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Editors' Note: From 2007 onward, Logitech included redesigned charging cradles with the Harmony 890. While 890 owners who purchased the unit with the original cradle are now out of warranty, they can contact Logitech customer service to receive a 50 percent discount on new products. (Given the age of this product, CNET suggests choosing the similar RF-equipped Harmony 900 or Harmony 1100 instead--just be aware that those products do not support macro-based programming.)
If you've followed the evolution of Harmony universal remote controls, you know that the Logitech Harmony 880 was the first Harmony remote to feature a color screen and a built-in rechargeable battery, along with a docking station. We rated that 880 very highly but noted in our review that we'd like to see an RF version--unlike IR, which is limited to line of sight, RF passes signals through walls and cabinets--that would appeal to people with hidden components and possibly multiroom setups.
Now we have it.
Priced at $399 (list), the Logitech Harmony 890 comes with one RF-to-IR receiver and looks identical to the IR-only Harmony 880, except that it comes in a lighter, more silvery finish. Measuring 8.1 inches long by 2.3 inches wide by 1.3 inches deep and weighing 5.8 ounces, the Harmony 890 retains the dumbbell shape of the company's earlier remotes. In addition to the screen's color capabilities, the LCD is larger than that of Harmony's monochrome models. The increased screen real estate offers room for a total of eight--rather than six--contextual icons, corresponding to adjacent hard buttons.
The 128x160-pixel color display is low resolution (read: early Palm color screen), but it's a step up from the monochrome screens found on such models as the Harmony 520 and the Harmony 550. One thing we didn't love was that the activity-based icons could have been a little cleaner-looking and easier to read. Logitech has made some tweaks in this area, but the icons still aren't as readable as they should be.
Some Harmony remotes feature soft, rubbery buttons that sometimes aren't as responsive as we'd like. For this model, Logitech has gone with all hard-plastic buttons--generally a good thing, though buttons such as the video-transport buttons (record, play, rewind, fast-forward, pause, and stop) and the 12-digit keypad are still spaced very close to each other, so it's hard to operate by feel alone. However, it's worth noting that context-specific side keys--volume and channel up/down--are raised nicely in just the right places. All in all, we felt the button layout was pretty well thought out, if not for a couple of nonintuitive choices among the video transport and set-top box keys; we would've reversed the Info and Exit buttons, for instance. Still, it shouldn't cause too much irritation and seems friendly enough toward digital set-top boxes, DVRs, and even Media Center PCs, though you will have to map or customize certain buttons manually to perform specific tasks. Additionally, almost all of the buttons are backlit, which is nice for a darkened home-theater environment.
Like the 880, the Logitech Harmony 890 includes a docking station for juicing up the included rechargeable lithium-ion battery; you simply lay the remote in its cradle. Not only is it nice to have a recharging option to save dough on batteries, but if you're good about leaving the remote in its cradle, you'll always know where it is when you need it. The other nice feature that the Harmony 890 offers is its motion sensor; when you pick up the remote, it automatically turns on (this feature is now available in other, less expensive Harmony remotes). You can also easily add your own digital images as backgrounds and screensavers--there's a slide-show feature--though we found that we had to crop our images into vertical shots or they'd appear hideously stretched on the screen. And it really wasn't a good idea to have a picture as a background, because it made the icons difficult to read; stick with the default blue background.
As noted, the big difference between this remote and the less-expensive 880 are the RF capabilities. You can still use IR if you want, but a lot of folks these days want to hide all their equipment in cabinets and closets. To use RF, you'll have to plug the included RF receiver, which looks a lot like the receivers for Logitech's wireless mice, into an outlet that's fairly close to your equipment. You connect the wiry IR blasters to the wireless receiver, then literally stick each blaster onto the front of your equipment so that it's in line with the component's IR port. If you have more than six components--or components in separate rooms--you'll have to purchase additional Harmony 890 Wireless Extenders, which retail for $150 per unit. While we didn't have an opportunity to test the remote with dimmer switches, climate controls, or security systems that use the Z-Wave wireless home-control standard, Logitech says the remote supports it.
In terms of programming the remote, the 890 works the same way that other Harmony remotes do. As we noted in our earlier reviews, programming a universal remote can be a frustrating and time-consuming process, involving punching a series of multidigit codes for each component in your A/V system. By contrast, Harmony remotes are programmed by connecting them to your Internet-connected Windows PC or Mac with the supplied USB cable, installing the model-specific version of Harmony software, and answering a fairly simple online questionnaire on the company's Web site. You simply choose your home-theater components from a list; explain how they're connected; and define their roles in activity-based functions, such as Watch TV, Watch DVD, and Listen to Music. For each function, you specify which devices and inputs the remote must enable. You can also choose which keypad functions will "punch through" to specific devices--always having the channel buttons control the cable box or the volume controls dedicated to the TV, for instance. After you've completed the questionnaire, the software uploads all the relevant control codes to the 890.
As user-friendly as the remote generally is, we did encounter a few snags when we initially set it up. The firmware had to be updated, as did the Harmony software. That wasn't a big deal, but we were then unable to update the remote using the Harmony software installed on our Windows PC. Instead, we logged onto the Logitech Web site and used the company's Internet-based system to update our configuration to the remote. This time, the update worked fine.
As we said in our earlier review of the Harmony 880, if you've got a complicated system, you can expect to spend some time fine-tuning the remote to get it to work just right. A certain amount of trial and error is involved. You must verify that the commands work with your equipment as intended, then modify them as necessary. We should also point out that while it's quite possible to program the remote for two separate rooms, it's not the most elegant solution, since you'll be left with Activity-based icons that read Watch TV2 and Watch DVD2. On the plus side, the Web site provides advanced, macro-style options for delay times, multistep commands, and other functions. Also, the remote's Help key aids in troubleshooting by asking natural-language questions via the LCD. For instance, the screen might ask, "Is the digital set-top box on?" And Logitech's customer support--via both e-mail and telephone--is mostly very good.
To test the remote's RF functionality, we simply walked out of our dedicated home-theater room and headed to a bedroom on the other side of our apartment. The remote was able to continue controlling the equipment, even separated by two walls. Logitech says you can expect to stray about 100 feet from your equipment, but RF performance will vary depending on what your walls are made of. Also, you may occasionally have to resync the remote with the wireless receiver--you simply press the Connect button on the top of the receiver.
As for battery life, Logitech says you should be able to go a few weeks without recharging, but obviously, if you leave the unit in its cradle, the battery will remain fully juiced. It's also worth noting that the batteries are replaceable, so when they eventually wear out--and they will--you'll be able swap new ones in.
In the end, as with most other Harmony remotes, we came away really liking the 890. No, it's not perfect, and yes, it will seem a bit pricey for those stepping up from an IR-only remote. But at this stage of the remote game, most RF models tend to run at least $100 higher--and sometimes more--than their non-RF siblings. Of course, after seeing Logitech's design updates to its entry-level remotes, it wouldn't shock us to see a sleeker, color-screen Harmony offering--with RF--in the not-so-distant future. Likewise, Logitech needs to keep an eye on the competition: remotes such as the Philips RC9800i and the forthcoming Acoustic Research ARR2470 Wi-Q model incorporate Wi-Fi networking to enable such cutting-edge features as music streaming and real-time programming guide updates. But for now, this is a very good option for those looking to avoid spending a lot of money on a fancy console that requires a home installer to program.