Harmony Link Turns iOS and Android Devices Into Capable, but Flawed, Universal Remotes
At a Glance
Over the last decade or so, Logitech’s Harmony products have honed the fine art of consolidating controls for multiple home entertainment center components into handy and reasonably easy-to-set up universal remotes. With the Harmony Link—a base station priced at $100 (as of October 27, 2011) that works with free iOS and Android apps and a Wi-Fi network—Logitech lets you use your device to do everything its conventional high-end remotes can do and then some. But its software needs additional work to make the Link a truly satisfactory alternative to a hardware remote.
Black, shiny, and shaped like a small, 6-inch flying saucer, the Harmony Link hardware takes about half an hour or more to set up, depending on how many devices you need it to control. That's not significantly long; other universal remotes I've used have required about the same. Logitech provides a small printed booklet with pretty good instructions that wisely begin by directing you to gather the make and model information on all devices you intend to control—your TV, cable/satellite box, home theater receiver, DVD or Blu-ray Disc player, game consoles, DVRs, and any other set-top boxes.
The booklet even provides a page for noting down this information, as well as the inputs associated with each device—for example, I wrote down that my Nintendo Wii connects to my HDTV via the set’s second set of component video inputs.
Once you’ve gathered the info (or as much of it as you can), you connect the Link to a power source and to a PC using the included USB cable, then proceed to the MyHarmony web site, where you are prompted to set up an account if you don’t already have one. This instruction produced one of the few glitches I encountered in setting up the Link: I had created a MyHarmony account for a previous remote, and logging in produced the settings for that device. It turns out there’s no way to overwrite or delete those settings—I had to create a new account using a different e-mail address for my user ID, because you can’t use the same user ID for two Harmony remotes. Interestingly, however, you don’t have to use a genuine e-mail address, just something that looks like one (email@example.com would work)—Logitech doesn’t verify the address, since it’s just for log-in purposes.
Once you’ve set up the account, MyHarmony detects the Link and directs you to enter the device information you’d collected earlier. (If you don’t have all the make and model details, the site can help you figure out the right remote codes with partial info—or, if that fails, you can use a device’s remote to teach its control codes to the Link.)
Logitech maintains an extensive database of consumer electronics that it uses to map their remote buttons to the Link, and I was impressed to find that MyHarmony had records for everything I use: a 2007 Panasonic plasma TV, a Motorola Comcast cable box, an older Kenwood home theater receiver, an Oppo Blu-ray Disc player, the aforementioned Wii, a TiVo Premiere DVR, and a Roku2 XS media streamer. Even more impressively, the database recognized an Oppo 1-to-3 HDMI splitter I use to connect three HDMI devices (the cable box, the Blu-ray player, and the Roku) to a single input on my HDTV (which has only two HDMI inputs—I have the TiVo on the first one).
And once you’ve input all the device information, you create what Logitech calls activities—actions you want to be able to perform using the Link—and identify which devices and inputs are involved. For example, to watch TV on my Comcast cable box, I use the TV, the cable box, the home theater receiver (for audio), and the 3-to-1 splitter set to the second input.
MyHarmony proposes several typical activities—playing games, watching movies, and so forth—and suggests which devices might be involved, but you’re free to set it straight if it errs, or to create so-called custom activities. You can also create multiple instances of the same activity—for example, you might have several ways of watching movies. During setup you also provide the Wi-Fi network name and password that will put the Link on the same network as the iPad or iPhone you’ll be using as a universal remote. And you assign it a name, so that you can use the iPad/iPhone to control multiple Links, should you choose to install another one.
With the Link set up, I next installed the Harmony software for my mobile devices (an iPhone and iPad) and logged into my MyHarmony account (when you do the same, choose a Link to control, if you’ve set up more than one). I synced the app with my MyHarmony account, which gives it all the information you’ve programmed into the Link.
With that, the system is ready for use. Detach the USB cable, and plug in the Link near your home entertainment center. I was dubious at first that the Link would be able to communicate with all my devices, since some weren’t really in direct line of sight—a requirement for the infrared technology that most remote controls use. But from its perch in front of my HDTV, the Link easily responded to commands for all components, including a couple on a shelf below the Link.
Should you have devices that don’t respond to commands issued by an iPad or iPhone, you can expand the field of the Link signal’s reach by attaching an included IR blaster (basically a second IR transmitter at the end of a cable) to the Link and positioning it near the components that aren’t responding. The Link has ports for two blasters, so you can purchase a second one if need be.
By default, the Harmony Link iPad software at launch displays the primary TV interface, which is a souped-up, lavishly illustrated program guide (obtained based on the cable TV service you specified during setup). The guide isn’t a conventional grid; rather, it shows a featured program in a large window atop a horizontally scrollable strip that displays thumbnails for programming on other channels. When the guide doesn’t have thumbnails for a show, it uses generic art. On the iPad’s roomy screen, the guide looks attractive—but it’s not that easy to use.
For starters, the scrollbar shows only three or four channels at a time, and scrolling through the complete lineup can be time-consuming. You can, however, opt to reduce the number of channels shown by using filters for program categories such as movies or news.
One issue I noticed: The program guide appeared to be missing channels. Logitech, which gets program-guide info from a third party, says it is looking into this.
More problematic is the way the software handles other remote-control functions. Tapping on the right side of the screen produces a skinny bar with a few basic controls—channel up/down, volume, mute—and dragging the bar to the left expands it to show a graphical user interface with more control buttons for the activity’s primary device. But some controls I use frequently with my cable box—the MyDVR and OnDemand buttons—were not displayed at all; to get to them, I had to drag the control area out even further, to display a search box atop a complete written list of commands for each device. Then I either had to search for the command or scroll through the rather lengthy list. Both methods eventually got me to the commands I wanted, but neither was as convenient as simply being able to press a handy button.
Other issues, some of them puzzling, came up. For example, the full page of controls for the default “Watch TV” activity (which I assigned to the Comcast box) produced the buttons on my TiVo, instead. And when I tried to set up the Roku as a custom activity, the graphical interface would operate the TV only. It turned out that to have the onscreen interface control the Roku, I had to set up the Roku as an additional “Watch Movies” activity.
Also, the software wasn’t very smart about turning devices off and on. When I wanted to switch from using the Roku to watching TV, tapping the “Watch TV” command turned off the home theater receiver. Because my cable box is also my DVR, I never turn it off—but switching to another activity invariably did just that.
The Harmony Link has the potential to turn iPads or iPhones into great universal remotes, but until it can better reproduce the way I actually interact with the components of my system, it’s not a good substitute for hardware remotes that let you exercise finer control. I would like, for example, to see the ability to create my own group of frequently used commands that would be easily accessible via a graphical interface. I’m hoping Logitech devotes more thought to a future iteration.