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Logitech Harmony Ultimate Remote & Apps Review

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#1 of 11 Stephen Hopkins

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Posted August 05 2013 - 11:52 AM

Logitech Harmony Ultimate Remote & Mobile Device Interface
 
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I’ve been a Logitech Harmony user for quite a while.  For the last 7 years I’ve touted the ease of setup and use of the Harmony line to my friends, family, and anyone who would listen on most A/V related forums.  My stance the whole time is that you really couldn’t do better without paying for much higher-end device Custom Installer (along with the exorbitant cost of their programming services).  I’ve maintained this position and still do today.  If this constitutes a bias, I want to let it be known right up front.  I’m a Harmony user, this is who I am. 
 
This isn’t to say I haven’t been without my strong critiques of the direction Logitech has taken the Harmony line.  My biggest complaints have been reverse feature creep (the removal of useful features from lower-end models) while the upper-end of the product line languished for several years between the release of the Harmony One/900 and last-years Harmony Touch.  While the release of the Harmony Ultimate, Smart Control, and Ultimate Hub may not directly address feature creep, they do a lot to fill in and round out the top-end of the Harmony line. 
 
At first glance, the Harmony Ultimate package may look like a simple RF upgrade to last year’s Harmony Touch remote with a little bit of the Harmony Link feature-set thrown in for good measure.  This is a completely logical assumption based on the Harmony line’s previous iterations… the Harmony 890 was an 880 with RF, the Harmony 900 was a One with RF, etc.  Many expected an RF imbued of the Harmony Touch to surface and it has.  That said, if you dive just a bit deeper into what it really brings to the table, you’ll there’s much more to be explored. 
 
Hub and Remote Setup
 
Seasoned Harmony users will find that a lot has changed in the remote setup processed compared to the days of old.  The Harmony Setup software (the most recent version being 7.7) has been left by the wayside by the MyHarmony.com web app.  This started as an optional setup option with the 600/650/700 model s and has become the only option for the 200/300, Touch, and now the Ultimate.  This has sparked many debates amongst die-hards but I’m fairly agnostic towards the change.  While I have become quite familiar with the old software, I’ve not found anything I couldn’t do with the new web app just as intuitively.  While the web app may feel like there is less in-depth customization, it’s all still there; it’s possible that it’s just easier to use in general and that makes it feel less powerful than it really is.
 
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With the new Harmony Hub device being the heart of the Harmony Ultimate, it’s actually what you setup first.  The Hub facilitates IR blasting (either through onboard blasters or two discrete wired blaster outputs), WiFi connection to mobile devices, and generally keeping everything in sync (important since you can control the system from a myriad of devices).  Connecting the Hub to your local WiFi network requires connecting it to a PC via the supplied USB cable.  In a basic setup, this COULD be the only time you connect ANYTHING to a PC, though some more advance remote programming options, firmware updates, etc do require a USB connection.  After connecting the Hub to your WiFi network, you move on to adding your devices, defining how they are connected, and setting up activities in a fashion familiar to most Harmony vet and intuitive to new users. 
 
One of the best things about the Harmony system as a whole is that you can spend as little or as much time customizing your user experience as you want.  Within 20 minutes you can have a handful standard activities such as Watch TV (power on display, power on AVR, power on Cable Box, set display to HDMI-1, set AVR to DVR, transport control to Cable Box, volume control to AVR) up and running with the most commonly used features mapped to the appropriate hard buttons and the touchscreen appropriately.  This is where the lion’s share of users will stop, but you can really dive into customizing each activity to allow custom control of devices in a way that best suits you… in my case this centers around control of lighting automation through an X10 IR receiver as well as an XBMC based HTPC setup, but the possibilities are nearly endless as long as your devices support IR or one of the few proprietary RF technologies supported by the Harmony Ultimate (mainly Philips Hue lighting modules).   In my case I setup all of my devices and basic activities for an 8-device theater in around 30 minutes, and then spent another 2 hours customizing and tweaking button layouts and advance control features.  Most of this extra time was spent perfecting control of the XBMC HTPC and X10 lighting control.  The Harmony Hub also has the capability to control Sony’s PS3 and Nintendo’s Wii over Bluetooth, though I did not test this feature.
 
As a quick sidebar, one of the main differentiators between the Harmony line and higher-end devices from the likes of URC, Crestron, Control4, and others is the reliance on IR.  Others support device control directly through IP, RS-232, Zigbee, Z-Wave, and other open or proprietary standards.  These systems open up tons of extremely advanced automation and control possibilities but almost always require the involvement of a “Custom Installer”, two words that are nearly always synonymous with “Big Bucks”. 
 
And back to our regularly schedule programming…
 
One somewhat new feature incorporated into the MyHarmony.com web-app that has been a constant request for years is Multiple Device Administration.  In the past, it was required to setup a new account (luckily you could at least re-use the same e-mail address) for EVERY SINGLE device you were administering round the house.  Having separate accounts for each device wasn’t nearly as problematic as remembering the user-name and password for each.  This is finally alleviated with administration for up to 6 remotes/devices under one account.  I’m now using 5 Harmony remotes throughout the house (ranging from the bare-bones 200 in both kids’ bedrooms to the 600/650 in the living room and master bedroom, up to the  
 
App Setup
App setup on mobile devices is pretty much as easy and straight-forward as the in-box hardware setup.  Currently there are dedicated apps for iOS and Android.  These aren’t the same apps used to control the older Harmony Link device… my brief experience with that device and its Android app make me thankful Logitech started with a clean slate.
 
After downloading the Harmony App from the appropriate market (Google Play or iOS App Store), simply logging in with your previously established MyHarmony.com account literally takes care of 90% of the setup process.  Your previously-defined activities and default button layouts are automatically imported to your device and, within minutes, you’re ready to control your system from your phone or tablet.  Just as is the case with the remote, you can stop right here and have a fully functional setup, or you can customize button layouts, favorite channels, etc to your hearts’ content. 
 
Luckily you can do most layout and control customization right on the phone without having to go back to a PC or the MyHarmony.com web app.  Layout/control/favorite customization is local to the device it is performed on.  This is great from the standpoint that multiple devices can have their own layout and favorites, but it would be nice to have an import/export option to clone layouts across multiple devices.
 
Real World Use
Regardless of the bevy of online/cloud/mobile-device features, the included touchscreen remote is still the focus of the Harmony Ultimate package.  If you’re drawn more to the Hub features, you can save some notable dollars by going with either the Smart Control package which includes the Hub and a more basic remote, or by picking up the Hub by itself and controlling ONLY with a mobile device.  Maybe I’m an old-timer, but I’m just not ready to put THAT MUCH reliance on my phone or tablet quite yet. 
 
In daily-use, the touchscreen remote is really a joy to use.  It has some polarizing features (or lack thereof)  that really stand-out on paper or when looking at product images.  That said, I found that most really don’t matter that much in practice. 
 
Just as the remote is the focus of the Harmony Ultimate package, the touchscreen is the focus of the remote itself.  Coming from a few years of using Harmony 900 (with its small and marginally responsive capacitive screen), this made me a bit trepidations at first.  These fears quickly fell to the wayside.  Comparing the touchscreens of the 900 and the Ultimate is like comparing those of a Palm Pilot and an iPhone.  Scrolling, swiping, dragging, and button-presses are all extremely fluid and responsive with pleasant animations and a very “smartphone” feel.  Whether you love or loath the move towards more touchscreen interaction and fewer hard buttons, the Harmony Ultimate screen makes it at least palatable for hard button die-hards and extremely enjoyable for touch screen enthusiasts.
 
One area where the beautiful large touch screen falls down is screen utilization for the most used feature of any Harmony, the Activities.  The Ultimate remote displays only one activity per screen, requiring you to scroll left/right through a gallery of activities to find the one you want to initiate.  This, along with no dedicated activity hard buttons, means you will be using the swipe feature more frequently than necessary to initiate any given activity.  If the cramped screen of the Harmony 900 can display 3 different activities in sequential rows, why in the world can’t the Ultimate remote show four, five, or six activities on the main screen?  It’s strange and a bit annoying at first, but you get used to it fairly quickly thanks to the responsiveness of the touchscreen.
 
The overall focus on the touchscreen has some consequential effects when it comes to the functions of traditional hard buttons.  The first is, to make more use of the lesser number of hard buttons, almost all can be programmed to respond to both short (standard) and long presses.  This makes the most sense for the combined FFW/REW/Skip buttons, but the same function can be easily applied to most all of the hard buttons.  This seems to become more useful as you grow accustomed to it and learn/remember what you programmed the long-presses to do… though it can lead to a frustrating learning curve for anyone that the main remote administrator has to teach (significant others, kids, baby-sitters, house guests).
 
The second, and likely more noticeable example (especially for frequent DVR users), is the movement of the transport keys (Play/Pause, FFW, REW, Stop, Record) to the very top of the remote.  When the Harmony Touch remote was released a year ago, this was the very first thing I noticed and I was very put-off by it.  I’m a dedicated TiVo user and the transport buttons are some of my most frequently used.  In brief hands-on time with the Touch I found that it required frequent shifting of the remote up/down in your hand.  The Touch has a mild molding to guide your hand towards the two distinct hand locations, but it never felt quite right. 
 
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The Ultimate remote implements an amazingly simple feature that makes day-to-day use much more comfortable… a sharp and well defined nub that guides your hand towards the two hand locations.  With the larger, sharper, and better defined nub in place it is much quicker, easier, and more intuitive for your fingers to find where they go for either hand position and also makes reaching down to the top of the touchscreen while holding in the transport key location feel more secure.  In practice, I find myself holding low on the remote for general navigation, switching between activities, etc and picking the remote straight up in the “high” position to FFW or REW when watching a recorded show.  Just like the single Activity per screen mentioned above, this layout is an annoyance that you quickly get used to and rarely think about after that.
 
For Harmony remote die-hards, the Ultimate Remote really is a near-pinnacle in ease of daily use, though more of a paradigm shift than any device released to date.  If you THINK you can get past the decreased reliance on hard buttons, chances are YOU CAN.  If your first response to seeing the device is “no hard buttons, no way” I would say at least give it a try before you dismiss it summarily.
 
Apps in use
In day-to-day use, the Harmony mobile apps offer a consistent and enjoyable experience, but whether or not these could potentially replace the dedicated remote will be extremely YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary). 
 
On phones and phone-sized devices (i.e. the iPod Touch) the experience was extremely similar regardless of whether you are on Android or iOS.  I tested on both an iPhone 4 an Samsung Galaxy S4 and noticed only the most minor of differences.  Button presses are quickly transmitted over WiFi to the Hub and then converted to IR output with minimal lag (less than I’m used to going from RF-to-IR with my older Harmony 900).  If you plan on using your phone to occasionally augment the remote (say from kitchen when the remote is in the living room) then the default button layouts for most activities will likely be sufficient.  If you plan on leaving the dedicated remote in the  included cradle more times than not, you will likely want to spend some time planning and customizing your button layouts to minimize the amount of screen-swiping necessary to access your most used features.  I, myself, personally fall squarely in the “occasional use” category, but I can foresee plenty of folks going the other way. 
 
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By comparison, tablet use of the supplied Harmony apps is a bit more of a mixed bag.  At the moment, there are no tablet-optimized apps for either Android or iOS (surprising since there ARE for the previous Harmony Link product).  By the nature of each OS, this is much more problematic for iOS than Android.  While Android tablets are capable of more fluidly scaling the phone app up to larger and higher-resolution screens, the iOS scaling feature only offers simple magnification that destroys the fine detail of the buttons/images and makes the whole interface feel ad-hoc.  If you’ve ever used an iPhone app on an iPad, you know what I’m talking about.  As a whole, the entire experience was much more enjoyable on an Asus Transformer TF300 than on an original iPad.  If tablet optimized apps become available this will be a major improvement in the whole system, especially for iPad users. 
 
Regardless of what platform you are using, or how many devices (including Ultimate remote) you jump between, the Hub does an excellent job of keeping Activity and Device states (on/off/input/etc) in sync.  You can initiate an activity with the remote, change channels with your phone, and switch activities with your tablet and all of the connected devices will stay in sync.  It just works, much to my own surprise. 
 
Pricing & Summary
To boil the Harmony Ultimate down to its core, it’s almost something for everyone.  If you want an extremely capable RF remote with a high-end feel and easily accessible customization, you’re covered.  If you want to control your system with a myriad of mobile and tablet devices alongside said remote, you’ve got that as well.  If you want a monolith of hard buttons for every conceivable command found on all of your OEM remotes… that’s pretty much where the Harmony Ultimate (and dare I say modern times) will really leave you behind.  If you want control outside of IR, Bluetooth (console game systems only), and a few fringe automation systems (Philips Hue), you’re really just looking at the wrong type of device to begin with and need to call a Custom Installer. 
 
What may be the toughest pill for many to swallow is the $349 MSRP.  It’s a lot.  That said, the Ultimate really does a lot and it does it extremely well.  Luckily, depending on the feature set you’re looking for, the Harmony Hub ($99) and Harmony Smart Control ($129) offer some of the most compelling peripheral features of the Harmony Ultimate package at much lower price points.  If you’re looking for a versatile and truly high-end experience that you can still program yourself, and you can get past a bit the sticker shock, the Harmony Ultimate really might be for you.

#2 of 11 Sam Posten

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Posted August 06 2013 - 11:21 AM

Cool stuff.  A.  Does it control bluetooth devices?  B. if it does, how well does it work with the PS3?  That was what killed the One for me, the PS3 control sucked.


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#3 of 11 Stephen Hopkins

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Posted August 08 2013 - 04:28 AM

It does control Bluetooth (only PS3 and Wii), but I wasn't able to test that feature.



#4 of 11 Sam Posten

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Posted August 08 2013 - 05:44 AM

I'd be interested to know if it improved that experience.  Using software keys to replace circle square x and triangle was awful.


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#5 of 11 mattCR

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Posted August 17 2013 - 08:11 AM

One thing that should be noted (from my experience) each harmony device you have has to have it's own myharmony account.   I couldn't find a way (I don't see that there is one) to have more then one harmony device in a harmony account.. I ran into that setting up my Ultimate.


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#6 of 11 Mike Frezon

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Posted August 27 2013 - 08:32 AM

Great review, Stephen.  Thanks!

 

I am a current Harmony One user.  It is starting to "act up"  so I am interested in what the Ultimate has to offer.  My Harmony One is starting to "reset" itself.  After I've selected my activity, the remote--on its own--goes back to its neutral state (waiting for an activity to be selected) meaning that none of the device controls work until I re-select the activity.

 

But I'm not sure that's enough of a problem to even have me thinking about anything close to a $349 upgrade!  :o

 

I love the idea of touch screen technology for a remote.  As an iPhone user, such a move makes all the sense to me.  That...plus, I chewed through a number of Harmony 680s as all the hevily used hard buttons lost their contact points over time. 

 

I am intrigued by the idea of just using my iPhone to control my HT.  I cannot do that now with my Harmony One purchase?  I have to buy the Harmony Hub as it is described in your review?  If I buy the Hub, could I set up my iPhone--AND my wife's iPhone--as remotes?  The Hub does not need to be connected to a PC in prpetuity, correct?  Just for the set-up process. 

 

Thanks again!


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#7 of 11 Stephen Hopkins

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Posted August 28 2013 - 07:48 PM

I've had some similar frustrations with hard buttons failing over time on various models.

You are correct that Harmony Hub would allow you to install the app on two separate devices and stay in-sync with one another. That said, I personally think the Smart Control package with its additional basic remote for when you can't or don't want to use the app is the best value for only $30 more.

Good luck and thanks for the kind words!

#8 of 11 Dave Upton

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Posted August 30 2013 - 06:02 AM

Stephen,

Thank you for the great review. I'm currently using the Touch - and it's pretty decent, but I can't help but miss the awesome ergonomic touch of the trusty One. I love knowing the button locations by simple feel.



#9 of 11 Dave Moritz

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Posted September 07 2013 - 01:52 PM

I keep debating if I should go with a Logitech remote or a URC remote?  I picked up my current receiver used which is a Pioneer Elite SC-5 and it didn't have a remote with it.  So I have been debating on getting a remote to control everything.  I have a Sony AV 3100 which I did not use long as it was a pain in the rear!  So hopefully sometime soon I will get a remote and not have to run back and forth to the receiver!

 

 

 

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#10 of 11 schan1269

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Posted September 07 2013 - 02:44 PM

I used to sell URC wholesale. The main advantage to URC is, if you buy it from a store/installer, is you don't have to go it alone* when problems happen. I don't know of any installers(or high end boutiques) that sell Harmony.

 

*Alone also means your only recourse being "1-800 you're on hold for the next available"...



#11 of 11 Todd Erwin

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Posted January 10 2014 - 02:31 PM

I've been on the fence over going barebones with the Harmony Smart, the Harmony Touch, or go all out for the Harmony Ultimate.

 

Does anyone know how well the basic remote works with the Smart? And can you add the Touch at a later date?

 

I'm anxious to get a universal remote, as I'm about to swap out my receiver, and want to keep the learning curve as minimal as possible for the wife. In other words, I want to set up the remote at the same time I swap out the receiver, so all I have to do is show which single buttons to press on one (or two max) remotes.







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