Back when Microsoft first shipped its Xbox 360 game console (see my review and activity center for more information), the company provided a basic remote control, dubbed the Media Remote, with the high-end Xbox 360 bundle. It also provides a slightly nicer Universal Media Remote as a separate add-on purchase. While both of these remotes are much nicer than the sad-looking DVD remote Microsoft shipped for the original Xbox, neither are particularly exciting. Then, earlier this month, Logitech began shipping a programmable Harmony remote specifically for Xbox 360. Does this remote finally give Xbox 360 users what they need to control the console's Media Center Extender and DVD playback experiences? Or are we still waiting for a total solution? Let's take a look.

Xbox 360 Media Remote

Microsoft's Xbox 360 Media Remote (Figure) redefines the term "bare bones." Available for a limited time only with the $400 Xbox 360 bundle (that is, the high-end premium Xbox 360 version, not the Core System), the Media Remote is better than nothing, but not much, though it's better than the standard Xbox 360 controller for digital media tasks.

The Media Remote is white, stubby, and limited. It features buttons for powering the Xbox 360 on and off, accessing the Xbox 360 Guide, and opening and closing the DVD drive at the top. Below that are playback control buttons, arranged in a circle around a large Play button. Then, there are buttons for specific functions (Display, Title, Back, DVD Menu, and [More] Info), a four-way control pad with an OK button, the standard four colored Xbox 360 controller buttons (Yellow/Guide/Y, Blue/X, Green/A, and Red/Live TV/B), a Media Center button, and a small Record (Rec) button.

Only a very few of these buttons are notable. If you press the Media Center button when the Xbox 360 is off, the console will start up and logon immediately to the Media Center Extender environment which, of course, requires a network-connected Media Center PC running XP Media Center Edition 2005 with Update Rollup 2 (see my review). That's handy, because it saves you from starting up the console, potentially exiting from any loaded game disc, and then navigating into the Xbox Dashboard's Media blade in order to find the Media Center link.

Incidentally, I'm focusing largely on Media Center here, but the Media Remote can also be used to control DVD movie playback as well. In that capacity, this remote works just fine.

What's most notable is what's missing. The Media Remote lacks an alphanumeric keypad, which is crucial for using Media Center, especially if you ever need to search for a TV show to watch or record. That missing feature makes this remote almost completely useless. But there are other missing features, too, most of which are found on standard Media Center remotes. For example, there are no dedicated buttons for Recorded TV, My TV, My Music, My Pictures, or My Videos, all of which I use regularly with my Media Center. Most glaringly, there is no volume control or Channel/Page Up/Down control either. That's astonishing.

That said, even the lowly Media Remote is better than a normal Xbox 360 controller. First, you get that handy Media Center button. But you also get dedicated playback controls and functional buttons. Again, it's not much, but it's better than nothing.

Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote

The Microsoft Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote (UMR, $29.99) is a decent step up from the weak Media Remote and a decent purchase if you're going to be using Xbox 360's digital media features regularly (Figure). What's sort of funny is how the UMR is an obvious superset of the Media Remote: The top 60 percent or so of the remote is identical to the Media Remote (Figure). Below that, the UMR adds buttons for Volume Up/Down, a dedicated TV button (for accessing My TV), Mute, Channel/Page Up/Down, and a complete alphanumeric keypad with dedicated Enter, Clear, and Return buttons.

The UMR also lights up in a pleasant green glow whenever you touch one of its buttons (Figure), which is nice when you're watching movies or TV shows in a darkened room. Because of this feature, the buttons on the UMR are kind of a translucent white color rather than the opaque and bold white you see on the Media Remote. And because the UMR is longer than the stubby Media Remote, it also fits more nicely in the hand, and though the layout of the buttons is inexplicably different from typical Media Center remote controls, I found it easy to adapt to the layout.

Overall, the UMR is a decent if not perfect remote. Like the Media Remote, it's missing dedicated buttons for Media Center environments like My TV, Recorded TV, and so on, and the bottom row of the alphanumeric keypad is too close to the bottom of the remote, making it difficult to hit those buttons when using the remote with a single hand.

Harmony Advanced Universal Remote for Xbox 360

Logitech's recently released Harmony Advanced Universal Remote for Xbox 360 ($129.99) should be the clear winner of this roundup if you can get by the extravagant price (Figure). It's a gorgeous unit, with a high-quality design that feels almost sensually good in the hand; the material on the back of the device is pleasingly grippy. The Harmony features screams quality throughout, from the tactile feedback of the button presses to its programmability functions, which let the remote control other facets of your home theater experience, such as your stereo system and television.

The layout of the Harmony, however, is geared more toward generic media experiences than it is for the Xbox 360's specific functions. At the top is a power button and an Activities button, the latter of which lets you access combinations of functions with names like "Play Xbox 360" and "Watch a DVD." Below that are Devices and Help buttons, an interactive green-screen display with six dedicated buttons, a horribly-configured couple of rows of playback buttons (Stop, Back, Forward, Play, Record, Rewind, Fast Forward, and Pause, all lined up in a seemingly random order), the standard four colored Xbox 360 controller buttons (Yellow/Guide/Y, Blue/X, Green/A, and Red/Live TV/B), Exit and Menu, and Back and Info.

Below that, in the lower half of the remote is a four-way control pad and OK button surrounded by Volume Up, Volume Down, Glow, Channel Down, and Channel Up buttons, in a U-shaped semi-circle. (The Glow button toggles the remote's green backlight, which is nice.) Then, you get Mute and Prev buttons, a complete alphanumeric keypad, and tiny dedicated buttons for Clear, Display, Title, and Enter.

If it's not obvious, the layout of the Harmony remote is utterly horrible. It's unclear why the playback controls are arranged in two illogical rows as they are, and like the other remotes here, the Harmony is missing dedicated buttons for My TV, Recorded TV, and other Media Center activities.

So why would someone spend so much money on this remote, or about $100 more than the UMR? In addition to its superior build quality and amazing looks, the Harmony is a programmable, learning, universal remote. Using bundled PC (and Mac) software and USB cable, you actually configure the Harmony from your computer, inputting the names and model numbers of the other devices you'd like to control. The idea is fantastic, and while I understand that Harmony remotes are well-loved by certain people, I found this process confusing, difficult, and ultimately unsatisfying.

Here's how it's supposed to work. After installing the Harmony software and connecting the remote to your software, you step through a wizard and configure your devices as noted above. But you also configure something called Activities. For example, "Play Xbox 360" is a typical Activity. To begin such an Activity, you'd press the Activities button at the top of the Harmony remote. Then, a list of the available Activities would appear on the Harmony's screen. When you select the corresponding button, a number of things should happen simultaneously. In the case of "Play Xbox 360," the Harmony should turn on your Xbox 360 console and launch the game title in the unit's DVD drive, turn on your TV and switch it to the correct input, and optionally turn on other necessary devices, like your stereo, also ensuring that they're set to the right inputs.

That's nice. But depending on the devices you own, you might discover that the Harmony either doesn't work at all or only supports some of the devices' functionality. In my case, my 52-inch HDTV display refused to work with the Harmony, even though it is supposedly supported. No matter: The remote's crazy layout and lack of Media Center buttons quickly caused me to give up on it.

I thought I'd be into this kind of remote, but once the initial excitement over its industrial design wore off, its many problems surfaced quickly. Compared to the Media Remote and UMR, the Harmony remote is gorgeous looking and is the most solid feeling. But I just can't recommend spending this much money on a remote that so completely disregards Xbox 360-specific functionality and eschews good playback control layout.

Conclusions

None of these remotes are ideal, frankly, or as good as a standard Media Center remote control, which is too bad. The Microsoft remotes--the Media Remote and Universal Media Remote--are both lacking dedicated buttons for Recorded TV, My Music, and other often-visited Media Center environments. Meanwhile, Logitech's Harmony remote is far too expensive and complicated for the average consumer. For now, at least, Xbox 360 users will have to keep waiting for the ultimate Media Center and digital media experience. That said, I typically use the Universal Media Remote because of its simple layout and handy alphanumeric keypad. It's not perfect, but it gets the job done.