Logitech Harmony 880 Universal Remote

by | Apr 25, 2006 | Component Reviews | 0 comments

Logitech Harmony 880 Universal Remote
SRP: $249.99

Rechargeable batteries in cradle
2 MB of RAM
Controls up to 15 devices
Controls up to 255 activities
Setup via personal web page
USB download connection, cross-platform
Dimensions: 2.5″ x 1.5″ x 8″
Weight: 6 oz.


I have eight remotes controlling nine different electronic devices. Here they are. The reason I’m one remote short is that I have an electronic remote-controlled six-channel switch to select between my two hi-res multichannel disc players, and it cycles thru its three inputs using a command from one of the disc players (it is supplied without a remote of its own thank God.)

You can see that I have a nightmare of remotes to access in order to do the simplest operation in my AV system.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve assembled a veritable Sargasso Sea of electronic remote controls.  For one thing, not only are there too many devices, but I have weird hookups, such as for watching NTSC TV I am going thru the tuner in my old BetaMax player, which is a much better tuner than the one in my Pioneer RPTV.

The blurbs in the Logitech ads about the 880 allowing you to replace all your remote controls with a single unit are accurate. What may not be accurate for some is the description of the procedure to program the remote as being “child’s play.”  Certainly not in my case.  I guess other positive reviews of this unit were from user-reviewers who had a rather basic AV setup.  But now that mine is programmed correctly, I must say I’m in AV nirvana. And more than that, so is my wife.

I had been meaning to attempt to program my Sunfire so-called universal remote for years now. Many of the top-level AV preamps and receivers are supplied with a supposedly “universal” remote control. But they’re really not.  The steps required to program them are arcane and involved, and you may not be able to duplicate all the controls on your original remote – such as the one that switches from Disc 1 to Disc 2 etc. on a CD changer. After I got into the complexities of programming the 880 remote I began to understand why I never completed the  attempted setup of my Sunfire remote.

The Harmony remotes work in partnership with their web site, which is the key to logical programming of the many different commands required of the various devices in your AV system. This new approach to the hassle is a fine example of out-of-the-box thinking, and puts everything into a logical and understandable sequence.

Setup of 880

Setup of the 880 asks you to break down your use of your AV components into categories such as Devices, Media and most of all Activities. The latter is a sequence of commands – a macro in computer-speak – which goes thru all the steps in a particular sequence of useage.  Logitech calls it Smart State Technology. For example, to Watch a DVD, you need to turn on your video display, set it to the correct input, turn on your AV preamp or receiver and turn it to the proper input and audio mode, turn on your DVD player, set it correctly, open the drawer, and then be able to use the play/stop/chapter/forward & reverse/pause and other normal controls on the player. When set up correctly, this sequence occurs automatically over several seconds while you simply hold up the 880 remote so the infrared signals get to your components. This one activity feature is labeled and set up in the 880 display as in the illustration of the color display on the unit.  Other technically-challenged members of your family can then simply press the button next to the activity they desire and the whole program is carried out. Other remotes make the user think about all the different specific devices involved in what they want to do, and that gets far too complicated for most people.

The Logitech web site lets you list every one of your components on your own personal web page, and they have so far over 120,000 different components in their database to save you entering every command of your particular device. As users come up with new commands they are added to the database. I was floored to discover that they had the exact model name and the commands of a very obscure AV switcher I have in my system.  All you do is enter the model number and name of your device in the list and it is added, ready for you to program activities.  If you’re lucky, Harmony will already have all the commands you want to use with a device and you won’t need to customize anything.  After you have entered everything (installed the Harmony CD-ROM) and programmed an activity, you download the string of commands to the remote using a supplied USB cable hooked to your PC or Mac and thence to one end of the 880 remote.

Following each download (Logitech confusingly calls it an upload) you take the remote to your system and test it out. If a particular component is supposed to turn on, for example, and it turns off instead, you hit Help on the 880 and go thru a Q & A sequence on the display screen which usually puts your string of commands back in sync and makes it work properly. If you cannot get a particular command to work it may be that no one else has wanted that command before and it is not in the Harmony database. In that case you will need to teach the command from the device’s original remote to the 880 by holding the original remote close to the tail of the 880 and pressing the required button.

You may find that even then the command you need doesn’t operate your component. In that case you need to select Raw data on the list of different commands for your component and try the procedure again. This last-ditch approach usually works. Since all the details of your particular AV system are stored on the Harmony website, you can restore the commands at any time or update them when you acquire a new component or decide on an additional activity you might want to add.

Possible Setup Pains

It’s a very clever way to deal with the array of remotes the typical AV system acquires.  According to Harmony’s publicity, setting up the 880 is supposed to be “child’s play.”  Well, I must not be a precocious enough child, because I had a few problems and required hours of tech support assistance to get my 880 programmed.  However, the assistance is polite, considerate, well-informed and most of all patient – and that goes whether you are a reviewer or just a user.

I already explained how I run my standard TV thru my BetaMax tuner instead of using the tuner in the Pioneer display. Some of my components are equally retro – a Laserdisc player and a terrific Aiwa Dolby S cassette deck among them. The big consideration here is that the Harmony cannot turn on components which either don’t have an on/off button on their original remotes or have a completely manual on/off switch without a remote of any kind.  I was amazed to find that my Sony SACD changer had not on-off button on its remote, so that unit has to first be turned on manually each time it is to be used in an activity. My rear-and-side-channel amps had to be manually turned on, my turntable was a manual on/off (though the phono preamp is always on), and it first required turning a manual switch from Tape In to TT In.  Finally, since I have a trio of tube monoblocks for my front channels, those also have to be turned on manually.  Another on/off consideration is if you prefer to leave some components on all the time.  In my case that was both my Sunfire AV preamp and the electronic AV switch. The 880 had a little trouble accepting that state of affairs but finally the Help sequence of questions cleared it up.

The installation manual as well as the website for Harmony could make the setup of the remote go more smoothly for many users if they explained at the outset that if the original remote has no on/off toggle button the Harmony cannot turn the device on or off. The other hangup relates to downloading the data once it is entered on the Harmony website: My screen just kept refreshing over and over with nothing else happening. In the process the thermometer on the display always stayed at 10%.  Well, good reason for that – it’s just a screenshot and nothing is supposed to be moving! But the page doesn’t tell you that. Only later did I learn from a tech support expert that any Web connection that has a firewall or router in it will not be able to download the data directly from their site.  Mine has neither but it does have an Internet Switch, which is similar. So in its place one must download little blue icons that go to your desktop, and when clicking on those a connection is made with your 880 to download. It just adds an extra step to the process.

After I had set up the main activities of Watching HDTV, Playing a CD, Listening to the Radio, Watching a LD, etc. I realized that it would be good to have two separate activities for playing both SACDs and DVD-As, since even though I have a universal player the mode would need to be changed to 8-channel (actually 6) for both hi-res formats and for the DVD-As I would also need the video display.  This required going into a section known as Generic Activities.  The disadvantage here is that none of the commands are predefined on the Harmony site and each must be set up individually.  I was able to do that for playing SACDs but even with a tech person’s help it was becoming too convoluted a process to set it up for DVD-As; all the five commands on the center joystick would have to be separately set up and tested. So I gave up and will merely use the Watch a DVD activity with the addition of going to the up and down arrow buttons on the 880 – which we previously mapped to the command cycling thru the various modes of the Sunfire preamp.  Using that I will simply select 8-channel mode.

Using the Programmed Remote

Some of the components will bring up a series of different screens on the small LCD color display with various commands. Not all of the commands will fit your particular device – they are entered into Harmony’s database because at least one other device in that manufacturer’s line had that particular command. For example, I was highly curious of one designation on the seven different screens of my Sunfire preamp: CATHED.  I finally discovered it’s not Cat Head but short for Cathedral – one of the boingerizer settings an early Sunfire  preamp or receiver must have featured. Often there will be a discrepancy between the name Harmony gives a particular command and what your component gave that command.  So you must try different names on the LCD screen until you find a command that carries out the action you are looking for, and then map that command to the function you want.  Extensive charts come up on the Harmony web site with all the different commands and buttons indicated and you can teach some original commands and/or switch them around.

The bottom third or so of the 880 has the usual numbered keypad.  Above that are the usual mechanical controls for Play, Record, Pause, Stop, Fast Speeds and Chapter/Track selection. When most devices are entered on your home page, these buttons will work as labeled. Above them are Menu, Exit, Guide & Info and the same goes for them, but if one fails to work properly, you can customize it on the Harmony website. The peanut-shaped remote is easy to handle, and when you pick it up off its dedicated battery-charging cradle it immediately lights up. You must remember to hold still after punching up an activity because it takes several seconds for the sequence of commands to be delivered to your components, and some delays are deliberately built in. You must also point it at the components rather directly – you may even need to step back a ways to ensure that the beam is reaching everything. The buttons around the LCD screen are rather small and if you have closely-trimmed fingernails you may hit the wrong one.  At least the important ones are clearly labeled – such as channel selector, volume and mute.

Although the next step up in universal programmable remotes takes one into the $1000 area plus the fee to a professional to set it up for you, the $250 cost of the 880 may seem a bit steep.  If so there are other models of the Harmony remotes, including the 550 at about $145. It works with exactly the same web site and procedure; it only lacks the color screen and few other niceties of the 880 but does the job the same way. So put away all those remotes – if you can even find all of them! (remove the batteries first) – and solve those gripes of your family members who complain they can’t even play a favorite CD on your system when you’re not around!

– John Sunier

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