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Originally published Monday, March 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Harmony by remote control

After years of waiting for Microsoft, Apple, Sony or someone else to create the ultimate home- entertainment device — an all-in-one...

Seattle Times staff columnist

After years of waiting for Microsoft, Apple, Sony or someone else to create the ultimate home- entertainment device — an all-in-one gadget to simplify our digital lives — I've had an epiphany.

Everything is going digital and eventually we'll all have some sort of computer in the living room and TVs connected to the Internet.But for another decade or so, we'll still have a jumble of gizmos to handle TV, movies and music.

The best you can hope for is to find a simple way to control whatever you cobble together.

That's why I think the sleeper products to watch over the next few years are programmable, universal remote controls, like the new $249 Harmony One.

Universal remotes are a dime a dozen, and hobbyists have been tinkering with programmable models since the late 1990s, but Harmony has quietly iPod-ized the market.

The company started in 1999 when a pair of Toronto biomedical engineers began tinkering with remotes. They came up with nice designs, but what made the products great were the companion software and Web site that simplified setting up and managing the devices.

When you buy a Harmony, you go to the Web site and enter the model numbers of all the electronics you want to control. You can customize how the buttons work or let software wizards set up tasks like "watch a movie" or "play music." All the settings are transferred to the remote when you connect it to your PC with a USB cable.

It doesn't take much technical expertise, but you have to be comfortable using a Web application and you'll probably have to tweak the settings a few times. Setting up the One in my house was comparable in time and complexity to doing my taxes online. The key is making sure to gather all the necessary information before starting.

I was also unable to make it work with the new Linksys Media Center Extender I've been testing — the Harmony wizards stubbornly insist I'm routing everything through a Media Center PC — but I probably just needed to tinker more with the setup.

Logitech bought Harmony in 2004 and pushed the product into mainstream retailers. The company now sells Harmony models ranging from $99 to $500.

For the One, it developed a new shape and button layout, and it used a touch screen and rechargeable battery like its top-end models.

If you have only a few components, you may be just fine with a cheaper universal remote or the one that came with your TV.

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Another alternative is buying an all-in-one home-theater system with a single remote. But as Logitech marketing manager Lloyd Klarke points out, people keep buying new devices, bringing more remotes into the living room and complicating the setup.

"Every time they add something, they have to relearn how to use the whole thing," he said.

With the Harmony, once it's set up, everyone should be able to use everything easily. But you still need someone in the house willing to get it configured and keep it updated.

I guess it's time to start looking for the next Holy Grail — the fully self-programmable universal remote.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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