I am fairly particular about any purchase, but it seems I may be more particular about my remote than many other items.
For over 5 years, we have used the Home Theater Master MX-500 (also reviewed), which was manufactured by URC (Universal Remote Control.) While it has continued to be an excellent remote, it has been limited by the inability to update it (i.e. via Computer.) There are ways of getting around that, but that's another subject. The fact is, I was ready for an upgrade. But perhaps the market isn't ready for me (or my wallet isn't ready for them.)
The primary contender in the beginning was the URC R50. This remote would be the latest generation to replace my existing MX-500. It is sure to be robust in construction and equally potent in IR strength. URC is far from a household brand, but they are popular with custom installers. They know how to make a good remote.
It's weakness, of course, would be the same lack of a PC connection. It does feature on screen setup, complete with wizards. And since it would come with a newer code database, I'm confident it would work with my existing equipment and would most likely have the discrete codes (e.g. separate on and off vs. toggle) I need for a user friendly setup.
More than anything else, I may have passed on this remote due to other limitations that still exist. You cannot move buttons around. There is far more freedom (vs. the MX-500) to put macros on virtually any button, and you can "copy and paste" (formerly termed "punch through") more buttons from one device to another. On the MX-500, punch through is limited to the volume controls, but it has been expanded on the R50 - to what I extent, I have not been able to determine. There is great freedom to do many things, yet the simple inability to move buttons within the remotes programming leaves me feeling constricted.
I have owned it for about 3 weeks and will be returning it shortly. Where the URC R50 falls short, the Harmony excels. But that's not saying much, as the main failing of the R50 is that it is not PC updatable or PC programmable. In other places, the 700 is just as crippled or limited. Both manufacturers handicap these models to meet their respective price points, just in different ways. Using either remote may involve some compromises, depending on your needs.
First off: the 700 is limited to 6 devices vs 18 on the URC R50. While that is sufficient for our current devices, it would not leave room for expansion. Six is far too few for a remote that normally retails for $150 and especially when the next step up (the "One) is a whopping $250. Both have extensive code databases, so compatibility should not been an issue.
I remain unimpressed by the 700. The case has already started creaking up near the LCD and an internal rattle has developed (I'd guess that a tab broke off inside), and it has been babied during the return period. I'm not a fan of the button feel at all; they're stiff and clicky. Funny enough, the display model at Best Buy feels nothing like mine (er... well, I was there to return it, so mine it is no longer. Hehe.) If it at least felt sturdy, I would feel it would be worth the cost.
Batteries and Recharging
This model uses two AA NiMH (Nickle Metal Hydride) batteries. The one benefit is, it appears they are standard NiMH batteries that you can find almost anywhere. Personally, I'm not sold on rechargeable remotes. Rechargeable batteries don't fair well in idle devices, particularly NiCAD and NiMH, which is one reason people hate AA flavors of these in cameras. They continuously drain, even when not in use; Alkaline and Hybrid batteries don't.
In this case, the batteries are charged in the remote and you cannot use the remote while it charges. On top of that, you have to plug in a USB cable to charge it (remember what I said about price points?) This actually may be a good thing, as NiMH batteries can suffer from memory effect. Somewhat akin to ruts on a snow covered road - where you have an entire street at your disposal, but you can only use a small part of it - the chemicals in these batteries can get "stuck in a rut" if you charge and discharge at the same points repeatedly. A charging cradle could result in customers recharging their remote daily, and that will create one heck of a small "rut".
The batteries in "my" remote lasted for about 2 weeks before requiring a charge. And, yes, at some point I grumbled after sitting on the sofa and then realizing the remote was on the desk behind me, charging away. The provided USB AC adapter and USB cord are nowhere long enough to stretch between most outlets and your nearest table.
The remote does feel nice in your hand, but that is just about where it ends for me. The button layout is very usable, but it is far from ideal. The most often used buttons for us are the transport buttons (i.e. play, stop, pause, rewind, fast forward, skip forward and skip back.) These buttons are a little too low on the remote for my hands. The channel and volume buttons, which are rarely used in comparison are in the perfect spot, so you are in luck if you're an old fashioned channel surfer. Otherwise, DVR users may learn what carpel tunnel in your thumb feels like. It's really not that bad; simply not ideal for me. Perhaps it bothers me most because of their claims to have invested a great deal into the ergonomics of this remote.
I do prefer buttons over a touch screen for the tactility they provide; you can find buttons without looking at the remote, and thus keep your eyes on the TV. But that beneft is somewhat lost when you find yourself hunting for buttons.
Tactile differences exist, but they're somewhat understated. Feeling for the differences between skip forward and fast forward on the 700 is more dependant on button location than differences in the buttons themselves. And that difference is relatively subtle to my thumb tip. I initially thought it would be a matter of time before it felt natural, but it hasn't happened as quickly as I would expect. Tactile bumps (which do exist on the Harmony One) or varying the shapes of buttons would help greatly. If you look at any URC remote, you will see how this is employeed.
And that brings up another point. On every remote I am familiar with, skip forward and skip back (aka chapter skip buttons) are above fast forward and rewind. Not so on this generation of Harmony remotes. I cannot figure that one out. I could switch them in the programming, but that wouldn't switch the labels.
There is also no DVR button; that is one failing every remote I can find shares. That can of course be assigned as a soft key on the LCD, but I would most definitely appreciate a dedicated hard button down in the ergonomic sweet spot.
The screen is a reasonable size, but I would like 6 buttons vs. the 4. Resolution is a little low, but perfectly acceptable so long as it proves to be durable and isn't a power hog.
I do very much like the buttons compared to a touch screen. I will be trying the Harmony One next (glutton for punishment, I know), so we shall see about the touch screen. My big fear here is the lack of tactility, as you can't blindly find buttons that are not physically separated.
Tilt Triggered Back-light
Since the backlight is tilt activated, it turns on when you pick up the remote. If you cling onto the remote long enough for the backlight to turn off, you simply have to move the remote to wake it up again, and only if you need to read the screen.
It adds a cool factor, and a back light is necessary since you need the light to illuminate the LCD. But backlights kill batteries. The glow time is adjustable, so you have the opportunity to tune this to your needs and possibly extend battery life.
Activity Hard Buttons
There are dedicated Watch TV, Watch Movie, Listen to Music and More Activities buttons at the top of the remote. These are convenient for accessing those three activities, but it actually complicates use slightly.
To access all other activities, you must press More Activities. But this is unfortunately cluttered up with the three already on the hard buttons. And it means there are two different ways of accessing activities. It takes a product that should be guest friendly and throws in something that you might have to explain.
It's not that bad, but it is worsened by the fact that these buttons are the only buttons that are not back-lit. This too is not a big deal, but it feels like a huge oversight when you use the remote in the dark. After all, if you bump the wrong one, it's not like bumping the volume button. You may find your TV turning off when switching from Movies to TV, just as your favorite show is starting. Nobody would like that.
Setup is fairly straightforward. You do have to download the software, so an internet connection is an absolute must. And you must have internet access every time you want to make any change.
Once you get started, the wizards walk you through setting up your devices and activities. I really cannot think of much to describe here, until you get into in-depth customization.
For one device in particular, my Yamaha receiver, the Harmony software regurgitated a bunch of completely useless buttons. Some were appropriate for my receiver, but many were merely extras. We're talking about pages and pages of buttons - about 27 if I recall. And of course, you can't delete pages or groups of buttons. For the most part, I ended up deleting nearly all buttons, one by one, which resulted in the software truncating blank pages one I left that page. I then returned and added the desired buttons back in. This of course effects all related activities, which must be redone.
I also wanted to optimize the pages on the activities. There are many buttons you do not need, certainly not daily. It was the same game. Delete one by one, and moving buttons up or down one by one (and one slot at a time.)
Customize Buttons Menu
While it is more difficult than it should be, at least it is possible to move buttons (if you even care.) It some cases, such as the case of the receiver, it was much easier to simply recreate the buttons.
On the Standard Buttons menu, you can select a hard button (e.g. play, stop, number buttons, etc...) and simply select which device and then which code to send.
Most time was spent on the Additional Buttons menu, which pertains to the LCD screen. You are presented with a list in groups of 4, as each page on the remote supports 4 buttons. Adding or changing buttons here is the same, except you need to add descriptive text in the Label field.
One thing I do like, as far as the Activity buttons are concerned, is the freedom to add any code, from any device, to any button. This is typically used for controlling the volume on a receiver while watching TV. I have DSP modes (sound field options such as Movies, Jazz Hall, etc...) for my receiver on the Activity menus for Watch a Movie and Listen to Music.
Speed Things Up! (Macros)
The sequence of codes sent to your equipment (typically referred to as macros) can take some time to fire off on Harmony remotes. By default, they have generous (i.e. safe) inter-key and inter-input delays.
On the Devices menu, you select click the Settings button for a device, and then click the radio/round button next to Adjust the delays (speed settings.) One is for changing the delay between button presses, while the other is the delay after changing inputs (that's my understanding.) While this step is not essential, it can reduce the amount of time you have to spend pointing the remote at your equipment. Feeling silly while hovering the remote mid-air for 10 seconds may wear off, but it never gets less annoying.
Troubleshooting - But nothing is wrong (Repeat setting)
I noticed some oddities over the past few weeks. The most noticeable was the fact that the volume on the TV incremented two steps for every one button press of the volume control. The DVR also was not as responsive as expected.
There is a "repeat" setting, which for whatever reason is hidden under Troubleshoot (also on the Devices page, not Activities.) The option in question is, "TV responds to some commands either too many times or only occasionally." Default for my TV was 3, and I reduced it to 1. The DVR was set to 1, and I reduced it to 0. Both respond much better now.
Update = Plug, Modify, Update.... Unplug, Test. Oh, not again.
The number one frustrating thing... having to unplug the remote, test, plug back in, adjust, "update...................", unplug, retest, etc... all for even the smallest thing. And there has been much more trial and error in my case than I expected, in an attempt to get things perfect.
The honest truth is, while I would not be able to move buttons around on the URC R50, everything else would be very similar in practice. The caveat would be, having to type everything on a number pad vs. a keyboard. When it comes to final tweaking, a standalone remote has a huge advantage. If you misspelled something, you simply enter setup and change it. You don't have to get up or wait for the entire configuration to download into the remote... again!
Limited Devices, but Not Activities! (Yay!)
Oh, I do like this. I like this a lot. Although the 700 was full as far as devices were concerned, that doesn't prevent you from creating a number of activities that exceeds that.
Example. We generally watch TV with just the TV and DVR. Occasionally, we fire up the receiver to enjoy movies or sports in surround sound. I simply created a new activity, and in addition to assigning the TV and DVR, I added the A/V receiver. I created similar buttons on this new "TV w/receiver" activity, but included additional buttons for the A/V receiver DSP modes (i.e. Movie Theater, Music, etc...) The volume buttons are "mapped" to the receiver and I set it to send a Mute signal to the TV. It worked beautifully.
Example 2. We have a Wii, and while this remote will not "talk" to a Wii (requires Bluetooth), I can have an activity that turns on the TV and A/V receiver and set the inputs. Yet, it does not require adding the Wii as a device.
WHAT? No backup?!
I may be sugar coating that a little. To say I was "upset" when one of my devices (the TV) became corrupt, 20 hours after I bought it, would be an understatement. As the programming is stored on Logitech's website, you only have access to the one copy. There is no resorting to yesterday, let alone 5 minutes ago. I had to rebuild that device, and all related activities. It took me 20 minutes to trace down the problem and then fix it.
Logitech will tell you that they can make a copy of your account as a backup, which takes up to 24 hours. That was of no use to me, after the fact. It is also of limited use if you continue to make changes. So, during the time that a backup is most critical (while making changes) you have to hope nothing goes wrong. While the last set of changes only took me a few minutes, it would take me at least twice that long to revert to the copy and remember what changes I made; much longer if I haven't had Logitech graciously make a recent copy. You will find yourself tweaking again, and that means updating and testing, over and over again.
I have already commented on button feel. Functionally, the remote does well, at least after making adjustments. Selecting an Activity fires off a macro and things turn on, switches inputs, etc...
Fortunately, Logitech has discrete codes for everything we own that has that capability. That means, for Watch TV, the remote sends: power on (not toggle) and HDMI 2 to the TV, then sends a power toggle to our DVR. For the TV, it works every time. If it didn't, the remote can just resend the same codes. Similarly, when you press "Off", everything turned on turns off and everything already off stays that way.
Power State Tracking
For devices like our DVR, that is where the Harmony Power State tracking comes in. It keeps track of when it sends a power toggle and what state it thinks it is in (i.e. on or off, not Ohio or Florida.) If things did not work, you press help and it tries again. If it still didn't work, the LCD will prompt you with questions, starting with, "Did that fix it?" If "No", it starts with the most likely candidate, which will be devices that do not have discrete on/off or input codes. In our case, it always asks, "Is the PVR on?" You answer, "No" and it tries to turn it on.
This feature makes the remote more user friendly, but it is not always necessary. In my case, it is fairly unnecessary. For a remote like the URC R50, if you have discrete codes for everything, you simply trigger the same macro again. Anything on stays on, and anything off turns on. For that toggle only DVR... well, trigger the macro again and everything stays on, but the DVR toggles on.
This feature sometimes gets in the way. We (mostly my wife) prefers to use the factory DVR remote to watch TV. When you do this, it throws off the Power State Tracking. What it last knew was off has been turned on with another remote. The "Help" assistant will fix things for you, but it can be annoying.
Activities vs. Devices
Even if you don't streamline your activities like I have, especially if you don't create buttons for commonly used codes, you may find yourself needing to access other devices. This would be the equivalent of reaching for your TV remote to adjust the picture while watching a movie.
Conveniently (and another thing I do like), the button below the LCD generally toggles between Activities and Devices. From in an activity, press it once and you are presented with your devices. Locate your TV, adjust your picture, then press that button again to return to the activity. For a task like this that is uncommon, and something you don't want everybody in the household monkeying with, this works out perfectly.
My experience suggests that the 700 is very average here. Compared to anything else out there, it does no worse at getting the IR signals to the devices. Unfortunately, I've been spoiled by the MX-500, which could shoot through blankets and sometimes pillows. This can mean the difference between having to aim or simply pecking at the remote while it lays next to you (or under the covers with you.) IR strength is important to successfully executing macros as well - remember, URC makes professional remotes for custom installs.
This remote does work well. In my opinion, this should be an $80-100 remote, mostly because of the 6 device limitation, cheap feel and charging via USB port. $120 isn't horrible, but the regular $150 price is absurd. Although I'm not a fan of the software, it does the job and it is simple (too simple in some ways.) But you get the same software, regardless of model. The non-LCD Harmony 300 is $50. What do you get for another $100, besides 2 devices and an LCD, if you're not getting better quality?
The software is somewhat limiting, but not to the point that most people would notice. It does greatly simplify setup to the point that just about anybody could get a "good enough" experience out of a Harmony remote. Where it is lacking is in tweaking, where their user friendly interface hides advanced features or altogether omits them. You have some control to optimize "macros", but you cannot manually build them or tweak them directly. Non-geeks will appreciate it, while some (not all) geeks will find it restrictive. It is also far too dependant on the internet.
Overall, even with the shortcomings, this remote would serve many people very well. If nothing else, it isn't intimidating. It may perhaps even be inviting in appearance. And that is worth something. My wife approved, and that is worth something as well. Chances are, most people will go through the basic setup, be done in 45 minutes, and be content with the intial results.
Compromises such as the 6 device limit will not be a issue for some. It is not as robust as any remote I am accustomed to, but you might expect some amount of fragility from any remote featuring an LCD. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of alternatives out there. The URC R50 is a worthy contenter in my opinion, with what appears to be a relatively simple intial setup. It is the more advanced settings, particularly macros, that you will need some patience with.
Now, you'd think I'd get the R50 and be done, but I'm trying the Harmony One next. The build quality felt better on the floor model and it does have a Lithium Ion battery and support for 15 devices. It too is not worth the usual $250 price, but has been on sale online for $160. That's a price I could swallow, and so its on its way here. I'm weighing compromises myself here and I'm torn. It practically came down to me asking my wife, "Which one is looks better?"
P.P.S. I would say I wish there was a remote with the quality and flexibility of the URC R50, and the PC programmability of the Harmony remotes, but there is. There's a few made by URC, like the MX-810, but that model sells for $400. There's the middle ground Pro MX-450; the big brother of the R50. It is PC updatable, with macro editing, but not PC programmable and costs $250.
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