The joys of universal remotes. Who doesn’t love looking through an instruction manual printed in a 4 point font, trying to find a 5 digit code that may or may not match your television sets model, holding multiple buttons on your remote to put it into a programming mode, typing that tiny 5 digit code incorrectly and having to go through the whole cycle again? I mean seriously … who doesn’t love doing that?
Universal remotes have come a long way and can now be integrated into your smart home and voice assistants. I have the Logitech Harmony hubs and remotes set up on three different entertainment systems, integrated with Amazon, Google, Philips Hue, and Smartthings. Yes, you can get simpler Harmony remotes that are very affordable and switch all of your home entertainment devices with the press of a single button. But the Harmony Elite takes that experience to the next level.
One of the first smart gadgets I ever bought was a Harmony universal remote control, which completely changed how I viewed universal remotes. This was when Harmony was a small Canadian company and before it was bought by Logitech in the early 2000’s. The thing that has always set Harmony remotes apart from more traditional universal remotes was the ease of setup and the remotes ability for tracking and changing your entertainment system’s settings and inputs with a single button press.
Even with a cheap universal remote you still have to manually hit TV -> Power, DVR -> Power, etc. until you get everything setup like you need it. Have a smart TV, Xbox, PlayStation, Apple TV, Cable Box, Blu-ray player, soundbar, and you’re either juggling 6 or more remotes or fumbling with an overworked dumb universal remote.
The simplest of the Harmony remotes take that all down to a single button press. Hit the “Watch TV” button and everything springs to life on its own, powering up and switching inputs.
And let’s not forget the most important factor with this: family approval. The more stuff I’d add to our entertainment setup, the more frustrated my wife would become. A smart universal remote is a marriage saver. You also know it’s a solid performer when it gets the mom & dad seal of approval. My parents are not technically inclined people and they swear by Logitech Harmony remotes too.
Too many to choose from!
At the most basic, you can pick up remotes like the Logitech Harmony 350 or 650 ($25 – $50), but when you move into the remotes that include a hub, like the the Harmony Companion and Harmony Elite, the price takes a big jump ($100 – $300 … you can often find good sales and deals for around $250), but the additional functionality and ease of use can be worth the extra cost.
The Logitech Harmony Elite comes with a hub that sits in your entertainment center. This is the brain of everything and is what actually blasts out the infrared signals that control most entertainment devices like DVRs & TVs, as well as connecting to many bluetooth devices, like PlayStation 4, and your WiFi. There are even a couple of extension IR blasters that you can string around to get coverage of devices that aren’t in line of site from the hub. This means you can hide away all of your devices and no longer need to point a remote control directly at things to get them to work. In my bedroom setup, I have several components hidden away in a closet out of site.
The included remote is using radio frequencies to connect with the hub and issue commands, so you don’t have to worry about pointing that anywhere specific either. This can often be a problem with traditional IR remotes, like the Logitech Harmony 350 or 650, since a coffee table might obstruct the signal to your DVR and it fails to get switched to the right mode, but the TV and amplifier switched on just fine. This throws the mode out of sync and any universal remote won’t be aware that something got screwed up. Thankfully, Harmony has a help button that will reissue the IR commands for the mode you’re currently in to try and rectify the situation. However, with the hub based systems, you typically don’t have this happen. Once it’s set up and working, it just works. You don’t have to worry about line of sight unless you move something in your entertainment center.
Having a hub also gives you more options for controlling the system. You can load the Harmony app onto your phone or tablet and use those as remotes. If you use Amazon Echos you can activate the Amazon Echo Skill to use voice commands for your different modes. Same is true for Google hubs like the Google Home Mini or the Google Home Hub. In fact, with the Google Home Hub you get some really nice visual controls for play & pause, and volume on the Hub itself.
When I first set this up a couple of years ago, my wife laughed at me and thought the voice commands were ridiculous. It’s so much easier to use a remote, right? It depends on the situation. My wife came around when she realized she could turn on the home theater from the kitchen, and by the time she got out to the living room with her food, the TV would be on and waiting for her ready to go. Obviously, not a necessity, but it’s a really nice perk. One major flaw though is that voice controls can only be linked to one hub, so if you have 2 or 3, like I do, you have to be selective with which hub will get voice controls. Logitech released a second Amazon Echo skill to get a second hub working at the same time, which is great, but kind of a hacky way to fix the issue. Why not change it so you can just tell Amazon or Google which hub a command is meant for? Like “Hey voice assistant, turn on the living room TV?”
You can also program in custom words for specific channels, so you can ask Amazon to turn on ABC or CBS and it will turn on the TV and enter the proper channel number on your TV or cable box. This won’t work for opening specific apps though on something like an Apple TV … there are some hacky ways to do it by automatically moving your onscreen selection a set number of spaces each time the mode starts, but I wouldn’t advise doing that because it’s prone to error. However, if your smart TV has a button or command to automatically launch something like Netflix, you should be able to take advantage of that and create a “Watch Netflix” activity. This is definitely true for Roku, which allows you to launch and app like Netflix directly.
Smart home integration
You can link your hub up to Amazon, Google, Philips Hue, Nest, Ecobee, Lutron, LIFX, Smartthings … okay, you get the point … it’s pretty much everything. Once you start to link smart home features into your hub, it opens up even more possibilities for automating routines. I have my living room lights set to come on automatically if I turn on the TV after sunset. Change the mode to “Watch Movie” and the lights dim to a more appropriate movie watching level. You could add Harmony into smart home routines, like a “time for bed” routine, and your smart home would not only turn off lights, lock the front door, but it could also make sure the TV and other devices are turned off. Same for leaving the house.
The Harmony Elite also has several smart home dedicated buttons on the remote that you can use to turn lights or outlets on and off with a press. For me, I have a button for the living room lights, and another for the outside lights on the front of my house. These come in handy if you need to turn on the living room lights quickly while watching a movie, or for turning off the outside lights if they’re distracting and not needed while trying to focus on the latest episode of Stranger Things.
Setting things up
Logitech Harmony has come a long way since the early days. For the Logitech Harmony Hub products like the Elite, you just install the app on your phone or tablet and follow the initial setup instructions. This will get your hub and remote control onto your WiFi. After that you set up all of the different devices you want to control. For something like a TV, you just type in the brand and model number, which brings up a confirmation screen showing matching options from the Logitech database.
Once you have your devices setup, the Harmony app will usually ask you if you’d like to automatically create activities based off of a new device you’ve added. This automated activity setup has been hit or miss for me, so I usually tell it no thanks and set up activities myself. An activity is something like “Watch TV,” “Watch a Blu-ray,” or “Play Xbox,” which you then add devices to that activity. For me, I have a Watch TV activity with my LG TV, Denon receiver, and Apple TV as devices. You tell it which device will control the volume, what inputs each device needs to be set to (HDMI 1 and TV Audio for me on my TV and Denon receiver). Confirm that you can see and hear everything properly and then Harmony asks you if you’d like to add smart home devices to the activity. This is where you can set smart lights, like Philips Hue, to turn on to specific levels and colors, and if you’d like to limit it to a time of day, as well as what those lights should do when you end the activity.
Want to customize the buttons on the remote? Not a problem. Under the the “Remote & Hub” settings menu, select your remotes Button Customization. This is where you can customize what those home control buttons do for all activities, or even customize them for specific activities. Select a button on the image and then assign what you want the button to do.
While it’s relatively easy to set this all up, I will say that the app’s UI can be slightly confusing. To advance through the setup wizard, you have to tap the forward or back arrows at the top of the screen, which isn’t a common interface design and can be confusing. There’s also a long lag at time when you tap on one of the arrows because the app is waiting for responses from the Logitech servers.
The lag can sometimes feel like the app has hung, when In fact, it’s working just fine. Those issues though are generally limited to the setup sections of the app. The remote functionality is much more responsive and easy to use, so day to day use is just fine.
Logitech Harmony remotes have become the go to standard for universal remotes, and there’s a good reason. They just work. Yes, they can be a little fiddly to set up, but once you do, they work reliably and are family friendly. The entry level Harmony remotes are a huge improvement over a more generic universal remotes for setup and day to day use, but Harmony’s hub based remotes make even those remotes look lackluster.
There are other remotes that do similar things like Neeo, Ray Super Remote, and Caavo, but they don’t have as large of a hardware compatibility list, as well as the tight integrations into smart home tech. For an all around “it works with pretty much everything,” you can’t go wrong with Logitech Harmony Companion or Elite. It not only solves the confusion around more complicated home theater setups, but adds some really nice conveniences with your smartphone and smart home.