CG Review: Logitech / Harmony 885 remote control

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!

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.

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.

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