Logitech's line of Harmony remote controls have been the gold standard for convenience, power and ease of use for nearly a decade. But with newer, software-based remote control solutions now on the market for smartphones and tablets, and emerging techniques like voice control just getting started, how well does Harmony hold up? I took a look at the company's Harmony One to find out.
The Harmony is programmed by way of a PC/Mac application that connects your remote via the web to Logitech's massive database of remote control codes for thousands of brands and products. You enter the information on the products you have, and the database sends the codes back down to your remote via an included USB cable. Once it's programmed, the Harmony can control almost anything that works on infrared (IR) codes. The phrase "once it's programmed" will come up again shortly.
One feature that has always separated the Harmony remotes from the competition is their focus on controlling "activities" rather than devices. This technique groups the functions of several different devices at one time and lets them live simultaneously in the same button layout on the remote. In this way, the Harmony One doesn't become just a new remote control for your Sony TV or your Comcast cable box; it's a remote for "watching cable TV." The various buttons on the remote control different devices to create one "activity."
To watch the same activity with conventional remote controls, you need one remote to turn on the TV and then select the correct input. You use another to turn on your audio system to give you sound. You use another to turn on the cable or satellite receiver and change channels. If you want to change volume, you have to go back to the audio remote, and so on. Besides the clutter of multiple remotes, there's the confusion of using actually using them and remembering the right buttons. How many times have you picked up the wrong remote control while watching or listening to your home entertainment setup?
Harmony's Activity-based system groups all the relevant functions from each device required for an activity and controls them all with one "mapping" -- that is, the buttons on the remote are now set up to control functions from across the entire activity, and not the individual devices. This is a great system and was a real breakthrough in its time. One button for the activity now makes the remote act like several remotes at the same time.
Unfortunately for many, finding the model number of a device like a TV can be a bigger problem than it sounds. Unless you held on to the owner's manual and/or the box, there are an awful lot of model numbers out there and the place where they're often marked is in the rear of the set. If you have a flat-screen TV mounted on a wall, or a larger TV that can't be moved, well...
I was surprised to see that hot new technologies like media players were not represented in the Harmony database -- at least not easily. For example I use a Roku 2 XD media player in my system. It took several failed programming attempts and some visits to web forums to figure out how to best map its functions and make a "Watch Roku" activity.
It should be pointed out that the Harmony One can learn codes from your original remotes, in case you can't find them in the Harmony database. I had to do this with some more obscure functions on my fancy Integra preamp-processor. You can also customize the Harmony One's buttons to perform other functions than the ones that are "pre-set" for each device. In short you can make the Harmony do almost anything -- you just have to go through the work to get there.
Working The Gear
The Harmony One is not a small remote, but it's not uncomfortable to use with one hand. It's a bit slick in feel and benefits from a slightly tackier undergrip -- a nice touch by Logitech's always-excellent industrial design team. The buttons have a nice sturdy feel, the on-screen "soft" functions are legible (and can be re-labeled) and unlike earlier Harmony remotes I've reviewed, the unit fits very securely in its charger. I've found that the battery life is surprisingly good -- a typical charge lasts a couple of weeks in this household.
One of the nice things about the Harmony One is that you can pretty much map any function from any of your devices to any button (hard or soft) on the remote. That's the good news. The bad news is that you'll probably have to. Invariably, there is some essential command that you really want to have handy to your thumb or forefinger that doesn't get mapped automatically when you first set up.
As an example, I use my Blu-ray player for both movies and music (CDs). When I watch a movie, I want to listen in Dolby Digital as a default, because that's the way the movie is meant to be heard. But when I decide to switch to a CD, I want the playback to be stereo, not some processed surround sound. Of course there's a button (in fact several) on my receiver that lets me change this. But that function didn't automatically load into the Harmony One. I had to go back and customize.
In all likelihood, you'll have to do some of these same kinds of customizations yourself. They're not difficult per se, just tedious. There are drop down menus to help, and once you get the hang of how it goes, you can pretty much make the remote do anything you want. My point is that unless you have a simple system (few devices) with popular components (big brands) and prosaic activity needs (watch DVD, watch TV, etc.) you'll likely have about 30-60 minutes of setup and customization time ahead of you before you really start to enjoy your Harmony One.
How Does It Stack Up?
It didn't take me long to figure out that the Harmony is still the better way, even after all these years.
I've now tested several of the iOS -based remote solutions and honestly feel that the Harmony experience is superior in almost every respect. For one thing, I don't want to have to "wake up" my remote control every time I want to change a channel or the volume.
None of the iOS remote solutions I've used understand "active state" the way the Harmony One does. It knows (in theory, anyway) what mode your components are at any moment in time -- on or off, which input, which setting, etc. -- so that when you invoke commands, it knows exactly what to do, instead of forcing the whole system to start from "zero" (off state, default inputs, etc.)
None of the other software remote solutions offered active help as the Harmony does. If one of your devices is not operating properly for an activity, a tap of the "Help" button on the Harmony One interactively intervenes to help, step by step, until the problem is solved, and the remote gets "smarter" as you do this.
The lack of tactile sensation is also a minus for a phone/tablet remote control, and a plus for the Harmony. You really do need to look at one of those iOS remotes to see what you're doing, you can't just do things by feel, as you can on the Harmony One. The button layout and feel on the Harmony One, by the way, is satisfying to the touch and gives you good tactile feedback.
Given my druthers, I'd choose the Harmony One over any remote control I've ever owned, and by now, that number is probably well over 100. It takes a fair amount of time and configuration to set up, but you can do it yourself, and once you do, it works like a charm.
It's time for both manufacturers and consumers to accept an inconvenient truth -- today's entertainment devices and choices are so complex that almost no conventional remote control can really make it all simple. While a custom installer/integrator can set you up with a personalized touchscreen solution on an iPad or the like, these are expensive and frankly, not all that much easier to operate. No wonder so many people give up on universal remotes and resign themselves to the typical coffee table full of zappers.
Will voice control be the answer (I hope not). Gesture control, like the Wii? Something new altogether? We'll have to see. But in the meantime, the Harmony remotes remain the most effective and humane control option out there in my opinion, and the Harmony One is the one I've liked best of all the Harmony remotes I've used.