biggest beef with the Harmony 300 is the same frequent complaint from past Harmony models. There's still no way to organize multiple remotes under a single online account, so you need to use separate e-mail addresses for every Harmony remote you own. With Logitech now producing models specifically designed to be the second and third remotes in the home, we continue to hope that the company figures out a way to organize disparate remotes under a single account.
That quibble aside, there's a lot to like about this remote. To reiterate, the Harmony 300 isn't designed for a sophisticated home theater system. It only controls four devices, has no LCD screen, and lacks task-based commands (beyond "Watch TV") as well as sophisticated macros/sequences. But Logitech (and other manufacturers) make plenty of more-expensive models that cater to those needs, so we don't count that as a flaw. We have no problem recommending the Harmony 300 for TV-based entertainment systems in a bedroom or den (say, a TV, cable/satellite box, DVD player, and/or game system). It allows you to ditch up to four separate remotes, and it offers the easiest PC-based programming procedure we've seen to date.