Editors' note (January 27, 2010): Some Harmony 900, 1000, and 1100 users may experience difficulty connecting their remotes to the Harmony software when using Mac OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard). More information on specific symptoms and the appropriate solutions is available at Logitech's Web site.
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.
Editors' note: This review has been updated to specify that the Logitech Harmony 900 does not support the programming of customized multi-step macro commands beyond those of the automatic activity-based menu system.
When we reviewed the Harmony One last year, we gave it an enthusiastic Editors' Choice and lamented only the fact that there was no RF option for people who had components hidden in cabinets or closets. Well, Logitech has given us what we asked for--and even a bit more--in its Harmony 900.
The remote looks almost identical to the Harmony One except for some small-but-notable improvements. For starters, Logitech has increased the sharpness of the screen; this isn't a huge deal, but it does give the interface a cleaner look. You can now choose between four color "themes" that put a new skin on the interface, though the looks aren't radically different from theme to theme. (We assume additional themes will be available for download).
Additionally, Logitech has added a row of buttons in the middle of the remote that correspond to the red, blue, green, and yellow tabs you'll find on Blu-ray player remotes to control interactivity options during playback of Blu-ray Discs. (These buttons are also useful for mapping to various confirmation buttons that appear on DVRs and cable/satellite boxes.)
The big step-up here is the addition of RF (radio frequency), and its implementation. With previous Harmony RF models, you had to set up the remote and RF separately by connecting both the remote and RF module to your computer via the USB port. Every time you updated the remote, you had to update the RF module, which was a major pain if you had an intricate setup and had to take the RF module out of a cabinet or closet each time you updated the remote.
With the Harmony 900, Logitech's gone to a whole new RF system and has greatly simplified the setup and update processes. The big deal here is that you no longer have to connect the RF module to your computer--you can just leave it setup in your rack or cabinet and choose which components you want to control via IR (infrared, which requires line of sight) or RF from the remote itself in a special RF setup menu.
The half-hockey-puck-size RF module is powered by a small AC adapter (it's a duplicate of the adapter that charges the remote) and is designed to be tucked into the back of your cabinet, behind your components. You then plug two mini-IR blasters into the back of the RF module (there are A and B ports) and place the blasters just in front of your components. If your components are in a cabinet with shelves, you can stick one blaster on a left shelf and one on a right shelf. The IR signals reflect off surfaces, so the two IR blasters should cover all your components, except perhaps your TV (which is always within your line of sight anyway). If two blasters don't cut it for your setup, you can buy additional RF modules and blasters.
The system we used to test the RF with wasn't in a closed cabinet with doors and the TV sat on top of the horizontal component rack. We decided to let IR control the TV and RF control the rest of the components. Because we had one IR adapter on a lower shelf next to the AV receiver, we were a little worried that it wouldn't be able to control the cable box on a higher shelf. However, it turned out we had no problems controlling all our components, even though the system was in an open rack with three levels and included seven components (not including the TV). Alas, the only unit that we couldn't control was our PlayStation 3, which uses Bluetooth and has no IR receiver. In an ideal world the Harmony 900 would offer Bluetooth connectivity, but we can't fault Logitech for Sony's stupidity. Thankfully, there's now a workaround: Logitech offers a PS3-specific IR-to-Bluetooth converter module for $60.
As we said in our earlier review of the Harmony One, Logitech's done an excellent job with the cosmetics and ergonomics. The remote is sleek and sits comfortably in your hand. A lot of thought has been put into the button layout, with hard, backlit buttons that are differentiated in size and shape, so you can navigate by feel without looking down at the remote (at least when performing basic operations like changing channels, adjusting volume, and play/pause). While the remote does appear to be loaded with buttons, it actually has fewer of them than previous Harmony remotes. The remote is essentially divided into five zones of operation (they're designated by faint, silver lined), with the color LCD at the top constituting the fifth zone.
The touch screen on this model is as responsive as the Harmony One. We also really liked the two glowing touch-sensitive buttons on either side of the screen that allow you to easily scroll between the "pages" of soft buttons on the screen (there's room for up to three layers of two buttons on the screen at once). Additionally, two glowing touch-sensitive buttons allow you to toggle between "options," "devices," and "activities." The touch-oriented interface really makes the remote a pleasure to use.
The Harmony 900 ships with a docking station for juicing up the included rechargeable lithium ion battery; you simply place the remote in its cradle (unlike some earlier Harmony remotes, this model fits securely in its charging station). Not only is it nice to have a recharging option to save dough on batteries, another benefit of the dock is that if you're good about leaving the remote in its cradle, you'll always know where it is when you need it. Battery life is good--Logitech says you should be able to go a week or more without recharging--and it's also worth noting that the battery is replaceable.
As with all of Logitech's new remotes, the Harmony 900 features a motion sensor, so it automatically turns on when you pick it up. The LCD turns off after a short time of inactivity to conserve batteries. You can adjust the LCD's shut-off interval, as well as the brightness, in the settings menu.
In terms of programming the remote, the Harmony 900 works in the same way as other Harmony remotes. 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 AV system. By contrast, Harmony remotes are programmed by hooking them up 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 which specific devices--like 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 Harmony 900.
As simple as the remote generally is, some people may encounter a few snags when initially setting up their remotes. Luckily, Logitech's customer service is generally very good and the company has continued to make improvements to its software system. Logitech occasionally offers firmware upgrades, as well as upgrades to the Harmony desktop software. While there's still no way to manage multiple Harmony remotes on the same account (you're required to create separate user accounts, with separate names and passwords, for each of them), Logitech has made it very easy to swap in a new Harmony remote for an old one. For example, if you already had an older Harmony that you use with your main living room system, you could quickly swap in the Harmony 900, and then set up a separate profile for the old Harmony, to be used in another room.
If you have a complicated system, you can expect to spend some time fine-tuning the remote to get it to work just right, though it should be noted that our setup of the Harmony 900 went off without a hitch and we had full control over a seven-component system within 35 minutes (including the RF setup). And if you do run into trouble, you can contact Logitech's customer support by e-mail and telephone. (Note: you get 90 days of free telephone support from the time you first register your remote and set it up).
There is one change from most earlier Harmony remotes that advanced users may find annoying. Like the Harmony 1100, this model doesn't support customized user-programmable macros. To be clear: the activity-based programming that has long made Harmony models a favorite of ours is still here. So, when you hit "Watch TV," you can have your TV, AV receiver, and DVR power up and toggle to the preferred input and settings. But you cannot program separate custom multi-step commands. So, home theater enthusiasts who are used to programming the lights to come up whenever they pause the disc player (for instance) will now need to handle that sort of duty manually (with one or two additional keystrokes). We don't think it's a huge loss, but the absence of custom macro programming on such an expensive remote is notable. If it's important to you, you'll want to look elsewhere.
In terms of complaints, there just isn't much here. Beyond that macro issue, we were miffed that the remote's glossy, black finish is a fingerprint magnet and we still wish that Logitech would come up with a way you could manage multiple Harmony remotes from a single user account. Built-in Bluetooth support would be nice, but the add-on dongle works fine for PS3 owners. Outside of those, the only real issue is the remote's relatively high price tag ($399 list), which may scare off some people. But if you don't need RF, you can always default back to the IR-only Harmony One, which now retails at a more reasonable $200.
For those considering the tablet-style Harmony 1100, which also features RF, the appeal of that remote is that you get more onscreen button options, because the screen is much larger. For instance, with the 1100, when you go in TV mode as an activity, you're dropped into a screen that gives you access to more of your DVR's buttons (if you have cable or satellite box with a built-in DVR). On the Harmony 900, you have to press the "device" button to get more DVR options. However, we found that getting to our list of recorded shows required two button pushes on both remotes, so it was a bit of a wash in terms of speed.
In the end, really, it's a matter of preference. Our taste tends to run toward wand-style remotes, and we felt the Harmony 900 was more responsive and easier to use than the Harmony 1100. And unlike tablet-style touch screens, basic functions of the wand-style 900 can be largely navigated by touch. Its RF setup is also significantly better, so until Logitech upgrades the RF module and blasters that come with its tablet-style remote, the Harmony 900 is clearly the better choice. It's one of the best consumer remotes with pro aspirations that we've tested to date.