Review: Logitech Harmony Hub brings universal remote control to the future
The Harmony Hub—the latest incarnation of Logitech’s universal remote base station—comes in three packages, two of them with companion hardware remotes and one for use with free smartphone software. Whichever one you choose, it’s the best alternative yet to multiple remote clutter.
Universal remote base stations have been around for several years—in fact, Logitech helped pioneer the category with the Hub’s predecessor, the Harmony Link—but I found that product difficult to use. Fortunately, Logitech has done great work on user interface to make controlling the Hub much more intuitive. It’s not perfect, but it’s the first such system to make me consider ditching my old remotes.
Latest and greatest
Like its predecessor, the Hub receives commands sent wirelessly, either via RF signals from a companion hardware remote (the $350 Harmony Ultimate or the $130 Harmony Smart Control), or—if you get the $100 stand-alone Harmony Ultimate Hub (currently available for preorder)—over a Wi-Fi home network from an iOS or Android app.
The Hub then generates the appropriate IR or Bluetooth signals to control hundreds of thousands of home entertainment devices ranging from TVs and audio systems to cable boxes, Blu-ray players, and game consoles. (Logitech says the Harmony Hub can also control Philips Hue home lighting systems, but I wasn’t able to test that.)
Why a base station? Most universal remotes rely on the same IR signals that standard remotes use—you simply program the universal remote to replicate the signals for all the remotes it replaces. But in addition to having to learn the user interface (in order to control various different devices), you also have the ongoing inconvenience of IR signals themselves—most notably, you must position the remote within line of sight of the component you wish to control.
But because RF and Wi-Fi signals can go through walls, line-of-site communication isn’t required—you must only be in the general vicinity of the Hub to control it. You can even put the Hub inside a home entertainment system cabinet. To help distribute signals from the hub to devices on multiple shelves, you can plug in up to two IR blasters (small transmitters on long cables that echo the Hub’s signals) to the back of the Hub. Logitech gives you one blaster with the stand-alone Hub and the Smart Control, two with the Ultimate. (The company sells additional Harmony IR Mini Blasters for $10.)
Smartphone in control
I tested the stand-alone Hub with both the Android and iOS apps (more about the hardware remotes later). Both provide setup support for most common entertainment center components. After you plug the Hub into a wall outlet and put it into pairing mode by pressing a button on the device, the app detects it and collects the info needed to connect it to your Wi-Fi network. After that, it prompts you to create a MyHarmony.com account if you don’t have one, and then to enter the make and model info on your components, one at a time. After each device is set up, the app tests the settings it retrieves from Logitech’s huge database to make sure they actually control the device.
If the app finds all your devices, you then proceed to setting up activities—combinations of settings needed for typical entertainment center use. For example, my Watch TV activity turns on my HDTV, Motorola cable box, and home theater audio system; specifies the TV input the cable box hooks into; and tunes the audio receiver to the input from the HDTV. I also have activities for watching movies on my Blu-ray player and for watching TV through my TiVo DVR. Finally, the setup process downloads your TV provider’s program guide and lets you specify up to 50 channels as favorites, to make tuning to them easier.
The mobile apps, however, can’t set up everything in Logitech’s database: When I tried to input the make and model number of an 3x1 HDMI switcher I use to add HDMI inputs to my aging HDTV, the app advised me to continue setup by connecting the Hub to a computer (using the same USB cable that attaches to its plug) and navigating to the MyHarmony.com website. There, after I logged into the account I’d created during the mobile setup, I was able to add devices the mobile app couldn’t, including my HDMI switch.
Users of previous Harmony remotes will already be familiar with the Web interface. On the Web, you can also “teach” the Hub commands for devices that you can’t find in Logitech’s database, but for which you have the original remote. Also, if you’ve previously set up a Harmony remote online and your components haven’t changed, you can load those settings onto the Hub and save a lot of time. When you’re done, you sync the data to the Hub before disconnecting.
The mobile apps provide both traditional interface support (spread over several screens) and gesture-based controls for common commands—volume control, channel changes, and the like. The controls were not difficult to find and generally worked well; the apps also afford easy access to individual components. The Android and iOS interfaces were generally similar, although I noticed the Android’s bottom-screen interface menu gives easy access to a set of simplified touchscreen controls that aren’t grouped separately on the iOS app.
My main complaints with the mobile apps were the toll they take on battery life (hard-core couch potatoes will want to keep a charging cable for the mobile device handy) and, more annoyingly, the occasional disappearance of the Wi-Fi network connection (perhaps due to interference), which left me with no remote at all. I was usually able to revive the Wi-Fi connection by closing and then restarting the mobile app, but it’s a problem that never comes up with the RF-based remotes in the two higher-priced Harmony Hub bundles.
Real remotes if you want ‘em
The Smart Control costs $30 more, and its remote is really basic—most of its buttons are for generic commands such as volume control, channel changing, and DVR playback. In fact, you must use a mobile app to set up the Smart Control; at the end of setup you are prompted to assign your activities to three buttons on the Smart Control. The buttons are labeled with images suggesting movies, music, and TV, but you are free to assign them as you wish. The Hub is smart enough to figure out what to do with the generic commands coming from the Smart Control, but you simply don’t get all the commands you’d want for, say, a TiVo.
The high-end Harmony Ultimate package works differently: The setup routine is completely Web-based since you can connect the touchscreen remote to a computer with an included USB cable. Again, it's the same setup routine used for other high-end Harmony remotes, and you can download previously created settings and activities.
The rechargeable Ultimate remote also comes with its own charging cable (the Smart Control uses batteries). While $350 is admittedly ridiculously expensive for a remote, I did find the Ultimate a joy to use, combining the user-friendly interface of the mobile apps with the greater reliability of RF communication.
Whether with or without your smartphone as the remote, the latest Harmony Hub line represents a great improvement over its predecessor, and a worthy alternative to traditional IR-based universal remotes—especially in locations where Wi-Fi network interference isn’t a big problem.