Universal remote is just $499

The Baltimore Sun

Couch potatoes who don't like the clutter of four or five remote controls can buy a single version to rule the television, cable box, DVD player, stereo and even the lighting system. Most of these devices use clickers or buttons the way standard remotes do, but a few luxury versions use colorful touch screens as control panels.

The remotes can be programmed so that one click or touch sets off a series of actions. Touch "Watch a DVD" on the screen, and the gadget flips on the television, turns on the DVD player and even pops open the bay where the DVD is inserted.

But the devices, called universal remotes, can be complicated to program - so complicated, in fact, that many customers hire a professional to install them and make the occasional follow-up visit when a new component is added to the system.

Now Logitech, of Fremont, Calif., is offering a touch-screen universal remote, the Harmony 1000, that is designed so consumers can set it up and maintain it themselves. Priced at $499, it has a 3.5-inch screen, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and a USB cable. Customers log on to the Logitech Web site and plug the remote into their computer at a USB slot. Then the remote downloads the data it needs to be lord of the living room.

The database keeps track of thousands of types of DVD players, TVs and other equipment, and the signals needed to manage each of them. Like most other remotes, the Harmony can control only machines that are in a direct line of sight.

But for $150 or so, you can buy an additional gadget, the Harmony RF Wireless Extender, that lets you operate hidden-away devices like a DVD player in a cabinet.

I tried out the Harmony 1000 and the wireless extender, too, since my DVD player is behind a sofa and hard to get at with a regular remote. I didn't need any unique technical skills for the installation, but it did take a lot of time. An entire day vanished before the system was up and running. But I saved the $300 or more that I would have paid an installer and, I confess, had fun learning how to program the remote.

The first task was to put the battery into the remote and pop it into its sleek black cradle, to power up. While that was happening, a friend and I began assembling the names and model numbers of the devices we wanted to control: a television, a DVD player and a cable set-top box. The TV and the DVD player were easy to identify; the model number for the set-top box was trickier to find.

Later, we installed the software from the accompanying CD, registered at the Logitech site, and plugged in the remote and then the wireless extender, so that we could download the commands that would control the system. An interactive Web installation program guided us through the process.

The online database recognized the names and model numbers of the devices we wanted to control, but getting the devices to obey the Harmony's commands took a lot of fine-tuning. My computer is in one room, and the TV-DVD-cable-box combination in another. Each time I programmed the remote and the extender, I had to unplug them from the computer, go into the other room and try them. When the commands didn't work correctly, I had to take them back, hitch them up to the USB port and try again.

There were many ways to get help along the way, though some were not obvious. The manual and list of frequently asked questions, for example, are not in the box or on the initial installation disc. They are online, available after you have registered - in the "Tip Center" category. (Click on "More Help.") Logitech also has a free telephone help line - I spoke with two technicians. I also joined an online user group.

Some of the fixes were minor: For instance, when the remote jammed, I took out the battery and popped it back in. (The remote was fine when it restarted.) But one problem was more serious: One of the commands I needed for the remote could not be transmitted automatically by the online site.

Instead, I had to "teach" the new remote this command by beaming the infrared commands to it from the old remote. Guided by a patient person at the Logitech help line, I put the old remote a few inches from the infrared-receiving port of the new one, and followed the directions to transfer the command from one remote to the other. Then, at last, when I went back into the front room with my universal remote, it controlled all three devices.

Lloyd Klarke, director of product marketing for Harmony, said that my experience with installation was unusual. "Our average time for setup is around half an hour to 1.5 hours," he said. "It comes down to how well you know your own system and how familiar you are with AV equipment."

If you can't face the possibility of spending the day learning how to program a remote, you can always hire a professional.

Curt A. Barad, owner of Audio Video Systems, in Oceanside, N.Y., said he thought that it was possible for amateurs like me to install a universal remote, but only if it controlled a few common devices. "If someone has a room with a projector on the ceiling, a drop-down screen, satellite receivers and surround sound," he said, "your user-programmed remote probably isn't going to be adequate."

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