Turning Apple’s iOS devices into universal remote controls isn’t anywhere near as easy as one might think. Nearly a dozen universal remote control accessories have been released over the last year and a half, and not one has rated our high recommendation: thanks to major challenges in getting both the accessories and the apps to work properly at reasonable prices, the best of the bunch thus far have been Griffin’s Beacon and Gear4’s UnityRemote. This week, Logitech released Harmony Link ($100), an iOS-ready version of its well-respected Harmony line of universal remote controls. While we’ve been hoping that Logitech would enter the market and school its rivals, Harmony Link is another “close but no cigar” option that gets the hardware right but misses with the software; it will only be worth considering after some significant software updates.
Because there are three main pieces to the Harmony Link story—the accessory hardware, the PC/Mac setup application, and the iOS application that looks considerably different between the iPad and iPhone/iPod touch—we’ve created separate sections of this review to deal with each part of the experience. Read on for all the details.
Harmony Link: The Hardware
Just like Gear4 and Griffin, Logitech’s concept with Harmony Link is to avoid the need to plug a dongle into your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, relying on the iOS devices’ built-in wireless features and a standalone black glossy Infrared blaster to control your TV, DVR, and other home entertainment center devices. Thankfully, Harmony Link isn’t a clone of UnityRemote or Beacon—instead, it takes its own smart path. Logitech’s Infrared blaster is an oval measuring 4.75” across by 4” deep and roughly 0.9” tall, considerably shorter than any similar accessory we’ve previously covered, but with a larger footprint. It has a status indicator light on the front, a matte-finished, rubber-padded bottom, and a surprising collection of four different ports on its back.
Unlike its rivals, Harmony Link’s blaster actually integrates directly into your home entertainment center, sitting as close to your devices as possible. This is a major advantage for users who don’t want to keep an IR blaster sitting on a table or other surface in front of their TVs, but there are literally strings attached as a consequence: cables. Harmony Link connects to an included wall adapter with one very long cable. You can optionally connect up to two cabled mini Infrared blasters—one is included in the package—to reach devices that aren’t within the main blaster’s line of sight. And when you want to set up or subsequently program the Harmony Link, you use an included USB syncing cable and your computer. If you have a home entertainment center, hiding the cables away will be easy, but if you don’t, you might find Gear4 or Griffin’s battery-powered designs more appealing.
From our perspective, Logitech made mostly great choices with the Harmony Link hardware. We love that the unit doesn’t require you to replace batteries, and because it’s wall-powered, the accessory can easily join and stay on your Wi-Fi network rather than requiring you to worry about Bluetooth. The mini blaster expandability is another great touch, enabling you to really reduce Harmony Link’s visual impact without reducing its ability to control multiple devices; you may now even be able to hide away a DVR or cable box that previously had to be in your remote control’s line of sight. In short, Harmony Link offers almost all of the hardware advantages of its rivals, and then some, with only battery-powered portability as a consequence.
Harmony Link: The My Harmony Computer Software
Where Harmony Link starts to go off the rails is in Logitech’s approach to device setup and updating. Rather than creating a simple Wi-Fi link between your iOS device and the Harmony Link accessory, Logitech requires you to download a PC or Mac program called My Harmony to program the Harmony Link, then connect it to your computer with the USB cable. The process is similar to Logitech’s approach for other Harmony remote controls, but it’s somewhat overcomplicated and unnecessary for iOS devices, which are capable of handling everything without the assistance of a computer.
Unusually, once Logitech’s software is installed, it doesn’t sit in your computer’s applications folder—instead, it’s accessed solely through your web browser as a Microsoft Silverlight app, storing your device settings on a Logitech web server that requires you to set up and log into an account. The software lets you store up to eight different devices, such as a TV, a DVR, an Apple TV, a Blu-Ray player, and an audio receiver, then create activities that rely upon those devices for different features: watching Apple TV, for instance, may require your Sony television to be powered on and set to a specific input channel with your speakers on a certain volume.
To Logitech’s credit, this software really tries to simplify the process of using devices, much as the company’s Harmony remotes have done in the past. You’re asked solely to enter the manufacturer and model number for a given device, at which point the software looks up and generally figures out properly what type of device it is—a TV, DVR, receiver, and so on—though you’re too often asked to whip out your old remotes and manually teach the Harmony Link a few commands that should already be in Logitech’s huge database after all these years. Additionally, after your initial setup, additional changes can be handled with wireless synchronization to your iOS device rather than having to plug Harmony Link back into your computer like a Harmony Remote control.
So My Harmony isn’t all bad, but it isn’t great, either. My Harmony didn’t ask us to transfer existing settings over from your prior Harmony remotes, so we had to start as fresh here as we did with any competing product. Not being able to find the application without going back to the Logitech web site is sort of odd, and the overall “set up, then test, then confirm settings” user experience from other Harmony remotes isn’t replicated here. That’s a major issue that stems from the use of separate computer- and iOS-based apps rather than a single unified iOS app that could have handled everything at once.
Harmony Link: The iOS App
If Logitech’s computer software was a little bit off but compensated for by a Harmony Remote-class iOS application, Harmony Link would have been good—that fact that enables us to be optimistic about the accessory’s future, since software updates may address the deficiencies. But for the time being, the iOS application is a mess.
Running Harmony Link on an iPad is a totally different experience from using it on an iPod touch or iPhone. On the iPad, the screen is occupied by an brightly colored and attractively designed program guide, with a scrolling bar of current programming at the bottom, a large pane for whichever single program you’ve chosen to focus on, and buttons along the top of the screen to look at later airtimes and listings. There’s also a filter to let you focus on certain programming genres, and buttons to call up settings and remote control menus. Here, Logitech’s concept is to remove your need to really focus on traditional remote control functionality: you just pick a program that interests you, press the Watch Now button, and let the Harmony Link do the rest. Want to switch between traditional TV and a device? Press the TV iconed Activities button in the upper right corner and you’ll be presented with a list of the Activities you set up in the My Harmony software.
Press one, a gear will spin, and Harmony Link will bring up a customized slideable remote that lets you change channels, volume, and play/pause status with a thin bar, expanding with additional buttons if you swipe more of them onto the screen above the program guide. You can easily slide the remote back when it’s not needed, a nice idea.
Unfortunately, neither the program guide nor the remote worked particularly well in our testing. The Guide’s data included programs that weren’t actually on when we tried to access them, and the “Watch Now” buttons didn’t work to change channels. Additionally, the automated Activities kept doing the sorts of things that a properly set up standalone Harmony Remote doesn’t do: turning off the TV every time a different activity was selected, not properly changing channels, and requiring plenty of attempts to use a “Quick Fix” feature to try and get things back on track.
On the iPhone and iPod touch, the user interface is dark and shallow. There’s no program guide; instead, there are separate tabs for “One Touch”—Activities—a Controls feature that’s a simplified version of the slide-over remote control on the iPad version, and a settings menu with fewer options due to the missing program guide. Unmarked buttons at the top of the One Touch screen let you reorganize the buttons and create additional channel-switching activities. You can switch between tap and gesture-based controls for some of the remote controls, relying on a limited assortment of confusing and somewhat unintuitive buttons. Though there are overlays to try and explain what some of these things do, one might gather that the iPhone/iPod touch portion of this app wasn’t totally finished before Harmony Link was released, and that Logitech just put the app out as-was.
In its current form, Harmony Link is a disappointment. Logitech clearly got the hardware side of the equation right, creating a very viable alternative to Gear4’s UnityRemote and Griffin’s Beacon that eliminates the user’s need to manage batteries, while offering even more Infrared power to control devices that have been hidden away. There’s no doubt that Harmony Link would be a great option with the right software.
But between the Silverlight-based computer application and the seemingly rushed, very different iOS applications, Harmony Link is not yet ready for prime time. As excited as we were to test it, we found ourselves unwilling to go through the steps necessary to keep on using it once it was set up, because the overall experience was more difficult than just going back to an older and simpler Harmony universal remote. For the time being, users would be better off spending the same dollars on earlier Harmony units, which deliver a much more straightforward user experience, or on competing iOS solutions that have done far better on the software side. Should Logitech put the time into Harmony Link to fix the software problems, this option will be worth revisiting.
Update October 17, 2011: Logitech has already started to make fixes to the iOS application, including filling in the blank buttons that were previously confusing within the iPhone/iPod touch user interface. Hopefully additional updates will be forthcoming, and bring the Harmony Link experience up to par with (or better than) other Harmony remote controls.
Company and Price
Model: Harmony Link
Compatible: iPad, iPad 2, iPhones, iPod touches