Friday, March 31, 2006

Living in Harmony (688)

I dont know about you, but our living room had 7 Remote controls on the armchair, and frankly watching anything other than just the TV involved switching stuff on, selecting inputs, and finally changing channels. -- and dont get the wife started on why we need 'em all!

Most people who have a home cinema system suffer from this I imagine, and if you have a significant other, they probably suffer more than you do and say 'I just want to watch my tv shows', or other similar protests.

Well, if you can get another gadget into the house, this might just help out. Last Christmas I got santa to send me a Harmony 688 remote control:

There are several models to choose from, some of which have support for more activites, and better screens. Prices on the net range from £50-£200 depending on the model, the top-of-the-range one is rechargeable.

I must say, it's not actually the most attractive of the available remotes, but there are quite a few to choose from, this model, the 688, is detailed here:,CRID=2084,CONTENTID=8747

Harmony were bought by Logitec a little while back, and have continued to produce a line of very clever, and intelligent remote controls. The entire idea is that controlling your devices in the living room (or wherever) becomes simple and straightforward, and becomes task orientated, rather than 'device' orientated.

The idea is that before you had:

To Watch a DVD: Turn on the TV with the tv remote. Select AV, Select Component, Turn on the DVD player with the dvd remote, Turn on the Amp with the amp remote, Select DVD , turn up the volume, pless play on the DVD remote..

After Harmony, this becomes

Sit down, press 'Watch DVD', sit down and watch it.

But that's not new! - loads of remotes can do that!

No it isnt new, I've been through no less than 4 other programmable remote controls that support 'macros', to allow you to send commands to the TV and other devices at the press of a single button. But, these remotes were all 'stateless' , they didnt 'remember' what they just asked your appliances to do. So if you pressed 'Movie' again, by accident, everything got messed up! - Additionally, many dont manage to cope with the 'delay' required between commands..

The Harmony remotes, remember the state that everything is in , and send only the commands that are 'needed' to the devices - so if the TV is already on, its doesnt try to turn it on again for example. If I switch between MediaCenter, and DVD player, then it 'knows' just to tell the TV to go from AV1 to Component.

So, Living in Harmony, what is it like?

To begin with. Painful. You see, the remote is 'blank' when it comes out the box, and rather than teach it everything, by pointing the other remotes at it and doing some sort of dance, with them pressing buttons everywhere, you go to the harmony web-site, and create an account, then tell the site about your devices.

This has the advantage that they already knew about all your devices, including my UK made Cambridge Audio AV amplifier, so the first part of the setup was easy. Then came the flood of dissapointment, when devices didnt act like they should, missed commands, and generally went mad...and the TV... lets not talk about the TV...

Still, once you figure out what your 'tasks' are, you are half way there. I set up:

  • Watch TV - Just the TV
  • Watch DVD - The TV , with the DVD player selected
  • Watch Media Center - The TV ,and Media Center selected
  • Listen to MP3 - The Roku M1000 and AV Amp
  • Cinema - The TV, DVD and AV Amp for 5.1 audio.

Next I figured out what exactly was going wrong, mainly it was the delays and lengths of the commands, this is all easily adjustable in the web-site, and made some improvements.

The TV however, a Panasonic TX26LXD52 was a nightmare! - Panasonic TV's (the 3 I've owned), have a soft-menu system for selecting AV inputs and while quite 'intuitive' to the end-user, they do present issues for the harmony.

This is where an otherwise partial rant about the remote, turns into a testament to the fantastic support provided by Harmony's support people..... 8-)

Initially, I sent an email to their support people, specifically asking for assistance with the TV, and recieved a very helpful response, asking me to call them later and discuss it. One evening I called their US team on their international free-number, and spent nearly 2 hours working through the issues with some very helpful people.

The downfall of the Harmony remote is not the remote itself, but the devices that it is controlling. Anything that has a 'toggle' function - say ON/OFF, TV/AV or other buttons that perform multiple functions from a series of presses cause issues, this is because the remote has to 'remember' exactly what state the device is in. In the TX26's case, this was the issue with the AV inputs. If I ever had the opportunity to go bang on the table at a panasonic design meeting I would say this:

"stop designing your TV's so that they 'default' to 'tuner' every time they are switched on from standby. If I'm the owner, and I turned the TV off while watching AV1 (say sattelite TV for example), then when I turn it on again , its reasonable to expect that I'd like it to be back at AV1 - Not the tuner - which I might not even have set up!-- at least make it an option in the setup!"

So, back at Harmony towers they worked on the Panasonic TX26 profile on the site- adding code so the remote could remember which input it last selected, and made loads of changes to it, as a result of the tests we did on my TV, after a week of work on, I downloaded the settings again, and hey-presto - working just fine.


Don't leave the original remotes out as well - if someone picks them up, and uses them the harmony will be out of sync with the devices and you'll have to use the 'help' key. - the help key is good for solving input problems, but my family got fed up answering the questions!

Teach your family about 'fixing' the sync issues if it happens - e.g turn everything off, and hold your hand over the remote transmitter, and press 'off', or use the 'help' key - or press the 'activity' button that the system is actually in.

Keep working on the timings, some of the default settings are very 'slow', because the devices will definatley work, you can pretty much tinker with the remote continuously, reducing the delays etc until it's as fast as the original remote - this is especially important with things like 'volume up/down', and the navigation keys in Media Center - which if running slow make MCE feel like it's running really slow when its' not.

You can tweak the amp say anytime, by pressing 'Devices' and selecting AV Amp, making the adjustment, and then press DVD again to put all the remote settings back in line with what is happening.

In conclusion

  • Its a great concept, and quite intuitive, though my family needed some training to begin with.
  • Smart-State remotes need smart-state devices - come on manufacturers, how about it?, how about replying back to your remote with a 'yep, got that' or a 'no, that button doesnt do anything right now' - when this happens, task-based remotes will be just great.
  • Hide all the other remotes once its working

Going more geeky..

You may have noticed in your local B&Q that they sell little touch-sensitive dimmer switches with a little 'Infra-Red' eye in the middle.

To add the 2 I had in the living room, I just got an old remote that I dont have the device for any more - programmed the 2 dimmers to respond to different buttons on the remote, then used the remote to teach the harmony the two key-presses required . Now we have 2 menu options on the LCD for controlling the lights...