Resurrecting a classic: The Logitech Harmony 880

So as I’ve mentioned before, my local Goodwill is one of the places I like to search for good deals on tech stuff.  It’s kind of a fun treasure hunt, and occasionally it yields an amazing value. Recently I was browsing through their tech stuff, and buried in a pile of used remotes, I found this little gem:

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A Diamond in the Rough?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a Logitech Harmony 880 programmable remote control. Logitech has been on the top of the universal remote heap for a while now with their Harmony line, and the 880 was one of the higher end models in its day.  Admittedly, it’s day was quite a while ago. This particular model first came out over 11 years ago, and as we all know, 11 years in tech is like 100 years for anything else. This remote may have been top-of-the-line in the ancient history of 2005, but it’s long since been replaced by many, many successors.

So why bother with this dinosaur at all? Well, for starters I’ve always wanted to try a Harmony remote with my TV, bluray, NUC setup. And while it’s old, this was one of the more expensive remotes back then, controlling a bunch of devices, and allowing for customization and programmability.  And then there’s the whole idea of programming the remote through the computer, instead of standing in front of the TV, trying different codes.  Plus, it was only $3.  Why the heck not? Anyway, look at this poor fella; he needs me.

Taking a closer look, it was clear this remote had seen better days. The front, the buttons, and the screen were in surprisingly good shape. Very clean, no scratches. But the back battery cover was held on with tape because the tabs had been broken off.

Speaking of batteries…there wasn’t one.  No battery, no charger, no cradle, no USB cable. Someone with less tech fortitude would see this as a lost cause, not worth dropping any money on. But I decided to see what it would take to get this guy back into fightin’ shape.  I’m silly like that.

So I adopted my new best friend and brought him home with me. No way was he going to sit in that bin, cold and alone, for Christmas.

First Things First

I had no battery, so the remote was kind of useless to start. But I wanted to see if it even worked at all, so I found a matching USB cable in my garage and connected the 880 to my PC.  It fired right up and the screen reported my battery was “low”…something of an understatement. But other than that it seemed to work just fine.  I downloaded the Harmony software from Logitech’s website and it walked me through the basics like updating the remote firmware, adding my devices, and setting up “activities”. The software is pretty easy to use; not really a surprise, since Logitech has been doing this for a while and has had plenty of practice to work out the kinks.

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So the remote worked, but without a battery and charger it’s not much use to anyone.  I headed to Ebay for some spare parts.  I found I could get the battery and battery cover fairly cheap. A new battery would cost me $6 and a battery cover about the same (provided I was ok with a contrasting black one, instead of the original silver). That wasn’t too bad, but the charging dock was another story.

I learned very quickly there were two types of people selling the docks on Ebay. The first was clearly out to make as much money as possible, because they were selling the dock and the AC adapter for it separately.  Double your pleasure, right? Buying from one of these sellers would mean paying at least $25 for both needed pieces.

The other type of seller was trying to get rid of a bad dock by selling it “as-is” with a disclaimer that their remote wasn’t charging in it. A little research showed that this particular model of charging dock had an issue that often led to the remote not seating correctly. Back when it was under warranty, Logitech would replace it entirely. But there were clearly quite a few still out there.

Neither of these options was appealing to me. I wanted to get this remote working, but not by paying as much as a good new one would cost.So I decided to try a different approach. Instead of piecing together all the parts I would need, I searched for broken 880s.  And wouldn’t you know it, I found a “for parts” listing for the same model remote, complete with all accessories, for the rock-bottom price of $13. That would get me the battery cover, the battery, the dock, AND the AC adapter, and would bring my total investment to just $16 and some change. SOLD.

It only took a few days for my ebay stuff to arrive, and everything was exactly as described: one dead remote with all accessories.

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So I swapped out all the pieces, charged my remote overnight, and in the morning had myself one fully functional Harmony 880.

I was able to add all of my equipment to the remote through the software’s devices section. It’s pretty convenient; just enter the type, brand, and model of your device and Logitech finds it in their database and programs accordingly. If you put in something incomplete or incorrect, it suggests alternatives. It found my TV, blu-ray player, and NUC easily.

One of the great things about the Harmony remotes is that you can use the software to program “activities”. This lets you do multiple things with one button push. For example, one of the things I do regularly with my setup is watch over-the-air TV. For this I created an activity that turns on my TV and sets it to the TV input.  I created another activity for watching videos that turned on my TV and NUC and set the TV to the right input for streaming. Pretty nice.

Works Great! But…

I used the remote for a few days to get used to it.  Everything worked exactly as it was supposed to. The remote controlled all of my devices well, the range was good, and the activities made some things simpler. Plus it looks really cool.

Here’s the thing, though; as remotes go it wasn’t as convenient as I’d hoped. Sure the screen with the activities on it is nice, but it seemed like every time I grabbed the Harmony there was something extra I needed to do. To use it with the NUC I found I needed to select the right device, then use the buttons next to the screen instead of the “real” ones.  The remote kept telling me all my devices were off (when they were), which was fine, but then wanted me to confirm.

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This got annoying.

Some buttons didn’t work automatically with my admittedly older TV, so I had to go through the software and manually tell the remote how things worked. And it wasn’t as intuitive as I’d hoped.  There’s so much the remote can do, so many features crammed into it, that it felt like work to use it. I know that sounds nit-picky, but when it comes to a remote, what I want…and, more importantly, what my wife wants…is simplicity. Right now in our living room we have three remotes (four if you count the seldom-used DVD/VCR).  That’s a complicated mess for my wife to use. But going from that to the Harmony didn’t feel any simpler. It felt like it was always a work in progress, like there was always one more thing to be programmed or changed. And while the activities were great,  you can’t rename them. So if you set up an activity to Watch TV, it’s called “Watch TV”. Period. The available activities didn’t really match up with what I wanted (Netflix, Kodi, Movies, Pandora, etc.) and it would have been nice to be able to rename them. Not a big deal, but still.

Conclusions

I can’t really fault the Harmony 880 for not winning my love. It’s a product of another time. I’m sure when it came out, back before electricity and running water, it was the answer to more than a few prayers. But these days with so many remote options out there, it just feels too complicated and clunky.

After a couple weeks’ worth of rest and rehabilitation, this Harmony 880 is going to a new home as soon as I can get around to posting him on Ebay.

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Just look at how happy he is now.

I’ll probably come out a few dollars ahead, but that was never the point. It was fun bringing this classic remote back to life, if only to see how well it worked. Maybe I’ll finally decide to get a newer Harmony remote, benefiting from the last ten years of development. Or maybe I’ll finally get a TV with CEC support for the living room. Whatever I end up doing, for now I’m back to multiple remotes. Life’s rough, huh?

 

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