Don’t look now, but somebody has finally nailed the universal-remote problem. Two problems, actually.
Problem #1: There are thousands of different brands of TVs, cable boxes, Blu-ray players, video recorders, game consoles, audio receivers, and speakers — plus all those Internet TV boxes like Apple TV and Roku. How can one gadget know how to control all of them?
For most of recorded home-entertainment time, we’ve solved that by programming a universal remote. “We,” in this case, meaning “technically proficient people with entire weekends free.” Because you had to tediously teach the universal remote all the commands your existing remotes sent out. It was murder.
A few years ago, a company called Harmony (now owned by Logitech) devised a nutty alternative plan. Harmony created a database of 250,000 audio and video components — every model known. And Harmony sleuthed out all the proper infrared remote-control codes to send to each one.
So to program your Harmony remote, all you had to do was tell it which components you owned. “TiVo Series 3.” “Samsung 7100 Smart TV.” And so on. The programming was done for you.
It was genius. Harmony took on the programming work. This system has given thousands of people universal remotes that really, truly work. And it’s given them their weekends back. Dozens of Harmony models have come and gone, some with lovely, responsive touchscreens.
Which brings us to Problem #2: People already have smart devices in their pockets, which already have lovely touchscreens. Wouldn’t it be great if we could use those to control our entertainment systems, Harmony style?
Sounds great, but there are a couple of huge obstacles. For one thing, most smartphones don’t have infrared (IR) transmitters. How are they supposed to control A/V components, which are usually designed to be controlled by IR?
Furthermore, these days, we want to control more than our TV setups. We want to control our lights, our thermostats, our door locks. What about that?
Meet the Hub
Harmony’s terrific new product, the $100 Ultimate Home Hub, solves all of these problems in one attractive swoop.
Your phone doesn’t have an IR “blaster?” No problem — this sleek black plastic capsule is packed with them. It floods your room with invisible IR signals, bouncing off of walls and ceilings, hitting everything in your entertainment center.
I was astonished to find that it could actually control my soundbar, eight feet directly above the Hub:
If the Hub is deep inside a cabinet, no problem; it comes with two IR blaster extensions, which you can park outside the cabinet.
And now that the “remote” is your smartphone, programming is smartphone-slick, too. To get started, you download a free Harmony Control app, which first guides you through the process of introducing the Hub to your home WiFi network.
Then comes the part where you choose your gadgets from a list. You tap the Add a Device button. You enter the brand name and model, as shown here at left:
And like that, your Harmony app displays the correct component, knows exactly what features it offers, and stands ready to control it. You’re asked to test turning it on and off from your phone, just to make sure.
By the way: I was delighted to see my Samsung TV and Apple TV already listed in the app, without my even having to type them in. That’s because, if your A/V component is also on WiFi (like many current HDTV sets, Roku Internet-video boxes, Sonos speakers, and so on), you don’t have to type it in. The Harmony Hub finds it automatically — because it also speaks Bluetooth and WiFi, not just IR.
Thanks to the Bluetooth feature, the Hub can control the Nintendo Wii U and the Sony PlayStation 3, too.
After you’ve added a few devices, the app proposes creating “activity” buttons like “Watch TiVo” or “Watch a Blu-ray.” Each automatically turns on the necessary components and switches them to the proper inputs — with a single tap on the app’s screen.
For example, my Watch TiVo button turns on my Samsung TV, Sony soundbar, and TiVo. It switches the TV and soundbar to the proper inputs, and even hits Enter (an extra required step when you change inputs on the Samsung 7100). All of this automatically. It takes a few seconds, but at least you get a fascinating show of your gadgets popping on and coming to life all by themselves.
Once your TV is on, your phone’s screen becomes a touchpad. You can swipe up or down to adjust volume, left or right to change channel, and so on. Pretty cool.
Swipe horizontally to see screens full of favorite-channel icons, or the buttons that would be on the TiVo remote, if you were still using it.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that you can also dive much more deeply into the Harmony. You don’t have to accept the simplified, automatic process. You can remap the buttons on your remote, manually adjust what happens when you tap an activity button, and so on. You can hand-program your setup to within an inch of its life.
But you don’t have to.
The brains of the outfit
None of this is new to Harmony remotes. What’s new is that the IR signals aren’t coming from a remote in your hand anymore; they’re coming from the Hub, sitting over by the TV stuff.
What’s also new is that all of the programming is stored on your Hub, not your phone. (To be precise, it’s stored online and retrieved by the Hub.) Which means that you can leave home with your phone — and someone else in the family can take over the TV setup using her phone! The Hub remembers which things were turned on and which inputs were selected.
That’s a crazy twist that’s hard to get your brain around. Since the first Neanderthal wielded the very first home-entertainment remote carved from a mammoth tusk, the programming has always been stored in the remote. No longer.
In fact, since the brains of the operation is the Hub, you can use your phone or a physical, traditional Harmony remote interchangeably. That’s why Logitech also sells the Ultimate Home Hub in a package with a traditional Harmony remote ($150, shown here at left), or with a glorious, rechargeable touchscreen remote ($350, right).
It’s impossible to overstate how well designed these remotes are, especially the touchscreen one. The screen pops to life when you pick it up. You can tap one of your activities on the screen, or you can control your components independently. (That’s true on the phone app, too.) And whenever you’re in an activity, the buttons on the remote (Play, Rewind, and so on) operate whatever device is playing your media.
Finally, there’s one more advantage to making the Hub the brains of the operation: You do all the setup on your phone, not a website. If you own one of the two physical remotes, you no longer have to connect them to a computer every time you want to change the programming. (You do have to connect the remote to a computer on Day One, though, to install a firmware update.)
The word “Home” is new in this product’s clunky name, by the way (“the Logitech Harmony Ultimate Home Hub”). It refers to the system’s new ability to control certain other automated elements of your home: Nest thermostats; Honeywell Internet-connected thermostats; August door locks; Philips Hue lights; and remote-controllable products from Lutron, Peq, and SmartThings.
Now your “Watch a Movie” activity can include not just turning on the right components, but also dimming the lights and closing the curtains. That’d be cool.
As it happens, I own a Nest thermostat, and I have some Philips Hue lights; the Harmony controls them all beautifully. (The Nest interface is especially nice: A horizontal line shows you the current temp; you drag the line up or down to make it warmer or cooler. It’s fun.)
Unfortunately, the list of gadgets that the Home Hub can control is pretty small. Among the missing: any gadgets that speak the Z-Wave home-automation language (from GE, Honeywell, Trane, ESI Drapery, and so on) or the ZigBee automation language (from Bosch, ARM, Carrier, Cisco, Control, ecobee, LG, and so on).
Logitech intends to keep expanding the list of compatible devices; for example, you’ll soon be able to buy a $130 expansion module for your Hub that adds Z-Wave and ZigBee compatibility.
But then you’ll have spent $230 for your home-automation control system — a big investment, considering that rival gadgets like the Wink (reviewed here) cost only 50 bucks.
A touch of class
A few unfortunate footnotes:
First, it’s very weird that there’s no tablet app for the Hub; that’d make perfect sense. (You can run the phone app on a tablet, but it’s the same layout, just magnified.)
Second, when you use the $350 touchscreen remote, there’s no onscreen keyboard for tapping things like movie names into Apple TV or Netflix. You have to move your arrow from letter to letter. It’s like water torture.
Finally, while I was delighted that you get 90 days of free help from Harmony’s tech-support department, I wasn’t so thrilled with the results the one time I needed it.
Still. You know what? I’ve come to despise reviewing networking gear and home-automation stuff, because I know it’s going to involve days of frustration. I know it won’t work right the first time.
This was different. The L.H.U.H.H. worked the first time and continues working beautifully. It’s so much better than the ridiculous programmable remote that had been lying on the Pogue coffee table — expensive, hefty, out of date, programmable only via proprietary cable to a Windows laptop — that it’s not even funny.
The Harmony Home Hub is so good, I’m going to buy one for myself. Let the IR blasting begin!