Universal remotes have come a long way… and I’ve been along for the ride for pretty much the entire journey. I owned an old-skool “All In One” remote that controlled my cable box, VCR, and TV. I owned a variety of Phillips Pronto and Marantz RC5000 controllers, which required me to design the interface and write the macros manually. I’ve also owned a number of different Logitech Harmony remotes over the years (usually ones I’ve picked up at Costco). But last week, I got my hands on the latest “smart” universal remote from Logitech: the Harmony Ultimate. Yes, that’s a rather presumptuous name — so let’s see if it can live up to it.
What Comes In the Box
With an MSRP of $349.99 (which is still close to what you’ll pay by buying it at Amazon), the Harmony Ultimate is one of the more spendy options on the market. The Darth Vader-esque packaging is nicer than I’ve seen from Logitech in a while, and looks like they took a page out of Apple’s playbook. All the pieces are nicely “on display” when opening the box:
The Harmony Ultimate components include the following:
- Handheld touch-screen remote
- Harmony Hub (the oval piece that looks like a warped hockey puck)
- Charging base
- Two IR mini-emitters
- USB connecting cable
- Power adapters for charging base and Harmony Hub
Benefits of IR + RF
Both the handheld touch-screen remote and the hub can transmit IR (infrared) signals to control your devices, but the handheld remote also sends RF (radio frequency) signals to the hub — which the hub then turns into IR signals and transmits. The remote cannot, however, control other RF-enabled devices (like a DirecTV DVR). Its RF capabilities are strictly limited to communicating with the hub, which tells the hub to blast out the IR signals that correspond to the buttons you pressed on the remote. Unlike IR signals, RF can travel through walls and doors, which allows you to store your AV equipment inside a cabinet, closet, or even in another room (up to 30 feet away), where the IR signals from a handheld remote otherwise couldn’t reach. You can even configure the Harmony Ultimate so it controls some devices by transmitting IR directly from the hand-held remote, and others via the hub. This worked great when I tested the Ultimate in our master bedroom, where the TV is mounted on the wall and the rest of the AV equipment is stashed out of sight in our walk-in closet. I told the Ultimate to control the TV via IR, and to send RF signals for everything else to the hub. I then plugged in the hub in the closet where it could “see” our receiver, Blu-ray player, Apple TV, and DVR. The hub came with two additional IR mini-emitters, which plug into 2.5mm jacks in the rear of the hub and be routed to “see” otherwise difficult to access AV equipment. However, the IR blasting capabilities of the hub alone were such that I didn’t even need to take the mini-emitters out of the box. The hub had no problem sending strong enough IR signals to control all my equipment, simply by placing the hub in front of the equipment stack.
Not only does the Harmony Hub “listen” for RF signals from the handheld remote which it “translates” into IR signals to control your equipment, but the hub also contains a wireless network antenna, meaning it can connect to your home’s WiFi network. This means that in addition to the handheld touch-screen remote that came in the box, any iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) or Android device in the house can become another handheld touch-screen remote. No more need to fight over the remote. Now everyone can have their own remote, and just fight over what appears on the screen (and/or the volume).
Programming the Harmony Ultimate
As they’ve done with some of their other recent universal remotes, Logitech uses their MyHarmony.com website to program the Ultimate. First, you need to plug the Harmony Hub into a power outlet that’s within 30 feet of where you’re configuring the remote (don’t worry – you can move it later after you’re done setting it up) and also within range of your WiFi network. Next, you plug the handheld remote into your computer via the provided USB cable and launch the website from a compatible browser (it didn’t seem to like Chrome, but got along fine with Firefox and IE), create or sign in to an existing account, and then follow the step-by-step instructions to configure your remote and set up your hub to connect to your WiFi network. I saw an option for “importing” functions if you happened to have an older Harmony remote from which you were upgrading, but I went ahead with a fresh setup. As long as you know your home’s WiFi password, and the exact model numbers of your devices (go look on, behind, or under your devices and write them all down), and exactly how each of your devices is connected to each other (i.e. your Blu-ray player is connected to the “DVD” input on your receiver, your DVR is connected to the “SAT” input on your receiver, and your receiver is connected to the “HDMI 1” input on your TV) then the “standard” setup of the Ultimate is pretty straightforward, and should take less than 15 minutes. It becomes more time intensive when you start tweaking things, such as adding custom icons, deciding which channels you want to configure as your “favorites” (you can select up to 50), or nit-picking over the order in which you want your devices to turn on and off (ok, yes… I got that picky).
The first time MyHarmony.com synced with my remote, it also updated the firmware. However, the sync didn’t go without issues. The software kept telling me it couldn’t communicate with my WiFi network (which was working fine), and it kept asking me to unplug the hub, plug it back in, wait 30 seconds, and try again. After that didn’t work, I discovered a small grey text link on the screen that read “Remote and hub troubleshooting,” which prompted me to unplug the handheld remove from the USB cable, plug the hub into that cable, and reset it. After that, the sync worked. On subsequent syncs (after making some tweaks), I’d get the same sync error, but merely hitting “Try Again” got it to work. I’d say there’s some room for improvement on the sync.
Devices vs. Activities
Like its other Harmony predecessors, the Harmony Ultimate’s user interface is designed around a distinction between Devices and Activities. When programming the remote, you start by telling it what devices you have. Once all your devices are known, you decide what types of activities you want to do with your device, such as “Watch TV,” or “Watch a Movie,” or “Watch Netflix,” or “Listen to Pandora,” or “Listen to the Radio,” etc. Those activities are actually just a set of macros that turn on the appropriate devices, switch to the appropriate inputs, display the appropriate interface on the touchscreen, and set the buttons on the remote to control the appropriate functions. In my setup, the “Watch TV” activity does the following:
- Sends the “turn on” signal to my Vizio TV, Sony Receiver, and DirecTV DVR,
- Sets the input on the TV to “HDMI 1,”
- Sets the source on the Receiver to “SAT,”
- Makes all the buttons on the remote control the DVR, with the exception of the volume and mute buttons (which I have set to always control the volume on the receiver).
Using the Harmony Ultimate Remote
Once everything was programmed and positioned, I took my new remote for a test drive. A built-in tilt sensor knows when I’ve picked the remote up, and turns on the backlit buttons and the touchscreen. Very nice. The hard button presses feel like they should (and like I’ve come to expect from Logitech). The touch screen also works like it should; scrolling is easy, the interface is easy to read and navigate, and the haptic feedback (a short vibration when you touch something on-screen) was surprisingly welcome to me. It has four vibration settings, and I opted for the shortest “buzz” available.
As explained above, the Harmony Ultimate’s interface begins by asking you to select an activity. By selecting “Watch TV” from the touch screen, it began firing off all the necessary signals to turn on all the devices required for that activity, set all the right inputs, and set all the buttons to operate the appropriate functions for my DVR. The first time an activity macro runs, the remote asks if everything worked like it should. If you press “Yes,” the screen disappears and you’re left with the regular interface. If you say “No,” a Help Wizard appears (no, not a helpful dude in a wizard hat) and asks you a series of Yes/No questions to help resolve the issue, such as “Is the TV on?” or “Is the Receiver set to the right input?” If you answer “yes,” it moves on to the next question. If you answer “no,” it sends the IR signal it things will solve the problem (like turning on the TV, or setting the right input), and then asks “Did that solve the problem?” If you say “yes,” the wizard closes. If you say “no,” it keeps going through the checklist until you get things working. You can manually launch the Help Wizard any time from the remote, or you can select a “Fix it myself” option that quickly displays all the power and input toggles needed for the activity. For the hard core geeks (like me), that’s a very welcome feature. But for the less geeky, the Help Wizard will be all you need to get things working if something doesn’t go as expected.
The new gestures feature on the touch screen was a fast favorite among everyone in the house. Anyone who has swiped a smart phone screen will immediately know how to use it. Gestures are completely customizable, but the default ones are probably what most will want. Tap the screen once for Pause, then tap it again for play. Swipe up to turn the volume up, and down to bring it down. Swipe right to skip forward and left to skip backwards (I changed these to simply fast forward and rewind). It even distinguishes between single finger and double finger gestures, though I found it easiest just to rely on the single gestures.
I do, however, question the button layout of the Harmony Ultimate a little bit. At the very top is the “Off” button, which makes sense. Next come the “shuttle” commands (Rewind, Play, Pause, Fast Forward, Record, and Stop). I found this strange, and think I’d prefer them farther down the remote, below the touch screen. The “Favorites” (the star icon) and “Home” (the house icon) buttons would have also been better off above the shuttle commands, closer to the top. I’m sure the remote’s overall layout driven primarily by the touchscreen, ensuring that it’s directly below where the user’s thumb normally hovers when holding the remote. However, on more than one occasion, when going for the Fast Forward button to skip through a commercial, the palm-side of my thumb would touch the screen, which would be interpreted as a touchscreen gesture, and it would change the channel (if I’d accidentally hit a Favorites icon), or pause the playback, or do something other than what I was going for. Maybe I’ll just have to get through the learning curve on how to hit that Fast Forward, but again — I think all my layout concerns would have been solved by moving those shuttle buttons below the screen.
The true test of any universal remote, however, is “Does it pass the wife test?” I purposely handed the remote to my wife with as few instructions as possible and said “Here, babe. Try it out.” With the exception of telling her to make sure to point the remote directly at the TV when turning it on or off, I gave her no other instructions. She scrolled through the available activities, chose the one she wanted, pressed it, and it worked. “Cool,” she said, and then handed it back to me. Sigh. I was hoping for something a bit more enthusiastic for a $350 piece of tech that I’d spent the better part of the afternoon setting up and tweaking, but I’ll take what I can get. I suppose the real wife test is how often she calls me to say “The remote’s not working….” and so far, that hasn’t happened yet. Well played, Logitech.
A Remote in Every Hand
As mentioned briefly above, with the Harmony Hub connected to your WiFi network, any smart phone on that same network can act as an additional remote. This works great if all your devices rely on the hub to transmit the IR, but in a setup like we have in our bedroom (where the TV is controlled via IR from the remote, and the rest of the equipment is controlled by the hub in another room), it does come with the limitation of not being able to control the TV. It’s still a cool feature, however, and I found it most useful when I moved the Ultimate downstairs to the living room. Our kitchen connects to our living room, and it was really handy for my wife to fire up the iPhone ap
p to turn up the volume a bit when she started cooking dinner, rather than walk into the living room to find the remote. And instead of yelling “TURN DOWN THE TV!” down the stairs to our teenage son, I can just grab my phone and turn it down myself. If he responds by turning it back up, I can mute it to send a slightly stronger (if somewhat passive aggressive) message, or just shut the whole darn thing off. 🙂
The smart phone gestures interface is exactly like the touchscreen on the remote, but the smart phone screen replacements for the remote’s hard buttons take a bit of getting used to. You will get used to them eventually, but you’ll hit a few wrong buttons first.
Stuff That Still Needs Fixing
The Harmony Ultimate is undoubtedly Logitech’s most advanced remote to date, but it’s not perfect. As previously mentioned, I would have liked to see a slightly different button layout, due to my inadvertent touches to the screen being misinterpreted as intended gestures. A dog jumping on the couch and touching the screen has the same result (mine paused the DVR with a paw gesture), but I suppose that’s no different than a traditional remote (he’s done that, too).
As mentioned above, I did experience some setup and sync issues, but with only one exception, they were resolved by power cycling the Harmony Hub and/or just pressing “Try Again” on the screen.
The Ultimate comes with a few other annoyances, but none that I believe a future firmware update wouldn’t fix (I hope you’re listening, Logitech!). The first minor issue is that the remote sometimes doesn’t save your custom background choice, and it reverts to the blue default after a re-sync. Going back and re-configuring it isn’t hard, but it’s still a bug. I also wish that the custom icons you can set on the remote (which is a great feature) could be displayed on the smart phone interface. Instead, you get the default white “Watch TV” or “Watch a Movie” icons, which can be confusing to some users who identify the activity by the icon on the remote.
Another small (pun intended) problem is that the Harmony Hub uses 2.5mm (3/32″) jacks to connect to its remote IR emitters, while most wired IR interfaces use the slightly larger 3.5mm (1/8″) jacks. So for those looking to integrate their hub with a third-party IR distribution system (like the Xantech I use in my home theater), or connect the hub directly to a piece of equipment that includes an IR “in” port (like all my receivers and my projector), you’ll need to buy a 2.5mm male to 3.5mm female mono adapter (Radio Shack part #274-327). Here’s where the remote IR transmitters connect on the rear of the hub:
But the biggest problem with the Harmony Ultimate didn’t appear until I realized that I liked it so much that I ran out and bought two more of them (so now I have them in the master bedroom, family room, and home theater). With multiple Ultimates (try saying that five times fast), there’s no way to give your remote a unique name, so when you log in to MyHarmony.com, you can’t tell which remote is which:
At least on MyHarmony.com, I can take a good guess at which remote is which, based on the number of devices and activities I have set up. However, the inability to rename remotes becomes an even worse problem when using the smart phone app, where there’s nothing to help me guess:
I fully expect these issues will eventually be addressed with a firmware update, and I’ll revise this review if/when that happens.
UPDATE: The firmware update did indeed happen, literally the day after I made this blog post. 🙂 The upgrade doesn’t allow you to rename your remote in the MyHarmony interface, but it does allow you to rename your Hub, which is good enough… since the website screen now looks like this:
The naming issue is also fixed by the August 27, 2013 firware update so that the iOS app shows the appropriately named Hubs, and I now know exactly which one I’m getting before I click.
But is it worth $350?
Obviously, if I’ve bought three of them, I like the Logitech Harmony Ultimate. It’s a major step up from any of the older Harmony remotes I’ve used in the past. But my last gripe about the Ultimate isn’t one that can be fixed with firmware. It’s the price. At $350 it’s more expensive than buying three decent Blu-ray players. I’m sure the price will come down eventually, but early adopters just have to bite the bullet if they want the “latest and greatest.”
Although, I think I’ve found a way that you can almost recreate the functionality of the Harmony Ultimate for almost $40 less. The handheld remote that comes in the Ultimate package is almost identical to the Logitech Harmony Touch, which has a retail price of $249.99 (but can be bought on Amazon for $214.17). Add the $99 Harmony Ultimate Hub (I couldn’t find them on Amazon yet, but they are on Logitech’s site with free shipping) and your total cost is $313.17 — which is about $37 less than the retail price of the Ultimate. The hub is identical, and the only differences between the Harmony Ultimate handheld remote and the Harmony Touch handheld remote are:
- The Touch has no tilt sensor or haptic feedback (you decide if that’s worth it),
- The Home and Favorites buttons above the touch screen aren’t backlit on the Touch (again, you decide if that’s worth the difference),
- The grip design on the underside of the remote is slightly different between the two (that’s not worth the difference),
- The Ultimate has darker paint on the underside of the remote (definitely not worth the difference),
- The labels are slightly different Channel buttons and FastForward/Skip/Rewine buttons (not a big deal).
Of course, you could save a lot more money by simply buying the hub alone and using your smart phone(s) as your only remote(s). Or, you could go for something in-between, with the Harmony Smart Control, which is only $129.99. It includes a Harmony Hub (so all your smart phones can still be remotes), plus remote that comes with all the same hard buttons as the Ultimate and Touch, but without the touch screen. Instead, it has three hard buttons that can be set as Activities. So if you still want the geek factor of the smart phone interface and WiFi-enabled Harmony Hub, without paying the “ultimate” price, then the Hub alone (or in one of these less expensive packages) may be the way to go. Logitech is also famous for their Outlet Store, which sometimes offers refurbished units (usually returns from retail outlets) at steep discounts. I didn’t see any current Harmony units in there yet, but it’s only a matter of time before they start showing up. Used ones on eBay are always an option, too.
Annoyances and early adopter pricing aside, I really like the Logitech Harmony Ultimate. The kids like the Harmony Ultimate. But most importantly, my wife likes the Harmony Ultimate. Logitech generally has a good reputation for firmware updates, and so I’m confident that the minor issues I’ve encountered so far will eventually be fixed. If you do have issues, I’ve found that their online support in their forums is superior to their phone support. That’s the best place to seek help.
So if you’re in the market for a new universal remote, and the $350 price tag doesn’t dissuade you, then the Logitech Harmony Ultimate truly does live up to its name. Although, it does make me wonder what they could possibly call its replacement. 🙂
As always, I welcome your comments, questions, and feedback below.