REVIEW: Are $250 remotes worth it? The Harmony One makes its case…

I have, on two occasions in the past, gone to Staples or the nearest local pharmacy to purchase a $10 replacement "universal" remote control. These remotes aren't pretty. They take a bit of finagling to set up. But they only cost $10.

For the past few weeks I've been comparing my experience with cheap universal remotes — and with the many remotes that my devices actually came with — to the Harmony One, Logitech's brand new and super-fancy universal remote. It retails for $250. Is it worth the $240 premium over the drug store variety? Has it given me a calm, Zen-like feeling when I use my home entertainment system? Do you need one? Click Continue to find out.

If you already love Harmony remotes, you may love this One
The Harmony One is very similar to its predecessor, the Harmony 880. The major differences are cosmetic, but they are significant improvements. The buttons on the newer remote are intuitive and easy to find, the touchscreen (not a feature of the 880) is easy to use, and the buttons are all raised individually so you don't press two at once.

But there's a reason that it's far less expensive than the Harmony 1000 and 890 models. It won't work with devices that rely on radio-frequency signals: it can only control devices via infrared. That means that it's really an entertainment remote — not meant to work with your shades or lighting system. That's fine by me since my living room and kitchen just aren't that fancy, but for $250 you might expect something that really is universal.

Newbies: Setup is a real time investment
$10 remotes take 10 minutes to set up: all you need to do is decipher the instructions, enter a couple of codes and hold down some mysterious flashing buttons. Fancy remotes are a little less simple. Between installing hardware on my computer and going through the set up wizard several times I've easily spent two hours trying to make this remote perfect (that's not counting time on the phone with customer service, see below). I still haven't figured out how to get the remote to control my Roomba, a device that should be able to use an infrared remote.

It replaces one pet peeve with another
Some people hate having a lot of remotes hanging around the house. I hate having another gadget to recharge. Since it has a wire, you won't want to put the charging dock on your coffee table. That means that the remote has to hide someplace inconvenient while it's charging, and that you have to remember to put it there.

Logitech customer service is a nightmare
As a reporter, you'd think I'd get quick and excellent customer service when my computer failed to recognize the remote. You'd be wrong. I had to wait on hold twenty minutes (in the middle of a weekday) for regular customer service, and then even the special, "Tier 2" customer service had a half-hour hold time. An expert did eventually walk me through steps to get the remote to work, but only when I acted like an indignant reporter deserving of special treatment. If I were just a regular customer, I got the impression that customer service never would have called me back. And reporter or no, I'm not calling again with the few additional questions I have. I'll wait until the remote breaks before I sit in that hold line again.

BUT, once it's set up, it is a lot of fun
In many ways, the Harmony One surpassed my expectations. I was surprised to find that it works with my Bose iPod dock and Wave Music System, for example. And the remote is really at its best when it's controlling the TV. Sure, I know that my DVD player uses the set's AV2 input, but if a friend came over she'd have no way of knowing that. When I press "Play a DVD" on Harmony One's touchscreen, the remote turns on my TV and DVD player and puts the TV on AV2. For universal remote geeks, this won't seem like a big deal, but to a beginner it's a minor miracle.

So, is it worth it? The answer, in one easy formula
What $240 really buys you is a machine that knows how to press three buttons on two remotes in the correct sequence. I have extended family members who do not know how to do this, and I'm betting you do too. Here's one way of deciding whether you need a Harmony One: multiply the general level of ineptitude in your house (on a scale of 1 to 100) times the number of devices in your entertainment system. Divide that number by two, then subtract $240. If your result is positive then you're a Harmony One candidate. If not, tether your remotes to your coffee table and consider yourself lucky. That's what I'm going to do: my apartment's ineptitude to gadgets quotient is only 125.