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Hands On with Logitech's Harmony Touch Remote: Fewer Buttons, More Power

By Chris Boylan

If It Ain't Broke, Fix It Anyway!

What do you do when you dominate the universal remote marketplace?  If you're Logitech, you go back to the drawing board and try something entirely different.  At a press event in New York City earlier this week, the company officially unveiled their new Harmony Touch universal remote.

The new offering builds on the strengths of its predecessors but takes a slightly different direction.  Instead of centering the remote on tactile buttons, the centerpiece of the Touch is (you guessed it) a touch screen.  Both the Harmony One and Harmony 900 already have color touch screens, but now the Touch goes a step further by enabling gestures or swipe-based controls into the screen.  If you want to fast forward, swipe right; pause your movie, tap the screen; resume playback, tap it again.  It's a bit different if you're used to using hard buttons for everything, but it's not that hard to get used to.

Also, they've done away with "non-essential" buttons on the Touch (like the number pad, which has been moved to the touch screen), added some hard buttons that were missing from previous revmotes (like a "DVR" button - finally!) and reduced the remote's size to make it fit more comfortably in one hand.  They've gone from 40 buttons on the Harmony One to just 25 on the Harmony Touch, and this includes the addition of the color-coded red, green, blue and yellow buttons which are essential to control advanced features on Blu-ray players as well as many DVRs.

The Harmony Touch presents a sleek profile.

They've also taken their trademark activity-based control a step further to the point where you can literally hit just one icon on the remote's home screen and you'll be watching your favorite channel within moments, even if getting there requires a half dozen commands be sent to three different components. Harmony remotes have always been activity-based, meaning you hit a "Watch TV" button to get all the necessary components fired up and the buttons configured for that specific activity, but now a new icon-based home screen allows you to select the logo of your favorite channel and the remote will bring you there automatically, by sending a string of commands to all of the components in your system and then changing the channel of your TV, cable box or satellite receiver to get you right to that channel.

The color touch screen is where the action is.
When asked if this could be expanded to work with non-broadcast "channels" such as Netflix or Amazon VOD, a company rep said that this could not currently be done in the Home Screen, but you could accomplish something similar in the Activity Screen which is just one button press away. They also said they are already investigating adding this kind of customization to the home screen in the future (which could potentially be enabled via a firmware or software upgrade).

Existing Harmony remote users will be happy to hear that a remote upgrade process is now available, so if you already have a Harmony One (or even an earlier Harmony remote) which is already nicely configured for your system, you'll be able to automatically transfer over all your components, codes and activities to the new remote.  Also, The MyHarmony web site now supports multiple remotes per account so if you have one Harmony in the living room and another in the bedroom, you can manage them both from the same account.

Another cool new feature is that many of the little tweaks that are occasionally necessary in a complicated system can now be done right on the remote itself instead of having to go back to your computer and make the changes there.  For example, your cable box might take a little longer to change channels or your TV might take a little longer to warm up and accept additional commands.  Now you can adjust the timing of these elements right on the remote until it works properly.  Or you may notice that you accidentally configured the remote so that the cable box is attached to the "HDMI 1" input of the TV when really it's connected to HDMI 2. Make a small adjustment on the remote and you'll be up and running.  The next time you connect the remote to your computer (and log into the MyHarmony web site) any changes you made on the remote will synch to your account.

So, how is this thing to use?  I admit, I am not a big fan of other touch-based remotes such as those that come with some of with Panasonic's latest TVs and Blu-ray players.  But the touch screen on the Harmony Touch is really very intuitive to use and very sensitive (but not overly so).  It is a bit awkward to use the hard transport buttons (play, pause, stop, rewind, etc.) located at the top of the remote but you won't need to once you get the hang of the touch screen.  I find myself flipping through menus and controlling movie and TV show playback easily with my thumb on the touch screen, without having to look down to make sure I'm pressing the right button.

Finally having a dedicated DVR button makes life simpler when trying to view recorded shows, and the four color buttons at the bottom make even advanced streaming and Blu-ray features easy to access.

I'm going to have to live with this thing for a bit longer before picking a favorite between this and my current remote (a Harmony 900), but so far things are looking pretty promising with the Harmony Touch.  Stay tuned for a full review coming soon.

The Harmony Touch controls up to 15 devices and will be available at most Logitech dealers in stores and online this month at a list price of $249.99.

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