CG Review: Logitech / Harmony 885 remote control

by Marc

Logitech 885 remote
The most common reaction I get when I tell people I’ve invested in a programmable remote control is laughter. “Why?” they ask. Then again, most people don’t have a stack of electronic components 4 feet high to control.

Even so, the problem is more common than you might imagine. Think about this: You have a CD player, a DVD player, a TV, a cable box, a stereo and a recording device (DVD recorder, PVR, video, whatever). Sometimes you’ve got all of these things and more. You could even have remote controlled blinds and lights if you’re really into home cinema. That makes for a lot of remote controls!

All my remotes
This photo illustrates the problem – ignoring the useability aspect you’ve physically got to find space and batteries for that little lot.

Then, the fun begins: You’ve got the cable TV wired through the hifi to get the cool surround sound on movies, so watching a film becomes:

  • Turn on the TV
  • Switch to the cable input
  • Using the stereo remote, switch the stereo input to cable
  • Using the cable remote, turn to the right channel
  • Using all your other remotes turn off the stuff that’s not needed…

Then you want to adjust the volume – that’s the stereo remote. Change the channel – back to the cable remote (or was it the TV remote?). And so it goes on.

So you can see why a programmable remote control starts to look like a good idea and the more toys you get the more attractive it becomes.

885 in cradle
There are many very good products out there ( maintains an excellent database of reviews) but the Logitech Harmony 885 got my interest above all the others for these reasons:

  • Versatility. It can control up to 15 devices. Not as many as the “unlimited” higher end products, but more than enough for my needs.
  • Value. I won’t say “price” because it’s still not cheap, but it’s easily the equal of products costing twice as much and more.
  • Hard buttons. This is a personal choice. I previously used a Philips Pronto for many years which was basically a touchscreen that you set up as required. Very customisable but after a while I started to long for the tactile feel of buttons again especially for the “joystick” style of navigation. Your mileage may vary on this point.
  • Quantity of hard buttons. Not only has it got hard buttons but it’s got them to cover all occasions. Especially important for European users it’s got the coloured “teletext” buttons used on the Sky+ remote. It might sound silly but that’s a killer feature if you’re in the UK.
  • Although it has many hard buttons it still has a set of programmable buttons set against a colour screen so you get the best of both worlds.
  • Rechargeable battery. The 885 features an internal rechargeable battery and comes with a nice recharging cradle to sit the remote on when it’s not being used so you never run out of power. The remote is illustrated on the cradle here

The physical design of the remote is one thing but Logitech / Harmony have also done a stellar job with the programming aspect. With other remotes you’d “teach” your new remote each command it needed to learn by pressing each and every button on your existing remotes and telling the new one to “learn” the signal. It’s a very tedious job and that’s before you assign the new buttons to functions on your learning remote which can take literally days of messing around to get right.

In contrast the 885 is programmed via a website. You visit the site and register your remote. You then tell the site what kit you’ve got by typing in the model number. If it can’t locate the exact model (and it knows a lot of them) it will offer you a best guess. From the model number it can retrieve all the possible remote control codes applicable to that device and apply them to the 885.

You can then assign those functions to buttons on the remote via a simple wizard interface as shown here.

Of course should you have something really esoteric and unknown you can “teach” the remote your commands in the conventional manner. Once you’ve done this the results go back to the website for everyone else to use so the database just keeps on growing.

Once you’ve told the 885 what it needs to control you set up a series of “activities”. These are basically actions: “Watch TV”, “Listen to Music”, “Play xbox” or whatever. Activities link devices together and automatically work out what needs to be done to make it all go.

As an example you might have a “Watch Cable TV” activity that would perform the following actions:

  • Switch the TV on
  • Turn it to the cable input
  • Switch the hifi over to the cable input
  • Turn everything else off.
  • Set the volume buttons on the remote to control the stereo
  • Set the channel up/down buttons on the remote to control the cable box
  • Assign a custom button to control the aspect ratio of your TV

This screen shows an example of the website homepage, with the list of devices you want to control and the activities you’ve defined. Activities are set up using a wizard based interface that hides all the complexity behind simple questions such as “What channel should the TV be on for this activity”

Finally, once your activities have been set up the commands are downloaded to the remote. This takes a few minutes and then you’re ready to go.

From unpacking the remote to using it took me about 4 hours (which believe me, is a very short amount of time when compared to a conventional learning remote of this power) and most of that time was small tweaks to the interaction between devices. I could have had it running in about 30 minutes with a less complicated system.

And the result is that the top of my TV now looks like this! So what don’t I like? Not a lot really. You don’t get some of the more advanced macro functions of the other brands but then again you don’t really need them because of the way the 885 works. I think the biggest irritation is that when it’s on the recharging cradle it insists on playing a “slideshow” of pictures that you can’t turn off. Why they chose to do this I have no idea…

We don’t have a formal rating system for reviews here at CG but taking into account the whole package of software, features and price I’d give the Harmony 885 a “highly recommended”. If you’re in the market for such a device you’d do well to give it a look.

9 reviews or comments

Chris Hoffman Says: November 29, 2005 at 3:48 pm

I agree 100%. I have the 880, and it is great. Glad to see others are using it too.

Product Reviews Says: December 1, 2005 at 8:50 am

Fantastic review of this programmable remote control, although I do not own one, after reading this review I think I need one as one of the most common thing said in my front room is “Where’s The Remote” and the Harmony 885 remote control does look cool.

mck Says: December 1, 2005 at 6:03 pm

Very nice review, it is a bit pricey, but it seems like it’s worth it. :) I might tell my Mom about it, she and my Dad can’t stand how many remotes we have. :P

Sergei Says: March 20, 2006 at 5:09 pm

What is not clear from the review is what the LCD panel is for? Does it have “soft” programmable buttons?
My experience with a programmable remote with hard buttons is that you soon forget not frequently used functions assigned to these hard buttons. And you have no way to label them. And then you start randomly trying to find Where for the hell this buttom corresponding to Red button on Sky’s remote?
Any comments?

Marc Says: March 22, 2006 at 2:29 pm

There are 4 buttons along the each edge of the LCD display. The display shows a line of text describing the function for each button. Think about the buttons on the screen of an ATM machine, it’s the same idea.

The display changes according to the activity or device you have selected so the same button might be “DVD Angle” or “Surround volume up” depending on what mode the remote is in. It’s a simple system that has worked well for me.

Tosh Says: April 7, 2006 at 7:15 am

I am so glad i read this review I really wanted one of these as i have 5 remotes. I wasnt sure if Sky+ worked but after reading this I now knows it does. Cheers

Ant Says: May 29, 2006 at 1:58 pm

yep, bought one of these beasts about a month ago. Unfortunately, I still seem to be tinkering with the thing to get it to do exactly what I want.
The main problem I’m having is when I watch TV through my Digital cable box.
The 1st is…when I change channels using the number pad, I sometimes find the numbers on the screen freeze. For instance if I want channel 101, it seems to go 111.
The 2nd….and very similar. When I change channels using the up/down channel button. It sometimes skips through several channels..most anoying!
Any ideas!?

Marc Says: May 29, 2006 at 2:29 pm

I found that trying a different model of remote code helped. Sometimes there are multiple versions of the same thing –
I found 3 sets of codes for Slimp3 and one worked for me better than the others.

There’s also an advanced option on the web config to configure the command delay for devices. If devices are slow to respond or commands repeat, try increasing or decreasing that. (increasing it will leave bigger a gap between commands to allow time for the device to respond)

Steve Says: August 14, 2006 at 8:12 am

The review is of the Harmony 885 (£135.17) the advert at the bottom of the review is Harmony 525 (£53.11). Big difference in price. Are they both speced the same apart from 885 being rechargable. And then there’s the 688 (£81.09), any ideas??

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