I have been a big fan of the Logitech Harmony line of remote controls for years. No home theater should be without a universal remote, and it just so happens that Logitech does it better than anyone else. If you’re not familiar with Logitech’s remotes, they are the Mother of all remote controls. By programming activities such as Watch TV, Watch a DVD, Listen to Music, and so on, you never have to think about what input your TV or AV receiver needs to be on. You also don’t have to think about what devices need to be turned on or off. Logitech’s Harmony remote controls can do all of that for you and then some. The newest remote, the Harmony Ultimate, brings a whole new set of features including the Harmony Hub, which gives you not only IR and RF connectivity, it also brings WiFi and Bluetooth to the table. Whether your devices are out in the open, behind cabinets, or in another room, the Harmony Ultimate will get the job done.
The Harmony Hub also brings another very cool feature and that is the ability to control your home theater with your smartphone. The Logitech app for both Android and iOS will turn your phone into a full-fledged remote. I’m not just talking about changing the volume or changing the channels. You can start/stop activities, access up to 15 remote controls, and do it from anywhere in your house. Priced at $349, the Harmony Ultimate is higher than most smartphones (on contract), so it’s not cheap. Does it deliver as promised, and is it worth your hard earned dollars? Head on past the break to find out.
Before we get started, I want to be clear that the Harmony Ultimate is not an Android device. It’s just like any other Logitech remote control made with their own software. However, the Ultimate connects to and comes with the Smart Hub. This Smart Hub connects to your Android phone, thus enabling it to become a second remote with all the same features as the Harmony Ultimate. Since we are an Android site, I will concentrate more on the Android app, but I will touch on the features of the Ultimate remote as well as the Smart Hub.
The Smart Hub is the “base station” of the entire setup. It communicates with the Ultimate via RF and with your smartphone via WiFi. The back side includes a reset button, a USB port, and 2 ports for the included IR blasters. These IR blasters are connected to about 6 feet of wire so that they can reach your equipment. The Smart Hub itself also serves as an IR blaster so you have a total of three. Furthermore, each IR blaster can serve more than one piece of equipment since they blast the IR signals to a larger area. It should be noted that the Ultimate can control devices via IR as well, but in order to control devices with your Android smartphone, you will want all your devices to be controlled via one of the Smart Hub’s IR blasters. On top of IR, it also can control devices such as a PlayStation 3 or Google TV via Bluetooth.
Ultimate Remote Control
The Ultimate will serve as your main remote control of your living room. It features a 2.4-inch LCD display and a number of hard buttons for controlling DVR functions, your guide, info, and navigations. It also has two soft keys for favorites and home. You won’t find a number keypad since the plan is to utilize the favorites feature for changing channels. However you will be able access the number keys from the display with a quick swipe. Inside the remote is a rechargeable battery that charges via the supplied base. The battery doesn’t seem to hold the charge as long as my Harmony 890 or Harmony One. I am usually able to go 5 to 7 days with those remotes, but the Ultimate is currently giving me about 3 to 4 days at most. Both the remote and base sport an all plastic build that I found to be both light and durable.
As I mentioned, the remote can also communicate directly to any devices via its built in IR blaster. Not only that, if you try to control a device via the smartphone app that is setup to only use the remote’s IR blaster, the Harmony Hub will instruct it to send the IR signals. Assuming your remote is pointed at the device(s) in question, you can actually control those direct line of sight devices with your smartphone. Still, the best setup is for all devices to be using the IR blasters from the Harmony Hub since you can’t always guarantee that your Ultimate remote will be facing the equipment you are trying to control.
Logitech has migrated their software setup to myharmony.com instead of the standalone software interface that’s been in place for years. I have never experienced issues in the past using the old software, but I did with the site. Things went fairly smoothly, but I did end up needing to talk to customer service since it kept failing to update my device. Probably the best new feature is the ability to import your older Harmony remote control so you won’t have to do much in the way of programming. However, some things didn’t transfer properly like my customized buttons and some of the power settings.
If you’re starting from scratch, it’s just a matter of adding your devices by model numbers and creating activities around them. There are over 250,000 devices in the ever growing database and you can add up to 15. Your activities will consist of what devices are used and what settings. For example, your Watch TV activity might turn on your TV to HDMI 1, turn on your cable box, and turn on your AV receiver and switch it to SAT/TV all with one button. It’s really slick. You can even program it to turn on, turn off, or dim you Philips Hue lights, if you own any.
I still prefer the older software, but it’s just a matter of getting used to the new interface to realize the benefits. For starters, whenever you make changes to your setup, you don’t have to connect your remote to your computer, it’s all done via WiFi. You will still have to connect the remote to your computer for firmware updates, but this is a major improvement.
This is where things get interesting for those of you that have a smartphone and would like to utilize it for controlling their home theater. You can download the Harmony app and get all the same controls that you get on the Ultimate. When you first open the app, it will search for a Harmony Hub on your network and when it finds one, it will prompt you to connect to it and load all your devices, activities, settings, and favorites from your account. Many users have complained about connectivity. I haven’t had that issue all that much, but there is a known WiFi issue with many versions of Android. It is one of those issues in which many people wouldn’t even know they have a problem because the WiFi shows as connected in the notification area. You need to be connected WiFi in order to communicate with the Harmony Hub.
The app itself has a simple layout, but the default layouts will look nothing like the setup on the Ultimate. Thankfully, you can customize the layouts for all activities and devices to your heart’s content. However, there is no backup feature so if you need to change phones, your settings will be gone. An update is coming soon that will also allow you to make changes to activities and add devices that will also make changes to your Ultimate, but I should note that this capability already exists for owners of the Harmony Smart Control or those that only purchased the Harmony Hub separately. I know this can be confusing, but Harmony introduced two remote controls: the Ultimate, which this review is on, and they also introduced the more economical Harmony Smart Control. The main difference is that the Smart Control doesn’t have a display and features more hard buttons. Priced at $129, it still comes with the Harmony Hub and gives you all the same controls along with the Android app. In addition, you can also buy the Harmony Hub as a standalone unit for $99 to use with the smartphone app solely. In this case, your only remote would be your smartphone.
The other cool thing about the Harmony App is that you can have as many smartphones connected to the Harmony Hub as you want. That means everyone in the house can have their own remote customized the way they want. Not only that, if you go to a friend’s house that has a Harmony Hub, you can simply connect to their hub assuming you are on their WiFi. They might not want you to take complete control of their devices, but if you are pet sitting or nobody is around, you can simply change the channels or adjust the volume with your phone.
The only issues I have with the app is not the functionality, but what is missing. For example, there are no widgets for the Android version. We all use our phones for many things while watching TV so a widget makes the most sense if you want to quickly change channels, adjust the volume, or hit pause/play. The other thing that is lacking is integration with what’s on TV as in what Peel does with their own app or with the Samsung Watch and HTC TV apps. Logitech told me that an SDK is available and companies like Peel are free to make apps using the Harmony SDK, so this is something that could happen, but I’m not aware of anything in the works.
There is also the idea of a remote being completely touch. You don’t always want to have to look down at your remote to find the most common buttons. When using your phone, you will always need to look down to make sure you hit the right button. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against the smartphone app. I just think it makes sense as a secondary remote rather than your main remote. If I am over by the kitchen, and want to change channels, I can do that by grabbing my phone out of my pocket. You can’t beat that kind of convenience.
Check out my hands on video below on how the Harmony app works.
The Harmony Ultimate isn’t cheap so it’s only going to cater to the person who is really into having the latest and greatest. $349 is a lot for a remote, but when you consider how much you spend on a smartphone, it’s not all that bad. Assuming you watch a decent amount of TV, it will get a lot of use, and will simply your entire setup. I have also found that Harmony remotes have longevity. My 890 is around 5 years old, so it’s not like you are going to feel like upgrading in 12 months.
Even though I couldn’t live without any of my Harmony remotes, I would never push anyone to spend $349 for one, but I will say it’s well worth it. If your main concern is turning your smartphone into a full fledged remote, then I would recommend that you grab the Harmony Smart Control. Priced at $129, it’s only $30 more than the standalone Harmony Hub, and you get a dedicated remote to leave in the living room with hard buttons. Bottomline: If you’re a home theater connoisseur, then spend the $349 on the Harmony Ultimate, but if you want to just simply your setup on a tighter budget, grab the Harmony Smart Control for $129. It’s time to get rid of the 5 remotes that are sitting on your coffee table.