Logitech Harmony 550 Universal Remote

I’ve been trying to like the newer Harmony remotes that Logitech has released. Really…I have. When I saw the Harmony 550 on store shelves, I had to give it a try. Essentially, the Logitech Harmony 550 Universal Remote is a somewhat (but perhaps not significantly enough-) improved version of the budget-minded Harmony 520. Borrowing from the Harmony Xbox 360 remote, Logitech smartly improved the arrangement, feel, and sensitivity of most of the buttons on this device. It’s also a more sturdy device. While the 520 seemed a bit flimsy, this remote has a nice, solid feel to it.

The Logitech Harmony 550 (center) side-by-side(-by-side) with the Harmony Remote for Xbox 360 (left) and the Harmony 520 (right)

Side-by-side, the 520 (center, above) looks significantly like the 520 remote with six additional buttons: Page Up, Page Down, Sound, Display, A and B. Additionally, Mute and Prev have been relocated down below the volume and channel buttons, respectively. Let me address these changes separately:

  • Page Up and Page Down. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. When nearly every consumer device uses the channel up and down buttons to scroll through the guide or menu by one full page, why is it necessary to have separate Page Up and Page Down buttons on this remote? And why are they arranged horizontally, instead of vertically? The biggest mistake here, though, may be that locating these buttons immediately above the navigation pad puts critical buttons – like Guide, Info, Exit, and Menu – even further from the navigation controls. Argh!
  • Sound and Display. Most Harmony remotes support auxiliary custom menus, intended to tweak the sound and display aspects of your selected activity. For example, when watching a DVD, you might want to switch between your a/v receiver’s various sound fields or adjust your TV’s aspect ratio. The Sound and Display menus allow you to expose those commands in separate menus on the LCD screen. By adding the Sound and Display buttons at the bottom of this device, Logitech reintroduces this feature to this line of remotes. I think this is a good thing, though I probably would have placed the buttons closer to the LCD screen (since they, ultimately, change the commands available there).
  • A and B. While I’m sure some people will applaud the addition of generic programmable buttons to this remote, I’m not a big fan. I buy the harmony because it’s easy to use. I think obscurities like A and B detract from this remote’s simplicity. Besides, isn’t that what the LCD screen is for?
  • Mute and Prev. I like their new location and I like their shape and size, taken directly from Logitech’s 360 remote. Win, win.

In general, most of the buttons on this remote feel better than those on the 520. They’re rubberized like on the 360 remote, and they don’t have that extra resistance I complained about on the 520. Even the navigation pad and the volume/channel buttons are easier to use, but I still do not like the incorporation of the volume and channel buttons into the bezel that surrounds the navigation pad – a trend that Logitech seems to have embraced entirely. In general, the keys are responsive. That said, the default delay the remote uses between sending IR codes may make this remote seem sluggish. Scrolling through recorded items on my TiVo (down, down, down, down, …) there was a noticeable delay between when the remote sent each code. As a result, the remote lags behind, and it’s easy to under- or over-navigate, since you’re not controlling your devices in real time. When talking with a Logitech representative at CES, I was assured that this can be customized, but it requires digging pretty deep into the innards of their configuration software.

Speaking of which, Logitech has released yet another version of the Harmony Remote software. We’re up to version 7 now. Again, I ask WHY? You don’t need this software. All you need are the plug-ins that allow your browser to communicate with and download data from their online configuration tool. Install the software so those are installed on your system, but I recommend just going to their configuration site at http://members.harmonyremote.com/ and logging on. Just be sure to use Internet Explorer or Netscape [yeah, I know…Netscape; what are they thinking?]. Oh yeah, and why would I want the Harmony software running in my tray every time I start Windows? By default, the Harmony Setup program adds the Harmony configuration software to your Startup folder. This is completely unnecessary, so I always remove it. Instead, just remember to run the app before you connect the remote to your PC with the supplied USB cable.

Finally, I’ll note that the backlighting on this remote is much better than on the 520, but it’s still a bit inconsistent. Unfortunately, the backlight does not stay lit unless you press Activity, Glow, or one of the LCD function buttons. Pressing any other button simply illuminates the remote for the duration of the button press…which isn’t so helpful. The blue backlighting is appealing, but it doesn’t provide sufficient contrast for the LCD screen, making the text on the screen somewhat difficult to read.

My vote? Well, there are some nice improvements here, but I returned the 550 earlier this week. This device still doesn’t live up to some of Harmony’s earlier models in terms of ease of use and ergonomic design. Between my issues with this particular volume/channel button design, the layout of other key buttons, and the annoying lag in sending consecutive commands, this remote just wasn’t doing it for me.

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