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Logitech intros $250 Harmony Touch

In a technology landscape filled with flat smartphones and tablets, universal remotes are one of the last types of gadget decked out with a full suite of old-fashioned hard buttons. Or at least they were.

The new Logitech Harmony Touch remote aims to bridge the gap between old-fashioned clickers brimming with buttons and the new wave of buttonless tablets and smartphones — or, at least, split the difference between the two. The accessory maker’s newest high-end remote sports a 2.4-inch color touch screen flanked by fewer buttons than found on most previous Harmony remotes (but far more than you’ll find on a tablet or phone). The $250 remote features the same Web-based programming and activity-based controls (such as “Watch TV”) that have made Harmony remotes so popular, but the focus is clearly on the touch screen, which takes up about a third of the length of the remote.

The touch screen can be used to select activities and devices, and to access functions that don’t have a dedicated button on the remote. You can also program the screen to respond to customized gestures, such as simply swiping up or down to control volume.

The most useful function of the touch screen may be the ability to directly select channels via icons, rather than having to sift through your DVR’s onscreen guide. Clicking the Favorites star on the remote brings up your list of favorite channels (up to 50) and you can add, edit, and reorder your favorites right on the remote.

The ability to make tweaks to the Harmony Touch’s setup without using a computer is a feature exclusive to the Touch. While that may seem like a minor feature, making minor changes on current Harmony remotes is a tedious process, especially with the sluggish MyHarmony site. You can edit activities, change button mapping, and change “delay” speeds, although certain tasks, such as adding a new device, still require syncing with a computer.

The Harmony Touch also features a built-in rechargeable battery, along with a charging cradle. A Logitech representative quoted an approximately weeklong battery life for light TV watchers, but closer to two or three days for heavy TV watchers. The relatively brief battery life is likely due to the power-hungry touch screen; for comparison, my Harmony 600 seems to go around six months on standard AA rechargeable batteries.

Early hands-on impressions
I’ve had limited hands-on time with the Harmony Touch yet, but I’m not in love with it out of the box. Heavily used video transport buttons (Play, Pause, Fast Forward) have been moved from their centralized position to the very top of the remote, not to mention the fact that 30-second skip and “jumpback” buttons are nowhere to be found. While it’s possible to program those functions into the touch screen, you’ll lose some of the ability to navigate by feel, without looking at the remote.

And in general, the benefits of the touch screen don’t immediately seem worth the extra cost, loss of ergonomics, and limited battery life compared with previous Harmony remotes. Also, $250 seems like an awful lot for a universal remote, especially with full-fledged tablets like theNexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD coming in at $200. However, Harmony remotes often prove their worth the more you live with them, so I’ll need more time with the Touch before rendering a verdict.

Other Harmony details
The Touch, it appears, will now be the centerpiece of a stripped-down Harmony line. The excellent Harmony 650 (a great deal at just $55) becomes the new “entry-level” model, while the RF-capable Harmony 900 and Harmony 1100 remain step-up options. Logitech indicated that there are currently no plans to offer an RF version of the Harmony Touch (though that could always change in the future), and the Touch won’t work with the existing RF accessories that Logitech sells.

One bit of good news that now applies to all current and future Harmony remote owners: your MyHarmony account can now support multiple remotes, as well as import settings from an existing Harmony remote. No more “One e-mail address per remote.”

The Logitech Harmony Touch will be available and ready to ship from Logitech.com today, and hitting store shelves over the next few weeks.
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