Logitech Harmony Ultimate Remote Control

[In 2011 we reviewed the Logitech Harmony 700, which is no longer available. -- Mark]

In the course of my work I need to test a lot of TV-connected devices for review and evaluation. Two game consoles, two DVRs, and a handful of media streaming devices can become a nightmare to control for myself, much less guests.

To reduce the confusion I’ve always used a universal remote but they’ve always had major drawbacks. Some don’t control everything. Some had to be held steadily pointed towards the devices for minutes to work properly. And of course programming some universal remotes is at best an exercise in tedium.

The best I’ve found so far is the Logitech Harmony Ultimate. It’s not perfect but it has reduced many frustrating problems to mere annoyances and eliminated some altogether.

First the programming is easier on Harmony remotes than almost any other brand. It’s not perfect but easier. You plug the remote into your computer and install some software. Then you tell the software what devices you have. This may take some crawling around on your knees by your TV to read exact model numbers. Also sometimes the model just isn’t there and you just have to pick a close one and hope. Most of the time though everything is there and works. I wish the interface on the software was better designed but it gets the job done.

Once you have all your devices, you set up activities. If you want to Watch TV for instance, you set up an activity that turns on the TV, puts it on the right HDMI input, and turns on the DVR. Same for Watch Apple TV or Play Xbox or any other activity you want to do. Soon it will even add home automation tasks like dimming lights. It handles both infrared and RF controlled devices by the way. So the devices don’t need to be in plain view.

Once you have the remote programmed life becomes much easier. The Ultimate works with a hub that you set up with your WiFi network. The hub takes care of sending commands to your TV. You put the hub by your TV and devices (with an extender if you have a couple shelves) and then you don’t need to point the remote at the devices. In fact you don’t even need to be in the same room. I make use of this when watching DirecTV over Slingbox on Roku in the bedroom.

When all works well, which is most of the time, the thing is a dream. You press a button on the touch screen for the right activity and the remote takes care of the rest. The downside is occasionally something gets out of whack and the wrong input gets selected or a command doesn’t go through. In those cases the remote tries to guess what’s wrong but it’s a very poor guesser. There’s a HELP button that walks you through troubleshooting that can usually fix any issue. I usually just go to the remote’s device menu and take control of the devices myself to put them back in the right state.

If you only have a couple devices, the Harmony Ultimate is probably overkill. But if you have 7 devices hooked up plus a TiVo going through your Xbox One, then this could be a big frustration reducer.

-- Tom Merritt  

Logitech Harmony Ultimate

Available from Amazon

Manfrotto Table Top Tripod

I travel a lot for my work, and every time I leave, my young daughter says “take pictures!”. I was a serious photographer for a number of years, so the thought of putting my name to substandard cell phone photos brought out the photo-snob in me. I just couldn’t do it.

No more. With my iPhone 5s and this tripod (along with the Glif from Studio Neat), stunning pictures are possible any time of day or night. The tripod is sturdy, with a removable ball head and a standard size tripod screw mount. The kit comes with an extendable riser and a quality leather case. If you are tight on space or budget, the tripod alone (Model 209) can be had for about a third of the price. The quality on this item is what you would expect from this venerable German name.

-- Chris Mullins  

Manfrotto Table Top Tripod Kit 209

Available from Amazon

Timbuk2 Bifold Wallet

Timbuk2 has had this wallet in their line in some variation for eight years and I bought one from the very first season. Timbuk2 is a name synonymous with bicycle messenger bags and their use of Ballistic Nylon materials. The first batch of Bifold Wallet colors were heavy on the pastels, but I chose the manliest version and stuffed it in my back pocket. In hot climates, leather wallets rot. They add bulk, pick up grit and “character,” and generally are expensive for something designed to hold money. What I really like about this wallet, is that it’s made of modern, manly materials, is more durable, and cheap. Thankfully Timbuk2 in revisions of this wallet has used a less girly color palette.

My original, and the one I bought to replace it last year, both have a divided bill pocket. I’m not sure if the newest version has this feature, but I like keeping money in one slot and receipts in the other. The wallet is slim on pockets with only an ID sleeve and three additional pockets. I’ve stuffed up to four credit cards in each slot plus 10 business cards in half the bill compartment sharing space with various receipts. I definitely prefer carrying less, but the wallet can carry a bunch if you’re willing to do without the compartmentalization of a larger wallet. My original wallet had a grippy edge to the wallet and interior. I’m glad that’s omitted on my second wallet and the new design. It showed a lot of wear after 6 years while the rest of the wallet was fine. There is an elastic band that can keep the wallet closed, but most days I keep it folded over the backside. Eventually on my original wallet the band lost its stretch and I cut it off. The wallet looks and functions great without it.

I love that if I’m caught in the rain, sit on a wet chair, or drop my wallet in salty road slush I’m not worried about ruining it. The materially is quite water resistant and even when completely drenched, it won’t absorb and hold water. I’ve even tossed mine in the washing machine (on purpose without its contents). I’m happy to have a synthetic wallet that doesn’t have velcro and looks as good as a traditional leather wallet. If you’re not a bifold sort of person, Timbuk2 makes a few other styles some of which I’ve tried, but it is the bifold that lives on my hip everyday.

-- Jon Stackpole  

Timbuk2 Bifold Wallet
$20 – $40

Available from Amazon

OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Measuring Cup Set

The sheer number of OXO products available and the variety of price points they are built to makes it inevitable that some of them will be duds. Indeed, over time it has become clear that the presence of the brand on an item does not necessarily guarantee good design or build quality. That said, I have found their Good Grips steel measuring cups to be a great success in both regards. After more than a year of daily use, I still can’t think of anything that would improve them.

Like most sets, a ring is included to keep them together when nested. Traditionally, the ring is troublesome because removing a cup also requires the removal of cups that come before it. This problem has been solved by opening the handles’ holes on one side, allowing you to pull a cup off of the ring via the opening and then simply clip it back in place. Additionally, the rubber on the handle is set back a good bit from the cup, allowing for easy leveling with a knife.

The build quality is excellent. The cup and handle are fashioned from a single piece of surprisingly thick steel, eliminating the weakness of a weld point. Each cup’s measurement value is permanently inlaid into the rubber handle, such that no amount of scrubbing will take it off.

A similar plastic set is also produced under the Good Grips moniker. It features the same open-holed handles and inlaid measurement values and is slightly cheaper than the steel set, but it takes up more room by including unnecessary ⅔ and ¾ cups.

Regardless of whether you opt for steel or plastic, these cups will probably be the last set you ever buy.

-- Cody Raspen  

Oxo Good Grips Measuring Cup Set, Stainless Steel, 4-Pc

Available from Amazon

Mophie Space Pack

Lately I’ve been buying card magic instructional DVDs (I recommend the Royal Road To Card Magic by R. Paul Wilson 5-DVD Boxed Set in conjunction with the classic book of the same name). I wanted to watch these DVDs on my iPhone while on a plane, so I used Handbrake, a free open source video transcoder, to rip the DVDs into MP4 files.

But the standard way to get movies on an iPhone is to use iTunes. I don’t like using iTunes as much as I used to. It’s become a bloated, confusing catch-all. Apple needs to reboot iTunes.

The Mophie Space pack lets me avoid using iTunes. It’s a protective case for the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s that contains a 1700mAh battery and 16GB of built-in storage. That’s enough for about 7 hours of video.

Transferring video files couldn’t be simpler. The storage shows up as a hard drive on your computers desktop when you connect your phone. It’s a simple matter to drag MP4 files (or any other kind of file) into the drive. Then, I can watch the movies using the Mophie Space app on my phone (it has its own player). The battery doubles the energy capacity of the phone, too, which means I can watch videos on a long flight and still have juice to summon Uber when I my plane lands.

The Mophie Space Pack also comes in handy when I’m on my computer and I come across an MP3 of a podcast or interview I want to listen to later. I just drag the file into the storage icon and it will be on my phone when I’m ready to listen.


-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Mophie Space Pack for Apple iPhone 5/5S – Retail Packaging

Available from Amazon


WATCH: Kevin Kelly at XOXO conference

In October Kevin Kelly spoke at XOXO about making things, experimenting, traveling, and discovering and using cool tools.
Kevin is wearing the pink turban.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  


Sword and Laser Host, Veronica Belmont [Cool Tools Show #14]

Subscribe to the Cool Tools Podcast on iTunes | RSS | Transcript | Download MP3 | See all the Cool Tools Show posts on a single page

mg_72298This week Veronica Belmont stops by to share some of the tools that make her life as a professional podcaster for the show Sword & Laser a little easier. Veronica’s creative, beautifully made picks are highly recommended for anyone looking to break into the audio/visual or social media arenas.

Veronica’s Podcast, Sword & Laser

Veronica’s Twitter

Veronica’s Ello 


Show Notes:


“It’s a crowd-funding service not too much unlike Kickstarter, except on Patreon people pay per episode or per week or per month and they can chip in as little or as much as they want. So, you can chip in a dollar per episode or per month and you can also put a cap on the amount that you chip in each month.”


Every time zone

“I do a lot of meetings with people across the country, a lot of phone calls, a lot of planning for shoots and podcasts and things like that, and I can never keep timezones straight. This site makes it really easy. It has a physical slider at the top that you can drag back and forth and it’ll give you automatically a list of all the times and all the different time zones in order.”



“Levelator is probably the single most important little app for anyone who does podcasting or any kind of audio editing, really. They’re on their second iteration now. It’s a free tool for Windows, OS X, and Linux and it just works amazingly well. All you have to do is drag in your WAV file or AIFF file and it  basically evens all the audio out.”


“You can do trimmings from succulents or other plants and then you stick them into the Root Cup and fill the cup with water and then it grows roots! It’s that simple, but I just love the design and I love how easy it is… They come in a few different sizes and colors and I just think they’re cute and creative and they look good as potters as well, just having as planters around the house.”


“It’s pretty neat. It’s a social network that was created by designers and you can kind of see that in the design. It’s really clean and nicely done. They had a pretty big ground swell of people signing up all at once when it hit the Twitters people started sharing it and sending out invites. It’s always hard because new social networks pop up all the time and I always try to figure out what their use case is for me. You want to be able to put the right content in the right places and reach certain audiences in a certain way. I haven’t quite figured out what I want Ello to be for me yet.”


Alltrade Auto-Loading Squeeze Utility Knife

This is by far the best Utility Knife (box cutter) I know of. I have been using them for 12+ years.

1) They “fit your hand” very well – almost like custom made.
2) The blade comes out easily – just press the black leaver underneath.
3) The blade retracts easily and safely – black button
4) There is a storage area for new blades – behind the word Alltrade
5) The blades exchange easily and safely – yellow button. Simply press the yellow button and pull the used blade out. The new blade automatically loads when the device retracts.

Due to their sturdy construction, I can do “heavy duty” jobs without the device slipping.

-- Ed Flowers  

Alltrade 150003 Auto-Loading Squeeze Utility Knife

Available from Amazon

Areaware Bottle Opener

This bottle opener takes a relatively mundane task and turns it into a pleasurable aesthetic experience. The beauty of this opener is in its design simplicity. It is made of a piece of wood, a bent nail and two magnets. That’s it. The leverage from the nail opens beer bottles easily, one magnet catches the bottle cap and the other magnet makes it easy to mount on a fridge or other metal surface.

I have owned one for over a year and it is always my go-to bottle opener above any of my skeleton key style bottle openers. The handle is comfortable and, while the magnetic cap catching capability might seem superfluous at first, I am always grateful for it once I’m a few bottles into the evening. The mounting magnet keeps the handle open from the perspective of the plane of the surface to which it is mounted making it easy to grab in a time of need.

I was originally gifted this tool and have gifted it myself on several occasions. All recipients have reported back with delight at this opener’s simple beauty and practical usefulness.

Of course, there are much less costly alternatives (including your teeth, the edge of a hard surface or the lighter trick) to opening bottles and the size of the handle does not make this tool something you want to carry around in your pocket all of the time, but that isn’t it’s point. This opener combines a sophisticated design sensibility with functional effectiveness that elevates the status of an every day utility to a cool tool.

-- Eoin Russell  

Areaware Bottle Opener in Walnut

Available from Amazon

Prove Us Wrong: Utili-Key

In 2003 we recommended the Utili-Key as a great pocket tool that you can “pass through airport security checks unnoticed.”

Last week I gave an electronics workshop in Tulas to a group of about 50 heads of private schools, and discovered that the kits did not include wire strippers as expected. One of the workshop participants pulled out his Utili-Key and went to work cutting and stripping jumper wires for the group. This little tool saved the day (or at least prevented a chip tooth or two). I ended up ordering one for myself.

Here’s our question: Have you come across an even better tool in the same category? if you have, tell us about it. If we run your review, we’ll pay you $25 and give you our eternal gratitude.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Swiss+Tech ST66676 Utili-Key 6-in-1 Key Ring Multi-Function Tool

Available from Amazon