COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Controlling remotes

Our TV is connected to cable and, along with a CD changer and DVD player, are wired so that the sound goes through a receiver and to a five-channel speaker system. There are four different remote controls on the coffee table, one for each. My wife, who has a master's degree in biology, doesn't use any of them. It's just too confusing.

As you may have guessed by my previous columns, I'm a great admirer of innovative products, particularly those that solve real problems. Technologically sophisticated products that are intended to simplify our lives, however, often complicate it further or trade one set of problems for another. It's not that it is done intentionally; often it is caused by the disconnect between the engineers that develop the products and the customers that use them. The engineers are not able to put themselves in the position of their customers to make the proper design decisions. As a result, the product may include added or complex features that make the products more difficult to use. Every all-in-one remote control we have tried in the past has had this problem.

I have tried several popular products, including the original Philips Pronto (www.pronto.philips.com) and Universal Remote Control's MX-500 (www.universal-remote.com). These are not the inexpensive remotes that just control several components; these can be programmed to control your system with just a few pushes of a button. Each took hours to set up, and then needed written instructions to explain to others (like my wife). Eventually they were retired to the junk drawer and we reverted back to using the individual remotes when in the living room. But more often we gravitated to the simple TV in another room to avoid being confronted with an aptitude test to see if we could turn on both the sound and the picture at the same time!

So it piqued my interest when I came across a new remote control for home entertainment systems that took a decidedly different approach, using a new Web-based technology to control all of your devices. The new remote product is the Harmony Remote SST-768 from Intrigue Technologies of Ontario, Canada (www.harmonyremote.com). List price is a steep $299 (similarly priced as the Pronto).

Current automatic remotes are programmed by inputting the characteristics of each of the separate remotes and then creating macros, a sequence of automatic instructions. Each macro performs an activity, such as to turn on one device, switch it to the right setting, then turn on another device, etc. It can literally take half a day to program the remote and requires careful organization and planning. Even then, it is easy to get the system out of synch if any of the components are adjusted.

The Harmony remote solves this problem in a completely different way, taking full advantage of the Internet. To set it up, you go to Harmony's Web site and answer a series of simple questions about your equipment (brand, model number) and your preferences (do you use the cable tuner or TV to change stations, check your favorite stations, cable provider, etc.). It then automatically determines a list of activities you can do with these components (listen to the radio, watch TV, play a DVD, etc.) and finds all of the infrared codes and macros needed specifically for your entertainment system.

It took me about 10 minutes to define my components (TV, CD and DVD players, cable box, receiver). The software is remarkably well thought out to deal with potential problems along the way. When it couldn't find our 10-year-old receiver's model number, it suggested an alternative (which fortunately worked). When I had a question there was immediate help available. There is a toll-free help number prominently displayed, encouraging you to call with any questions.

A personal Web site was then created that graphically illustrated my components. I can go back to this site and make changes if my entertainment system or preferences change. The last step was to click the update button, which sent the correct settings to the remote connected to the computer's USB port. That took another couple of minutes.

I then unplugged the remote from the computer, took it to the living room and selected the Watch TV command shown on the remote's LCD screen. Magically all the appropriate components turned on! When I asked it to Play CD, the TV turned off, the receiver switched to CD and the CD player turned on. It worked perfectly the first time and worked for all the activities, including Play Radio, Play DVD, etc. I was able to access most of the functions of each component, but not all of them. For example, I'm not yet able to change the disc in my disc changer.

Also transferred to the remote in this last step was a list of all the stations by channel number and network affiliation, as well as two weeks of TV listings. If I click on CNN it changes the station to Channel 31 (Adelphia's location for CNN) or click on "Nightline" in its LCD display, and it turns the TV to channel 10.

One of the common problems with universal remotes is that occasionally, one component gets out of synch with the others. This can occur if one component doesn't receive the IR signal due to being blocked. Push the Help button on this remote and it will ask you questions and take corrective answers for problems such as this.

The device is no bigger than a conventional remote and is very nicely finished. It has an array of the usual buttons, a side scroll button and a six-line LCD display to show the activities, TV stations, available programs and other options.

In summary, Intrigue seems to have thought through all of the issues and has come up with an innovative solution that is very well implemented, and really works as promised. At $299 it is a good value because it does what it says and exceeds expectations. Best of all, my wife can use it!


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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