Logitech's line of Harmony universal remotes includes more models at more affordable price points than ever before. For 2010, the line-up expands to include the AU$59.95 Harmony 300 and the AU$99.95 Harmony 600, as well as the AU$149.95 Harmony 650 reviewed here.
Except for different colour schemes, the Harmony 650 (grey with black buttons) has the same chassis and button layout as the step-down Harmony 600 (silver with white buttons) and the step-up Harmony 700 (all black). The Harmony 650 improves on the 600's monochrome screen with a colour version (it can display colourful favourite channel icons instead of just text, like the 600). The 700's price tag is slightly more expensive — it retails for between AU$199.95 — but it controls six devices to the 600/650's five, and it has the ability to recharge its Sanyo Eneloop batteries by attaching the USB AC charger (both included). As is standard for Logitech remotes, all three models are programmable via a Mac or Windows PC, and use activity-based commands such as "Watch TV" or "Listen to Music" to control a home AV system.
The remote is roughly segmented into three main areas. The top section is dominated by the aforementioned colour LCD screen — it's a square 1x1-inch display. It's not a touchscreen — you'll need to spend at least twice as much to upgrade to a Harmony One for that — but there are five buttons (two on each side, one on the bottom) for choosing contextual items on the screen. You can also page through additional screens, multiplying the available choices. The middle section has a five-way directional pad, 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 keypad. In addition to the LCD, all of the remote's buttons are backlit, so it's easy to use in a dark room.
The set-up process is identical to that of previous Logitech Harmony remotes. You connect the 600 to your internet-connected Windows PC or Mac with the supplied USB cable, install the model-specific version of Harmony software (downloaded from Logitech's website), and answer a fairly simple online questionnaire. You simply choose your home-theatre 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 — 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 650.
The software will automatically map obvious functions to the default keys — "pause" to "pause", "2" to "2" and so on — but you can customise and change anything you'd like. You can also map specific functions to the coloured buttons on the remote, as well as the contextual areas on the LCD screen.
The LCD can also be used for channel favourites, and you can even assign them with the familiar logos of your favourite stations. But there's one annoying catch: Logitech's software only includes a smattering of Fox stations. If you want anything else, you'll need to hunt the files down on a third-party site. Logitech points you to Icon Harmony, which works fine — we'd just prefer they'd cut a deal to have all of the icons seamlessly accessible via Logitech's software.
As easy as the remote generally is to use, some users may encounter a few snags when initially setting them up. Often, this will be because of the hardware limitations of older AV equipment. We've had problems in the past with TVs or AV receivers that don't offer discrete input commands, as well as gear with old HDMI connectors that don't easily "refresh" the video connection when switching inputs. Still, we were able to get the 650 to ably control a living room system with a plasma TV, an AV receiver, an HD DVR, an Xbox 360 and a Sony PS3. (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 it will set you back AU$99.95.) Those with larger systems should take note, however: that represents the Harmony 650's (and Harmony 600's) maximum of five devices. Anyone with additional gear should opt for the Harmony 700 (six devices), or make the leap to the Harmony One (15 devices), which will cost you more than double the price of the 650.
As we said in our earlier reviews of Harmony remotes, if you have 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, and then modify them as necessary. The website provides advanced, macro-style options for delay times, multi-step commands and other functions. Also, the remote's Help key helps in troubleshooting by asking natural-language questions on the LCD. For instance, the screen might read, "Is the digital set-top box on?"
That said, the "classic" Harmony software now feels outdated after you've used the "My Harmony" software that comes with the entry-level Harmony 300 model. That one streamlines the process even further, and adds an interface for drag-and-drop button programming. We hope that Logitech eventually adopts the "My Harmony" software for the rest of its remote line, including the Harmony 650 reviewed here. On the positive side, expert users will be happy to hear that the Harmony 650 (unlike the luxury 900 and 1100 models) does support the programming of custom "sequences", or multi-device macros of up to five steps.
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 and transfer in that remote's system set-up. 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 650, and then set up a separate profile for the old Harmony, which you could then use in another room.
The only reason we wouldn't recommend the Logitech Harmony 650 is because the step-up Harmony 700 model can be found online for a little as US$20 more (although the AU RRP is another AU$50). That model controls six devices (to the 600's five) and includes a pair of rechargeable Sanyo Eneloop batteries, which would cost you that much anyway. Aside from that caveat, we have no problem recommending the Logitech Harmony 650 — it's a great universal remote that's being sold at a very competitive price.