Written by John Yan
on 12/16/2004 for
We’ve done a few DVR articles here at Gaming Nexus and it’s one of my favorite hobbies in building a nice home theater personal computer system. Trying to find a product to control the system has been tough with many options from RF remotes to various learning ones as well. Logitech recently acquired Intrigue Technologies, makers of the Harmony remote line and we’re lucky enough to try out their latest: the Harmony 688.
Touted as built for DVR, the Harmony 688 remote features a plethora of options and easy programming. Physically, the remote is thin and long with a radial button system in the middle. The back features two finger notches that help you hold the remote comfortably. I will say the shape and indentations do make it pretty easy to hold the remote.
One LCD window in the upper half gives you help information, TV listings, and other accessible custom commands. If there’s a command that you would like that doesn’t really fit any of the present ones, you can program it and assign it to one of the six LCD buttons accessible via a menu. The LCD and buttons emit a nice blue glow when a command button or the glow button is pressed.
A nice feature about the Harmony 688 is the activity buttons. Located at the top of the remote, they are generic buttons that, when programmed, will setup your system ready for use with one push of the button. For example, with my DVR setup of a receiver, HTPC, and TV, pushing the “watch TV” button turns on my receiver, sets it to VCR/DVR state, turns on my TV, and sets the TV to video 1. With that, all the buttons are set for DVR operation and I’m ready to go. What’s really cool is the remote remembers the state of the components if you are switching between activities. From the watch TV state, pressing the “play music” button turned off my TV and set my receiver to the Radio state. Pressing the “watch TV” button again turned on my TV and switched my receiver to VCR/DVR state. If there are more activities, and it holds 15, you can push the more button and use the LCD buttons to select an activity. Activities really turn this remote into a very versatile and easy to use device to control your entertainment setup.
If you would like to control one device directly, a device button pulls up the various devices programmed into the receiver and you can select one via the LCD buttons. Picking one will set the remote to control said device. Most of the commands you need will be setup with one of the activity buttons, but there will be times when there’s a command you need that’s pretty specific. With that, the device button comes in very handy to access a specific component.
The middle of the remote features a silver directional pad with a center OK button. Various other buttons circle the center pad and with the volume and channel buttons in this area. The directional pad has a lip that protrudes from the surface and is pretty easy to press. I like the large OK button in the middle to confirm commands. The tension is pretty good when pressing the directional pad.
Above the directional dial sits the media button and one that’s kind of cool to use. Harmony gives you two months free TV listings and you access the feature with it. Through the setup you select the stations that you would like to download listings to. After an update, you can press the media button and packs of three shows will show up on the remote at the current time. Selecting one of the three shows with the LCD buttons will force your remote to switch to the station with that show. It’s simple to use and useful for people that don’t have a guide. And since you can setup what stations show up, you don’t have to cycle through channels you never watch.
A problem with the radial buttons, and it extends to the others, is that it’s hard to distinguish them by touch. Usually, there are some physical differences in buttons so you can operate it without having to look at the remote. It took me a while to get used to but I think there should’ve been more physical differences to separate some of the functions through touch.
Below the radial buttons are the VCR controls. Here you can record, fast forward, rewind, pause, stop, or play. Chapter skip buttons sit at the bottom part of the radial button area. As with the radial buttons, there’s no physical distinction to separate them. Finally, the number pad sits below the VCR buttons. Like most remotes, its four rows of three buttons with two programmable buttons on either side of the 0 button.
The Harmony 688 is one of the easiest programming remote out there. All of the programming is done via a web interface and by setting up an account on the Harmony website. Once done, you are taken through a wizard by selecting your components and what components do for each activity. The database at Harmony is pretty extensive and it even found the setup for my Hauppauge remote control for my PVR-250. So after answering a few questions and such, you plug the remote into your computer via a USB cable and a minute later, the remote is updated with all the codes and activities you have setup. I was pleasantly surprised to find everything worked on the first try. Without any programming, the remote controlled every device in my entertainment center. Talk about ease of use and a very high WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor).
If you do have to program the remote, the bottom of the remote features an IR reader. You point the remote you want to record there and setup the name of the command through the web interface. The eye to record IR commands sits on the bottom of the remote, opposite of the IR transmitter. Now what makes the Harmony 688 really cool is that you can assign any command to any key easily through the web utility. Each button has a dropdown box next to it with a list of commands and you can assign it to. Using a web interface to setup the remote makes it a whole lot easier than trying to do it with the remote itself.
Running into any problems is easily overcome with the Help button. Following the simple steps in the LCD window will usually take care of anything you run into. During my programming, the watch TV button wouldn’t turn on the TV. Pressing the Help button and answering a few questions, the problem was fixed. This should help a lot of users who feel a little overwhelmed by the remote with its friendly help system.
I used this remote with both Snapstream’s Beyond TV and Microsoft’s XP Media Center Edition. The Harmony 688 worked great with both programs and Harmony’s database had commands for both. Well, the database mimicked the silver Hauppauge remote for the PVR-250 that Beyond TV supports natively. As for the rest of components I have, the remote worked flawlessly.
The Harmony 688 is one remote that was easily usable by all members of my family. Even the ones that are afraid of technology were able to easily use the remote and control my entertainment system. Any remote that makes complex entertainment systems easier to use is a great one in my book. It’s very comfortable to hold and the glow really helps seeing what you are pressing at night. The only problems I had with it were the lack of button uniqueness in feel and that it can be more expensive than your receiver. Other than that, any home entertainment user will be happy with the Harmony 688, especially those that need an easy remote for their significant others to use.
Expensive but very nice to use, the Harmony 688's is one great addition to your home entertainment setup. It'll control anything and everything.
Rating: 9 Excellent
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
I've been reviewing products since 1997 and started out at Gaming Nexus. After writing for a few different sites that went under, it's nice to bring back a site that's not dependent on revenue and just wants to deliver news and reviews of products.
I'm married, and enjoy first person shooters, sports games, and real time strategy games.