Harmony 688 Overview Build Quality and Setup
Remote controls are really the steering wheel behind your home theater system. I remember back in the early days when I would try to show off my system to friends (hold on, this'll just take a minute - let me grab the other remote...) only to be slowed up by the process of (just another second while I change the input on the TV to component) manipulating all the devices to function in their (could you hand me the DVD remote - it's the one over there by the coffee table, thanks!) proper modes and configurations. Whew! Once everything was squared away I could begin my demonstration. What failed to be represented in the days of sorting through a bouquet of remotes, was the awe of automation . There is an eloquent and substantive statement made by pressing one button and having your equipment convene for a single purpose - let's say, play a DVD on the big screen television. The accompanying awe factor might just outweigh the subsequent listening and viewing session. After acquiring my first good universal remote control, my home theater experience was never quite the same.
There are several schools of thought on remote controls and I will not rehash them all here in detail. Suffice it to say, there are those who like fully-customizable touch-screen remotes, and those who prefer a more tactile unit. For larger home theater installations, a fully customizable Crestron, AMX or other LCD touch screen system is probably a requirement (though Harmony has some pretty flexible remotes in their 700-series.) For most home users, however, this is not the case. I fall into the camp that enjoys being able to use my remote (at least the more common functions) without having to look at it for reference. A tactile remote has buttons in strategic, even ergonomic areas that allow you to get accustomed to the remote ("I've grown accustomed to your face..." as Rex Harrison would say) My current remote control is Universal Remote's Home Theater Master MX-700 . The Harmony H688 was going to provide a new experience for me in that the application programming interface is online and the remote is arranged by activity, rather than by device.
This review details the Harmony online application system as well as some pitfalls to watch out for when using it to control multiple (and hopefully typical) devices in your home theater system. Let's dive in...
The harmony remote control impressed me the moment I picked it up. Its design is one of the most ergonomic I have ever felt – even better than my Home Theater Master MX-700. The buttons are well laid out and fully one-half of the remote can be reached via thumb from the initial hand position. Need to access the keypad at the bottom? Simply slide your hand down in a fluid motion and it will catch on the hourglass shape of the remote body, allowing your thumb to sweep across the numbered keys. Relax the pressure and the remote slides back to its original centered position – yes, it’s that nice.
The center joystick is a round plastic ring. It feels cheap, but I experienced no problems using it and it does not appear to be susceptible to any kind of damage. Its solid click requirement also renders it free from the “drunken cursor” syndrome that many joysticks have where making the right selection in a DVD menu is a difficult task. The well-placed ‘glow’ button lights up all the buttons on the remote except, comically, the activity buttons since they are covered up with a full-face label. In a dark room you may have difficulty selecting the right activity unless you have these memorized.
The only downside I found to the remote layout was more of a trade-off. The remote is small for what it does and lightweight (6.1 ounces with batteries according to my postal scale) but as a result the buttons are very small and can easily be missed or pressed mistakenly. A couple of times, when trying to select the ‘Info’ button, I would hit ‘Guide’ instead. Not a big deal, but something to watch out for. Overall I think the tradeoff is fair and would probably prefer the current layout to a larger alternative.
Setting Up the Harmony Remote – An Overview
DO NOT put batteries in this remote control until you are ready to go online and start programming it. I made this mistake and drained the complimentary 4 AAA batteries in about a day’s time. When first inserting batteries into the remote, the Harmony will endlessly cycle through a series of startup screens – a process that includes turning on and off the backlight. As you can imagine, this will make short work of any batteries in a relatively quick period of time. It’s easy to turn off this introductory cycle, just go online and set your remote preferences.
Here’s the basic process for setting up the Harmony H688 remote to control your entire home theater system:
Install the software (yes, the CD with the svelte brunette that graces Harmony’s marketing materials, remote control packaging, and various website pages)
Set up the remote preferences
Indicate Your devices by make and model number (the Harmony online system will even help you figure this out if you don’t know, however a cursory examination of your gear is recommended)
Set up your activities (again, the harmony system will take an educated stab at this for you if you wish)
Transfer settings to the remote via the included USB cable
Test and tweak
And it pretty much works as advertised. OK, the review’s over – thanks for stopping by! Actually, there are some details that can be noted to help you along. The process offers some surprising customizations – if you know where to look.
Expanding upon the above process, taking a closer look at the Harmony programming steps reveals a fairly simple interface on the surface. What many people may not recognize is the level of customization and flexibility that is offered under the hood. We’ll address the basic setup process first and then move on to where I had some fun getting the remote to function exactly as I wanted – by hacking into the system, so-to-speak.