Review: Logitech Harmony Ultimate Universal Remote Control
Evaluating Apple accessories used to be a straightforward process. Each accessory arrived as packaged hardware, worked the same on day one as on year two, and rarely integrated deeply with Apple's devices. Speakers made iPods and iPhones sound better, external displays bolstered their video output, and car kits linked them to vehicles for charging and audio -- accessories either "just worked" or didn't. These days, the story's different: software has made some accessories more complex and unpredictable. Many accessories depend considerably upon iOS apps that evolve features over time, resolving or developing serious bugs during their lifespans. As a consequence, accessories are now moving targets, and Logitech's just-released Harmony Ultimate ($350) is a prime example of the challenges this can create for users. It's a sophisticated and impressive universal remote control system tied together by problematic, still-unfinished firmware and software.
Since Logitech’s Harmony division has made well-regarded universal remote controls for a decade, it could be resting on its past successes—slightly tweaking earlier designs, adjusting their prices, and pushing “new” units out the door. Harmony Ultimate is a somewhat more ambitious product. Logitech started with two existing accessories, the $250 standalone touchscreen remote Harmony Touch, and the $100 iOS-compatible Wi-Fi hub Harmony Link, improving each device’s hardware while tying them together in new ways. The result is one package containing one dedicated universal remote control plus a “Harmony Hub” that lets your iOS device serve as a second part-time universal remote control, plus all of the power, micro-USB, and Infrared extender components needed to make both parts work. All that’s missing from the box is the software, which you access over the Internet.
Before we discuss the software, let’s consider the likely target customer for Harmony Ultimate. Harmony Touch was a sophisticated but flawed take on the traditional universal remote control, programmed by a computer to manage a TV set, A/V receiver, DVR, DVD/Blu-Ray player, and related devices with a single handheld accessory. Harmony Link instead enabled you to use an iOS device and app for the same purpose, translating an iOS app’s Wi-Fi commands into Infrared signals compatible with most media center devices. The new Harmony Ultimate is designed for users who want to switch off between those control options at will. If Ultimate’s included remote runs out of battery power, gets lost, or is in someone else’s hands, you can use any iOS device instead as a backup. If this bundle strikes you as either overkill or engineering around a problem that a better-designed Touch or Link might have solved, we can understand where you’re coming from—and suggest that you go with either of the considerably less expensive solutions instead. But for households that want two or more viable remote controls for the same media center, it might make sense.
The only reason we use the word “might” is Logitech’s software, which sadly remains so confoundingly buggy that we can’t confidently predict what users will experience. While we feel obligated to discuss the issues in some detail—skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t care—the summary point is this: Harmony Ultimate has too many potential points of software failure, and we experienced multiple issues during testing.
Rather than using a standalone iOS or computer app to set up Harmony Ultimate, Logitech requires you to install Microsoft’s Silverlight—a rival to Adobe’s Flash—then configure the remote and hub using a web site called Myharmony.com. Myharmony.com only supports two Mac web browsers, Safari and Firefox, balking when loaded on a Mac with Chrome; on a Windows PC, Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox are supported, but not Safari. During the course of the six hours we spent setting Harmony Ultimate up using two separate computers, we experienced separate problems with the Silverlight software (“we are unable to initialize it properly… please uninstall [and] re-install it”) and the Myharmony web site, which valiantly tries to simplify a complex process but only partially succeeds. Myharmony.com began by unnecessarily filling each computer’s entire screen with a huge window, walked us through specifying each of the media center’s devices and activities to combine their controls, and then proceeded to hang over and over again during programming of the remote and hub. Was it the web browser? Silverlight? Harmony Ultimate firmware? The computer we were using? We had no idea, but tried changing everything to make it through the setup process. Nothing worked. Subsequently, Logitech traced the issues to a firmware problem, which was fixed several days later, and we were finally able to get both the remote and hub working. Generally.
Unfortunately, other setup issues persisted. We were unable to port Harmony settings from previously-tested (and all but identical) Touch and Link accessories over to Ultimate, as Myharmony.com showed both prior Harmony devices, yet displayed an error message: “devices and Activities cannot be copied from this particular account.” This meant that we had to start from scratch with Ultimate, manually entering each device again, then reconfiguring past activities. Additionally, after the aforementioned firmware update problems, Myharmony.com disabled the hub unit’s Wi-Fi, so it wasn’t showing up on a network we had specified multiple times during the setup process. We had to manually go back, re-enable Wi-Fi for the hub, and try everything again. As noted at the beginning of this review, ever-changing software means that accessories such as this are moving targets, so we have no idea whether a user will experience some of these issues, none of them, or different ones.
Once we’d worked around those issues and manually set up both Harmony Ultimate pieces, the user experience became better, though still not quite perfect. On a seriously positive note, Logitech has updated the original Harmony Touch remote with some new tricks, including an improved software interface that makes better use of the pixels and touchscreen capabilities of the prior 2.4” color display. New Apple-like dots signal that you can swipe left and right through interface pages, making it easier to switch between activities, favorite TV channels, and on-screen buttons.
Redesigned screen buttons call up gesture and settings features, while adding support for additional controls, such as the ability to command Philips’ Hue light bulb bridge, as well as certain game consoles, leveraging the hub for communications the remote can’t handle itself. Despite all of these improvements, the remote appears to manage power consumption far better than its predecessor, which we noted was susceptible to draining down in two days or less. A nice included recharging cradle and wall adapter are virtually identical to Harmony Touch’s, but you won’t need to use them as often, which is great. If Logitech sold this remote by itself as Harmony Touch 2.0, it would probably merit our strong general recommendation. We actively enjoyed using it more than its predecessor.
Another change that users may or may not like are two-state physical buttons that can differentiate between short and long presses; the buttons can be reprogrammed using the Myharmony web site to do pretty much whatever you want. While we like the concept, we found that the two-state system led to some confusion during use of the remote: hardware volume buttons for some reason doubled as scrubber controls, triggering the wrong type of interaction when we attempted to change volume levels. Logitech has also added a vibration motor to the Harmony Ultimate remote, enabling it to provide gentle haptic feedback when on-screen buttons are pressed, or not if you prefer it off. Necessary, no, but interesting nonetheless.
Harmony Ultimate’s hub similarly takes several steps beyond Harmony Link. On the physical side, Logitech has swapped the prior oval shape for a bubbly rounded rectangle that still functions as a standalone Wi-Fi receiver and Infrared blaster, powered by an included wall adapter. The company also bundles Ultimate with two detachable Infrared blasters rather than Harmony Link’s one. Some people won’t have a need for the blasters, but if you’re controlling a complex media center with hidden or stacked components—something you mightn’t have considered doing before now—the blasters each have plenty of cable length to snake into places traditional remotes couldn’t reach.
Another addition relates to the new “pair/reset” button on the hub’s back, which enables the hub to wirelessly connect with the Harmony Ultimate remote. Thanks to an under-the-hood change, the hub now includes both 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 3.0 wireless support, enabling the remote to signal the hub to control Wi-Fi devices such as Philips’ Hue, as well as controlling Netflix, Hulu Plus, and other Internet-based services found inside game consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation 3, Microsoft’s Xbox 360, and Nintendo’s Wii. Ideally, the Harmony Ultimate software would support similarly direct control of Hulu Plus and Netflix on the Apple TV, but Apple currently restricts remotes too much for this to happen; the omission isn’t Logitech’s fault.
Despite the nice hardware additions, the Harmony Ultimate hub has a familiar problem: yes, it’s the software again. Rather than leveraging the iPod-, iPhone- and iPad-compatible Harmony Link app it previously developed, Logitech instead uses a different app that’s only been formatted for the iPod and iPhone: Harmony Control. When it’s working properly, the app resembles a considerably larger version of the Harmony Ultimate screen, complete with identical user-programmable activities synchronized directly to the hub from the Myharmony web site, then from the hub to the app—a slightly delayed process that nonetheless worked during our testing. Separate screens offer one-touch favorite channel changing, facsimiles of device-specific remote controls, and even an optional gesture interface. While the app doesn’t display these screens in an ideal order for quick on-and-off use, and the in-app iconography could use some serious tweaking to boost intuitiveness, the functionality it offers isn’t bad.
But what is bad is the app’s reliability. Even in the just-released version 2.0.2 of the software, the app sometimes locked up on our iOS devices in the middle of sending activity commands, put up “Activity did not start” error messages, and sometimes lagged considerably between iOS button presses and actual sending of commands through the hub. Users have apparently complained about these and other issues in prior versions of the app, as well, without seeing proper fixes. As sad as we are to say it, all of the user experience improvements the Harmony Ultimate’s remote offers are offset by the problems we experienced with the hub software. Most users will find it hard to justify spending an extra $100 beyond the $250 Harmony Touch to add an unreliable hub to the package, but if Logitech can fix the app, perhaps that will change.
In its current state, the Harmony Ultimate package feels unfinished—as if the hardware was completed and reliable enough to sell, but without the necessary software to guarantee a truly great or even good overall user experience. The parts are all here to offer users a deluxe multi-remote control package, but between the Silverlight-based setup process, the Myharmony web site, the iffy firmware updates and the glitchy iOS application, we can’t in good conscience recommend Harmony Ultimate for its $350 asking price. As much as we’d like to assume that the software issues will be resolved in future updates, Logitech has put its Harmony division up for sale, and we can only hope that the bugs and kinks are worked out; there are no guarantees.
There is no question at this point that Logitech has the talent to develop fantastic hardware that looks and works well; we’ve seen it hit home runs many times before with speakers, headphones, and computer accessories. Unfortunately, the software for products like this is a critically necessary element of the overall user experience, and to the extent that software doesn’t work properly, users will be disappointed, particularly at high price points like this one. Not for lack of ambition or effort, Harmony Ultimate falls short of its considerable potential. We hope that the web and app software receive the attention they deserve, because Harmony Ultimate is tantalizingly close to being recommendable. If nothing else, the improved hardware could be split up to improve upon Logitech’s earlier models.