Posts Tagged ‘ universal remote controls ’

Review of the Acoustic Research XSight Color Universal Remote

At last year’s CES, Acoustic Research announced new entries into the programmable home theater remote market with the XSight Color and XSight Touch. Now available online and at local retailers, these might initially look like worthy competitors to Logitech’s Harmony One and 900. But not so fast…it’s worth a closer look.

The XSight Color, the least expensive of the two remotes, lists at just under $150. It can be programmed to control up to 15 different devices via IR, using web-based configuration software on your Windows PC or a guided setup process on the device itself. For another $100, the XSight Touch can control 18 devices and includes touchscreen control. Add an RF base to the Touch for another $100 (totaling about $350) for controlling you system without line of sight.

Like Logitech’s Harmony remotes, the XSight models allow you to control your home theater system by device or by multi-device activities like “Watch TV” or “Listen to Music.” In addition, the XSight lets you set up profiles, allowing you to create different sets of favorite channels to suit your mood or for different people in your household.

An LCD color screen at the top of the XSight displays menu options and programmable soft keys that you select using buttons lining both sides of the screen. On the XSight Touch, as implied, the buttons are replaced by a touchscreen. The screen is bright and crisp, at a resolution that seems comparable to the Harmony. But between color choices and font smoothing techniques, the screen on the XSight is far more readable than on Logitech’s remotes. An elongated toggle button lets you move between multiple onscreen options. On the Touch, a buttonless slider zone (à la iPhone unlock) performs the same function.

Setting Things Up

You can perform basic programming on the XSight without a computer, but to set up anything beyond basic device control—like creating soft keys on the LCD screen, creating multi-device activities, and defining favorites and profiles—you’ll need a Windows PC running Internet Explorer. The programming software uses an ActiveX control that requires IE. It won’t run in any other browser and therefore offers no support for Mac users. Even running Windows in a virtual machine on the Mac, the interface software wouldn’t recognize the USB-connected remote, so if you’re an exclusive Mac user, this is a non-starter.

Programming the appropriate devices and activities for a home theater system with a TV, amplifier, video switch, DVR, movie server, and Internet streaming device proved to be more difficult than expected. The programming software claimed to support the Moxi DVR, but none of the keys functioned for it. Setting up an Apple TV required manually capturing IR codes from an Apple Remote. Windows Media Center had the best support of the tested devices, but the default soft keys seemed a bit unusual, including two separate Record buttons that duplicated a physical key on the remote itself. It’s easy to redefine or add soft keys for any device or activity, but it doesn’t seem possible to specify their arrangement on the screen.

Defining favorites and profiles is very straightforward, and the configuration software provides an extensive selection of network icons for your favorite channels, unlike Logitech’s limited set of icons for FOX networks only. By creating different profiles, each member of your household can have a different set of favorites. You can also use this same feature to create different profiles based on programming. For example, a profile for sports channels, one for movie channels, etc.

Using the XSight

The XSight Color is a sturdy remote. It feels noticeably heavier than the Harmony One—partly the weight from three AA batteries—and it doesn’t fit in your hand a nicely as the One. Its straight edge “candy bar” design ultimately yields a device that is bottom-heavy and somewhat hard to grip. The XSight Touch uses a rechargeable (and presumably lighter) battery pack and comes with a charging cradle, like the Harmony One.

The remote senses motion when you pick it up and has nicely backlit buttons—with a few notable exceptions: The four color buttons used commonly by Blu-ray players and other devices have no backlight, and the buttons lining the screen on the XSight Color have very little backlighting except around their edges. This last bit is especially tricky, since the screen itself is bright and begs for touching. Making it worse, the on-screen buttons look 3-dimensional and don’t in any way hint that you should be pressing the buttons next to the screen and not the screen itself.

Physical button layout is pretty logical, but a few strange industrial design quirks make using this remote more clunky than intuitive. The first thing you might notice is that the most prominent and physically differentiable button on the remote is (somewhat ironically) the Pause button. That’s right—not Play, but Pause. Nearby, the replay and skip buttons have ever-so-subtle ridges that feel more like manufacturing abnormalities than intentional guides for your fingers. And the buttons in different zones have a different feel when you press them, each offering slightly different resistance and tactile responses. In general, it seems like most of the buttons on the remote require just a tad bid more pressure than should be necessary. Finally, the four buttons that drive the content on the screen—those that switch between home, favorites, activities, and devices—are identified by 2mm icons that are way too detailed to be discernible at that size by the eyes of those most likely to afford this remote.

Both XSight remotes feature a dedicated power button, but it doesn’t function as an all on/all off command, as you might expect. Each activity will turn on your devices, as necessary, but the remote doesn’t manage the power state of each device as you select different activities, like the Harmony remotes do. In fact, if you want to be able to turn everything off at once to shut down, you need to create your own, separate All Off activity.

After a little bit of time, you may get used to some of the ergonomic anomalies of this remote, and when you do, you’ll find that it lets off some seriously powerful IR signals. Side-by-side, the XSight remote outperformed the Harmony One on numerous devices—at different angles and heights.

The Bottom Line

While it’s good to see some competition for Logitech’s latest Harmony remotes, the XSight Color and Touch from Acoustic Research are harder to configure, heavier in your hand, and less intuitive to use. This is a good foray into this market for AR, but for this kind of money, the Harmony One and 900 are still better options.

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One Remote to Beat Them All?

From the floor of CES this year, the single most interesting item to me so far is Logitech’s new Harmony One remote. After years of industrial design mis-steps, it appears that the Harmony line is back on track with this great new device. It looks great, it feels great, and, from my initial hands-on experience, it seems to remedy every annoying quirk I’ve disliked in recent models. Expect it in stores this February and expect to hear more about it from me.

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.

2007 Consumer Electronics Show coverage for CNET

At CES this week, I created two short photo blogs for CNET, available here and here. Additionally, you can see the two video reviews I did for CNET: one with Molly Wood on the Moxi Multi-room HD Digitial Media Recorder and one with Veronica Belmont on the SideLink remote control for Windows Vista Media Center.

For CNET’s complete coverage of the 2007 Consumer Electronic Show, visit http://ces.cnet.com.

Logitech Harmony 880 Advanced Universal Remote

Imagine a remote that feels just perfect in your hands. It has the right curves, the right fit, even the perfect weight. It sits snuggly in your grip with an all-too-familiar shape and contour. Close your eyes, and move your thumb over its top surface to find the Volume, Channel, and Play keys. Can’t find them? Right…exactly. And that’s my biggest issue with this, the flagship of Logitech’s line of Harmony remote controls. For $250 – not outrageous for a universal remote, and certainly not the most I’ve paid for one, but still pricey – I had higher expectations.

The Harmony 880 Advanced Universal Remote puts a whole new face on the standard, yet outstanding form-factor of earlier Harmony remotes. It’s a face with a beautiful, bright, color LCD display. Unfortunately, it’s a face that lacks critical tactile differentiation between buttons. In a dismal design move I’ll never understand, Logitech gives new life to the horrid ring-of-buttons first introduced on the Harmony 688. The 880 is the first of a many models that blend the most used remote buttons – Volume and Channel – into a bezel that curves around the navigation pad and display screen at the top of the remote. Look carefully at the image of this remote, and notice that this affords you no means of differentiating the Volume and Channel buttons from any of those surrounding, including the Previous Channel, Mute, and some odd up and down arrow buttons. Raised dimples on each button at least let you know where on the bezel to press, but without actually looking at the remote, it’s nearly impossible to identify any one button from another.

The problem prevails with the shuttle control, numeric, and other buttons. These appear as though they were once one button carved into smaller segments. There is nearly no detectible physical differentiation from one button to another, again, making it impossible to know what you’re pressing without looking at the remote. That, in itself, sucks…but the situation is worsened by the poor backlighting that pales next to the bright LCD screen.

And that screen is so bright. It’s clear, it’s beautiful, and it seems completely out of place in the otherwise artificially-organic design of this remote. The sharp corners and hard edges scream next to the over-accentuated curves of the neighboring buttons. That said, the screen is large and offers up to eight customizable activities and functions per page, which can be navigated both forward and backward – an improvement over older Harmony remotes, which only let you page forward through activities. One additional benefit this remote offers is the ability to specify the order in which activities display on the screen. This is a long-needed upgrade for Harmony, but quite frankly, there’s no good reason why the same improvement couldn’t be made to earlier models with simple firmware and software upgrades. Of course, that wouldn’t encourage devoted Harmony users to upgrade to a remote…would it?

One final point: Who thought it would be a good idea to have to dock a remote? If you don’t regularly place this device on its home base, it will be brain-dead in just a few nights’ use. This, supposedly, is Logitech’s answer to the poor battery consumption of earlier models. But seriously, do you have a plug readily accessible to your coffee table that wouldn’t require exposing a power cable across walkways frequented by you, family, friends, and pets? ‘Cause I don’t. And the dock design itself makes it far too difficult to properly place the remote so that it actually makes the right contacts and recharges.

After about three weeks’ use, I returned this remote to the store from which I bought it. I continue to seek out the perfect remote. While Harmony remotes come closest to this target, Logitech just keeps missing the mark.


It’s worth noting that I tested this remote nearly a year ago. This is significant for two reasons. First, after almost a year, I still harbor the same ill feelings for this device. Secondly, though the physical design of newer Harmony remotes (like the 520 and Xbox 360 models) was a fresh and unique departure for Logitech, they continue some of the bad design legacy established by this particular model.

Logitech Harmony 720 Advanced Universal Remote

It’s that time again…time for another Harmony remote trial. Despite its obvious absence from Logitech’s own website, a new Harmony universal remote, the 720, has made an appearance exclusively at your local Costco wholesale outlet.

This one shares the slim-line form factor of the 520 and Xbox 360 models, and it sports a smaller version of the full-color LCD screen used on the 880 and 890. While the color screen is a welcomed addition, it seems to take up an awful lot of room. In fact, this remote is a full inch longer than the Xbox 360 Harmony remote. Strike one.

Though the LCD screen and lighted bezel around the Activities button are very bright, the buttons themselves are very poorly backlit with [what I assume to be] blue LEDs. Apparently it must take a lot of juice to power this sucker, because the 720 has a rechargeable battery like the 880/890, which requires that you place the remote in a dock to recharge when you’re not using it. My annoyance that the home base for this remote would have to be somewhere near an outlet [and therefore not near the sofa] was quickly overcome by my annoyance with the dock itself. I found it far too difficult to seat the remote properly in the dock. It would slide around, lacking any sufficiently satisfactory click or physically noticeable reaction when properly positioned for charging. I should be able to feel it fall or slip into place without so much effort. Strike two.

With the 720, Logitech has warped the Harmony’s most-used buttons–the navigation pad, volume, and channel buttons–into a rectangular form. Even the navigation pad is now a rectangle, with the OK button barely perceptible in its center. I’m not sure how someone with large thumbs would even find and press the OK button. I think this is a bad design decision. The square design makes the already-difficult-to-use navigation rocker even more awkward. Making matters worse, they’ve incorporated the Mute and Previous Channel (Prev) buttons into the bezel into which the Volume and Channel buttons are also formed. I’ve ranted about this bezel design in previous reviews, but I believe that the bezel-bound buttons are Logitech’s worst design decision in their evolution of the Harmony remote line. These buttons are difficult to discern without actually looking at the remote, and they’re far too difficult to press. For whatever reason, you must push these buttons until they click, and if you exert the same amount of pressure required to push the Menu button (which is a rubber button that presses very easily) on these bezel buttons or on the navigation pad, they will not fully depress, or click. It’s just a bad, bad design, and I’m sorry to see Logitech continue it in another model. Strike three.

Three strikes, and it’s out. I’ll be returning this one, too.

Logitech Harmony Advanced Universal Remote for Xbox 360

Yeah…we’re still not there yet. For those of you, like me, who have purchased an Xbox 360 gaming console, the Harmony Remote for the 360 might seem like remote control nirvana. Unfortunately, this 520-knock-off doesn’t hit that target.

Logitech did introduce several notable improvements in this model:

(a) The introduction of Back, Clear, and other new buttons makes this not only more suited toward Xbox and Media Center configurations, but more useful overall;

(b) the Mute and Prev buttons are now below the Volume and Channel buttons, respectively, allowing the Back and Info buttons to be close to the navigation pad—this is a much more natural configuration, keeping your thumb from having to stretch too far for these functions;

(c) the introduction of the color coded Y/X/A/B buttons not only makes it possible to access basic Xbox functions, it adds more programmable buttons that you can leverage (such as the pre-programmed Live TV button);

(d) changing the shuttle (play/pause/stop/etc.) buttons from hard plastic to rubber makes them much easier to press;

(e) the green backlight makes the small text much easier to see [the picture here does not show the actual lettering, but an artist’s rendering], and the ring of light in the navigation pad is a nice addition;

(f) overall, the contrast of the text and symbols on the remote is much easier to see in dark lighting conditions than with the 520; and

(g) this remote has a much more solid and sturdy feel to it than the 520.

That said, it still has a few problems that I just can’t get past:

(a) The ridiculous “ring-of-buttons” rears its head again, with the volume, glow, and channel buttons formed together around the navigation pad—this makes each of them hard to differentiate by just feeling around. I’d much prefer simple rockers for both volume and channel. These are the most used buttons on any remote, yet they’re among the hardest to find here.

(b) The volume, glow, channel, and navigation pad buttons all still require a hard click, which requires far more pressure than seems appropriate. Again, rubber buttons on rockers could solve this problem.

So, I’m closer to finding the perfect remote, but not quite yet. I love the Harmony concept, and I truly hope that Logitech gets it right in the near future. In the meantime, this one went back to the store.

Logitech Harmony 520 universal remote control

Received it. Tried it. Returned it. Unfortunately, this didn’t live up to the hopes I had. I’ll be sticking with my Harmony 659. Why? Well, I’ve tried a variety of Harmony remotes since Logitech took over (in my opinion, the downfall). I even tried the mothership of Harmony remotes, the 880. I disliked the lack of tactile differentiation between buttons and odd arrangement of the play/pause/rev/fwd/etc buttons. Further, I disliked the odd adaptation of one of their earlier remotes’ “ring of buttons,” which included volume and channel controls.

On this remote, the 520, they’ve somewhat addressed the 880’s lack of button differentiation, but it still uses the odd shuttle control arrangement of the 880 and a limited adaptation of the “ring of buttons.” Further, this remote introduces an unnecessary degree of resistance to button presses, requiring the user to push some of the buttons until they “click.” This makes quick presses on the menu navigation button ring and volume buttons much more thumb-strenuous than they should be. Add to this that the slim design of the upper end of the remote, counter-balanced by the battery-heavy lower end, causes the remote to feel flimsy, while making button pressing at the top even more difficult. Oh yeah, and they’ve gone from double-pixel-wide (bold) letters in the LCD screen to single-pixel-wide (not bold) letters, making the screen much harder to read, especially with the blue backlighting.

Now let’s talk about the new configuration software. It’s actual software that runs as a client on your PC, yet it still pulls most of the content and configuration pages down from the web. In fact, it’s really nothing more than a Java-based minimalist’s web browser. What’s the point? All this to avoid “do you trust us?” dialogs in your browser? Seems entirely unnecessary.

There are some things I do like…they have replaced the Activity buttons with one main activity button, which then displays the activities on the LCD screen. You can now (finally) resequence the activites, so you can show your most frequent activities on the first “page.” Also, they’ve added another buton to allow for forward and backward navigation of LCD screen “pages” and reconfigured the screen to support one- or two-line labels for the soft buttons on the left and right edges of the screen.

I tried to like it. I even picked it up again one night after giving up on it several days earlier. Ultimately, though, this one went back to Target in just two week’s time. Luckily, target.com makes it really easy to return items to your local retail outlet.