Your living room is chaos – admit it. You’re forgiven for wondering which remote controls which device. What with the TV, amplifier, TiVO, BluRay player, maybe even the lighting – switching activities becomes a long and delicately manoeuvred dance called the “remote shuffle”. No longer. The Logitech Harmony Ultimate universal remote is here to bring, well – harmony – to your living room.
The Logitech Harmony Ultimate is an intelligent, all-in-one remote control – the latest in the series of Harmony branded devices. It operates any device that uses an infrared remote controller, as well as a few that use Bluetooth.
In addition, the base station connects to your wireless home network to allow remote control from iOS and Android smartphone apps. The Logitech Harmony Ultimate we have here costs $350 – placing it firmly at the premium end of any universal remote. There are no competing products at a similar price point, but Logitech themselves produce a range of universal remotes starting from around $100 on Amazon. If you only want the touchscreen remote, and not the additional base station or smartphone control capabilities, the Harmony Touch is available for around $190 from Amazon. A step down from that is the Harmony Smart Control at $130 – this comes with a simple remote (no touchscreen), but includes a base station for smartphone control.
The Logitech Harmony Ultimate can control up to 15 devices, which should be more than enough for even the most avid AV enthusiast’s living room. We’ll be giving this review unit away, so read on and join the contest.
Unboxing the Logitech Harmony Ultimate
Within a sleek black box is a tightly packed and conservative interior; I’m going to have trouble packing all this up again.
Inside the box, you’ll find:
- Base station / hub + power cord
- Harmony remote
- Harmony remote charging station + power cord
- 2 x additional IR blasters
- MicroUSB cable
There’s quite a lot in there.
First up is the charging station for the remote; it looks very much like a cordless telephone when placed in for charging. In practice, I found a charge was required about once every two weeks, though I don’t watch an awful lot of TV over summer.
Then we have the base station. This sits in a central location of your living – somewhere beneath your TV would be ideal. It’s a central hub for everything else, and has a powerful set of IR transmitters that should be capable of reaching every device in the room provided it’s not inside a cabinet. The base station communicates with the remote via RF signals. It can also connect to your home Wi-Fi network, which allows it to receive commands from any smartphone device running the Harmony Control app (iOS/ Android). In addition, it has Bluetooth, enabling it to control devices like game consoles.
Connecting to the back of the base station are two diminutive IR blasters. These take the main signal, and repeat it if the device you’re trying to control can’t be reached. The documentation suggests you only need this if the front of your AV cabinet is opaque, like wood – glass doors should be fine. I plugged them in anyway.
The Logitech Harmony Ultimate remote itself only communicates with the base station through RF signals – it doesn’t control your devices directly, though it does have an infrared transmitter on the front. In case your setup is such that neither the base station nor additional blasters can reach your devices, the software will regress to using the IR transmitter on the remote; though I haven’t found the need to do this yet. The remote also has a micro USB connector tucked away behind a rubber plug on the bottom – this is used to reprogram the controller.
Setup and Programming
After an initial charge, the screen on the remote invites you to visit myharmony.com. This isn’t optional – you can only program the remote using that website, there is no installable software. You’ll need to create an account, too.
You will be prompted to connect the remote to the computer via the provided micro USB cable; then connect to your home wireless network. Syncing can be done over Wi-Fi and is initiated from the Settings menu on the remote or app; new settings are not automatically pushed out. Other than firmware upgrades, you need only plug the remote into the computer when teaching new infrared commands – it needs to use the IR sensor on the back of the remote to learn the codes.
There are 3 key concepts you need to understand with the Logitech Harmony Ultimate remote:
Devices: These are individual items to be controlled. Each device has specific attributes such as how the power is controlled, and consists of one or more commands (play, pause, etc). You can teach any device new commands or fix a broken one, but if your device was found in the database it should come complete with all commands programmed.
Activities: These consist of one or more devices and actions to initiate. They also form the home screen of the remote. For example, I’ve set up:
- Watch TV
- Play a game
- Watch movie on PC
- Lights on
- Dance party
The software comes with some pre-programmed standard activities like watch TV, but you can add your own, including a custom icon. For example, my dance party activity is pretty much the same as play a game, except that it turns my RGB lights onto to a colour strobe mode. Standard activities include a wizard that walks through settings such as “Which input should the TV be set to?”, but you can also delve into the specific command chain that’s involved with any activity to customise it further.
In my setup, I have a specific colour shade of lighting activated for each activity. Check out the video later for an idea of easily this can be done. The intelligent aspect of the remote means that if you change activity and a specific device is no longer required, it will be turned off for you; whilst devices that are already on won’t be reset.
Favourites: These are TV channels which include the TV activity, so you can jump straight to your favourite channel from an all-off state. Channel lists are determined by your area and cable provider, but don’t take into account your individual service plan.
The database of officially supported devices is huge – it correctly recognised my TV, TiVo, Xbox 360 Slim, and AV receiver with no issues. As I suspected, my cheap LED lights from China were not in the database – but thats okay, because adding an unknown device is also a relatively simple process, and I showed you in this article.
The Logitech Harmony Ultimate remote is fairly hefty, but with a great deal of thought having gone into the shape – it certainly doesn’t feel uncomfortable to hold, with a nicely contoured body that places the bulk in your palm. A built-in touchscreen changes between activities, favourite channels, and devices.
In addition, there’s a number of physical buttons mapped by default to certain functionality; fast forward, or pause, for instance, as well as a directional pad for navigating menus. These too, are completely customizable and dynamic, changing functionality according to the current activity or device you’re using. Basically, everything is customizable!
When using the touch screen, a very slight vibration feedback is used to acknowledge your touch, and it’s remarkably satisfying.
Companion Smartphone App
The Harmony Ultimate allows you to use both the touchscreen remote or any number of smartphones which have been paired (probably not a good idea if you have nefarious kids in the house), though I have to admit I was a little disappointed by the general usability of the iPhone app compared to the physical remote control.
Something is definitely lost in not having the physical controls (or perhaps its the vibration), but being able to turn the TV off from bed is pretty cool.
Functionally, there are a few differences between the companion Harmony Control app and the remote. There are no custom icons, so any activities you’ve made will have the same generic icon and small text, making distinguishing between them a little harder. Instead of physical buttons, a gesture interface is provided, or you can select a predefined set of on-screen buttons. The gestures can be customised for specific commands – the buttons can’t. Honestly, I was hoping a visual designer tool would be provided so I could design my own remote layout with buttons I most cared about, but that’s not case. There’s also a noticeable lag when using the companion app compared to the remote, such that I found myself hardly ever touching it. A set of button controls is also provided, but you often need to swipe between views to get at them.
Quirks and Weaknesses
As someone who regular tests new equipment, the intelligence of the Logitech Harmony Ultimate is also a weakness. After plugging in my Raspberry Pi, I had assumed that hitting the ALL OFF button on the Harmony Ultimate remote would turn off the TV. Unfortunately, I had used to standard TV remote to turn it on, since I needed to select a new HDMI input channel that wasn’t programmed into the Harmony Ultimate. So as far as the Harmony Ultimate was concerned, there was no need to turn off the TV, since it wasn’t ever turned on. Yes, this might be a bit of fringe use case I’ll admit, but clearly there are some downsides to having an “intelligent” remote.
Ultimately, most devices are controlled over infrared, which is an ageing protocol and inherently slow and dumb. If someone blocks the receiver on a particular device, the Logitech Harmony Ultimate remote doesn’t know that it hasn’t been turned on properly – all it can do is send out the signals and hope all is well. The Harmony Ultimate also works in a similar way to a human, in that each button must be pressed in a sequence, sometimes with a short delay. Although this is clearly less effort than pressing a button on 5 different remotes, it’s still going to take up to 10 seconds for each activity change to be completed as the Harmony steps through the sequence of commands. This isn’t a flaw of the remote as such, you just can’t send out the IR signals at the same time.
Should you buy the Logitech Harmony Ultimate?
It does take some time to configure and set up new devices or change the actions, but once you’ve done that it really is a relief to have one remote control everything. If your setup rarely changes, the Logitech Harmony Ultimate remote is going to work fantastically for you. The only downside is the price; at $350 for a remote control, it’s not something you want to lose down the back of the sofa.