Tag Archives: home theater

Logitech Harmony 676 Universal Remote

Lately, I have felt the temptation to purchase a remote with which I could rule over the myriad components at our house. A couple of weeks ago this desire was augmented by the all-too-frequent itch to buy a new toy. And so I present to you Logitech’s Harmony 676 Universal Remote.

I have followed Harmony’s (acquired by Logitech) line of remotes since probably their inception. They have been generally well-received as affordable alternatives to high-end system controllers. I initially narrowed my choices down to the Logitech Harmony 676 and the 680. After much reading around, I arrived at the conclusion that the only real difference was button layout, and I was partial to the button layout on the 676. The capabilities of the two remotes seem to be about on par with one another. I had a few criteria in mind that I wanted to see in any remote I purchased:

1. Reasonable Price
I don’t mind dropping some money on a decent remote, but I have no desire to part with hundreds of dollars, much less thousands.

2. Traditional Formfactor
By this, I mean the shape and size of conventional remotes with actual “hard” buttons. I absolutely did not want some beast of a remote that requires two hands to operate. I also am not a fan of the giant LCD screen that allows you to layout “soft” buttons on it. The tactile response is non-existent and provides me no way of feeling my way around in the dark, should I ever have to. In my mind, I was picturing a remote with a small LCD screen to provide feedback or navigation, but not a large, power-hungry one.

3. Ergonomics
This includes a few things. First, I wanted a remote that is fairly easy to configure yet powerful enough to do a bit beyond the basic functions for each component. Second, I don’t want to be constantly changing batteries, so they’d better last a while. Third, my ideal remote would fit comfortably in one hand and have a backlight that I can easily kick on, if needed. Lastly, I wouldn’t mind it actually looking somewhat good sitting on the coffee table! 

Price

Sure, you can go to Walmart and pick up a “universal” remote for $20. Okay, and maybe Aldi’s has one for $10. But all-in-all, I think the $72 I paid for the Logitech Harmony 676 is a fantastic price, given its capabilities. The 676 was available from Newegg.com for $122 less a $50 mail-in rebate. I have seen similar prices at other online retailers, but I happen to {heart} the ‘egg (it’s just such a cute name). At any rate, this remote’s capabilities are on par with remotes costing 10 times as much. 

First Impression

The freakin’ thief-deterrent plastic always leaves a sour first impression of so many electronic products these days. The first five minutes with my remote consisted of me trying to liberate it from its enclosure without having myself a bloodletting. Oh, I got to it, though:

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The 676 has a very comfortable, almost rubber-like plastic grip wrapping the back and sides. The faceplate is handsome enough, in my opinion: techy looking but in an unobtrusive kind of way. Its silver in color but the 676 comes with red and blue replacements (I’m not a big fan of the color faceplate thing, but maybe some night when I’m feeling sassy…). The silver is a good look, though. The buttons are laid out with space enough in between them (as much as you’ll find on a remote designed to do so much, anyway) so you can somewhat feel your way around, at least to some of the more major functions. A smallish LCD screen with room for about four lines of text stares up at you, and three buttons on either side provide access for making selections from the menu on the screen. The shape of the remote is very comfortably contoured. In short: it had me at “hello.”

There are 4 buttons at the top of the remote that are colored. These grant access to the remote’s preprogrammed “activities” functions. By default, there is one button each for watching a movie, watching TV, and listening to music. The fourth colored button gives access to additional activities through use of the LCD screen. These four colored buttons will become your new little friends. 

Setup

As you may have heard, this is where the Logitech Harmony line of remotes really shine. It was almost disgusting how easy setup was; I felt guilty. From the moment you turn the remote on, it’s holding your hand through use of its LCD screen. Also, the 676 comes with four Duracell AAA batteries. Trivial, perhaps, but a nice touch. A USB cable is also provided.

Yes, this remote must be hooked up via USB to an Internet-ready computer in order to be properly programmed, but that doesn’t bother me. Perhaps you’re of a different mindset (e.g. damn convergence to hell!). I installed the software without incident and made a login for myself when it took me to Logitech’s site. The online check noticed that the software and firmware were behind so it walked me through the updates. It took several minutes, but no big deal; you’ll earn those minutes back during the configuration. The online web configuration then asked me to input the brand and model of all the components in my A/V system. And my, what a database Logitech keeps! Everything from receivers to TV’s to PS2’s to Media PC’s to motorized shades and dimmable lights. My understanding is that if your hardware isn’t on there, contact Logitech and they’ll custom map a setup for you. From what I saw, though, it’s a pretty thorough list.

I entered the information for each of our components, suddenly realizing that I really need to latch onto some motorized shades. Once all components are added to the list, the online configuration walks you through the setup of your “activities.” For example, in order to watch a movie, the setup will ask you which components you want involved in the activity (the rest will be off). It also prompts you for which input each component should be set to and which component should be controlling the volume, as well as more detailed settings such as what effects to implement on the A/V receiver. The setup is extremely intuitive, even for a newbie, though some running back and forth between computer and A/V system will likely be required. Luckily, our A/V system happens to be right by the beer fridge, so this worked out just fine for me.

The basic setup for each activity is simple. You can, if you want, get into extensive detailing and tweaking for each activity and/or component. I haven’t delved into this too much yet (the default setup is just THAT good), but likely will in the future, at least to an extent.

Once the activities and components are configured, you save the settings to the flash memory (retained even if batteries are removed) in the remote. This will take a few minutes. The little LCD screen on the remote keeps you apprised of what’s going on and tells you when it is finished. Unplug it and you are ready to go. 

Ease of Use

I was almost nervous when I walked in the living room and hit the “Watch Movie” button. I just wasn’t sure this thing was going to work. But it did. Everything fired up exactly as it should have on exactly the right inputs. I couldn’t help but smile as I looked with disdain at the three remotes sitting below me. Their time was up.

Naturally, I had to play with those activity buttons for about half an hour before looking at anything else. The 676 will even prompt you when you hit an activity button, asking you if everything is working okay. If you say no, it will try to correct the situation. I ran into this immediately when I tagged the “Watch TV” button. Our cable box must have already been on and it turned it off when firing off the macro. When it asked if everything was functioning correctly and I said no, it turned the cable box on and and the cable signal appeared on the TV. My smile faltered slightly because, well, that was kind of spooky; I have no idea how it knew the cable box was the component out of sync. Looking down at the LCD screen, I saw that it was asking me if that fixed it. I hesitantly replied in the affirmative without making too much eye contact.

The activity buttons are cool, I have to admit. Some confusion can arise if components get out of sync, though. The remote has no way of knowing if a component is on or off. Some components (especially newer ones) have discrete signals for ON and OFF. Those that do not, however, can find themselves being turned on or off when really the opposite was desired, depending on their existing state. I guess it’s possible that the 676 knows which components have discrete on/off signals and is thus able to better troubleshoot when things get out of sync. But still…I won’t be doublecrossing the 676 anytime soon.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the default layouts for component controls are handled with aplomb by the 676. It nimbly managed the navigational and informational features of the cable box, assigning an intuitive layout for such functions. In addition to the functions assigned to the hard buttons, more obscure commands are accessible through the LCD screen and its associated buttons. Using this command set, I found the remote was able to do everything from calibrating the picture on our Sony HDTV to adjusting speaker level and distance compensation on the Yamaha receiver. Very cool.

I do have an issue with the remote when it comes to some of the more obscure commands. The labeling of the commands on the LCD screen can become someone crammed and difficult to read, at times. Furthermore, it seems as if a few of the commands are not set-up correctly (e.g. the command for invoking the “Jazz” surround effect actually triggers “Rock Concert”). It appears as if most of the options are there to control the finer points of the receiver but that a few of them might be mixed up with one another. In the end, I take this as a pretty small issue. It is also possible that the assignments can be manually reconfigured; I have not had a chance to dive into that yet.

Accessing the more detailed component functions involves switching out of the “activity” mode and selecting the specific component to control. This is made easy by the “Device” button. Pressing this button brings up a list of all programmed components on the LCD screen. Selecting a component on this list remaps the remote for detailed control over that particular peripheral. Once any tweaking has been taken care of, simply hit the “Device” button to switch back to the activity layout that was last activated. Again: very cool.

The Logitech Harmony 676 is capable of controlling media center PCs. I have not had the chance to add an infrared receiver to our media center PC, but I plan to at some point. There is a “Media” button on the 676 that supposedly brings up the access screen for all media on the PC. It sounds intriguing, but I have not had any experience with it, as of yet.

Physically, this remote is a beauty. It has a solid, comfortable feel to it. Its elegant contours fit naturally in my hand. The buttons have a crisp, snappy feedback, too, and I notice very little of the lag that can come with using a universal remote with various equipment. After using the remote for only a little while, I have become accustomed to the placement of some of the more heavily used buttons and can find them without looking. The “Glow” button is easy enough to find in the dark and provides a pleasant blue backlight to all buttons and the LCD screen. 

Conclusion

The Logitech Harmony 676 Remote is the remote that I have been waiting for. It manages to blend ease of use for everyday functions with brute power for those times you wish to delve into the detailed settings of a component. And it looks good while doing it. Appropriate for the neophyte as well as harder core A/V junkies, it comes at a price that won’t leave too big of a dent in your wallet. While there are some wrinkles with some of the detailed function assignments, overall the 676 performed marvelously and its activity modes make full system control a snap.

Setup: A
Ease of Use: B+
Physical Attributes: A