I have a relatively simple setup of various boxes in the living room. There’s a TV, an AV receiver, PlayStation 3 and my HTPC (Intel NUC). That’s three separate remote controllers lying on the living room table as I don’t have a remote for the PS3. Obviously even 3 remotes not ideal, so I did not try to persuade the rest of the family to actually use three different remotes just to watch TV. For a couple of years I did try to get along with a simple Sony learning universal remote controller (RM-VLZ620T).
However, even if that remote could learn commands from other remotes and there was an option of creating command sequences, the remote was always cumbersome to use. I wasn’t able to program discrete power on and off commands for most of the devices so the command sequences would turn devices on and off seemingly at random. Remembering to choose the correct device at the top of the remote every time when you wanted to do something with a different device was a pain. I was annoyed at the thing and the rest of the family openly frustrated.
When the remote stubbornly refused to learn the codes for my new AV receiver I finally decided it was time to replace it with something more modern. I knew Logitech had some fancy products for almost $300 but I always felt that was insane money to spend on a remote controller so I kept on looking. Black Friday eventually sorted it out and I bought a Logitech Harmony Smart Control for a reasonable price. After using the device for a month I just can’t imagine going back – the thing fulfills my needs near perfectly although it has its quirks.
Logitech’s current Harmony line-up of devices is more or less based on the Harmony Hub – a device size of an ice-hockey puck that ties all your devices together. The hub contains an infrared blaster that can be used to control your TV, DVD players, NUC or other devices. In case you have devices in multiple closed cabinets you can plug in two additional wired IR blasters (one extra IR blaster is supplied in the Harmony Smart Control package) to extend the signal. In case you have devices that have Bluetooth remotes (such as PS3) the hub can handle BT as well. It’s also connected to your wifi network. The wifi is used for the smartphone app, setup, upgrades and possible home automation integration. IFTTT or Amazon Echo can be used to command the hub (“if it’s 7am on a weekday and my smartphone is at home then switch on TV and set channel to CNN” or just “Alexa, turn on my TV”).
That’s not all, the hub pairs with a remote controller or two over the radio frequencies. So the remote in the Logitech Smart Home Control package actually just controls the hub and it’s the hub that relays the commands onwards to various devices. This might sound ineffective, but in reality it works really well. I cannot detect any lag compared to the plain simple IR remote I was using before. Maybe the coolest thing is that you don’t need to point the remote at the device because it uses RF to signal the hub. Your Harmony Hub could be inside the media cabinet behind closed doors and the remote still works. Heck, you could even be in another room and the remote still works!
Logitech has put up a nice video on YouTube that explains you the idea in less than 2 minutes.
Smart Control Remote Controller
As I just explained the remote controller talks with the hub using radio frequencies. There are various different remote controllers and the Smart Control remote that I got is the entry-level model.
It’s a relatively simple remote that in my opinion has just the right level of complexity. All the essential functions are there but nothing absolutely crucial is missing. The remote is actually quite thin and light but still feels solid and nice to hold. You can program two commands for each button – one for a short press and another one for a long press. I’ve put some of the more advanced functions behind long press so the rest of the family does not need to be bothered about them.
My only complaint would be the low amount of activity buttons. The whole thing is based on the activities that can be selected with the 3 buttons at the top of the remote for activities such as “Watch TV”, “Listen to a CD” or “Play PS3”. While it’s just enough for my small scale setup I can easily imagine that it’s not enough for some people. You can place two activities behind each activity button (short press/long press) but I feel you should not have to think about how you actually need to press this button in order to watch TV for example. Considering that the hub has capability to control 8 devices another row of activity buttons would have been nice. In general I’m happy with the activity based concept, it’s really quite intuitive. The buttons on the remote can be configured per activity. So in the watch TV mode all the buttons control the TV except the volume buttons that I’ve configured to send commands to the amp. Also, if you change from “Play PS3” activity to “Watch TV” it automatically will switch off just the PS3 (even this power behaviour can be customized). It does not need to do anything to the TV, as it was already on and Harmony knows it.
Smart Phone Control
There’s also the Harmony app which is available for Apple IOS and Android devices. The app can be used as a remote as well and it does not have the limitation of 3/6 activities only. However, I mainly use the app for configuring the behavior of the Harmony system. It’s just a bit too cumbersome to find your phone, unlock it, open the app and find the button if you just need to change the channel. I find myself reaching for the physical remote that I can use to change channels without actually even looking at it. There are also certain limitations when it comes to the smartphone remote. For example, I would hope that in future it’s possible to customize the visual layout of the buttons in the app freely but right now not all buttons can be moved around.
But yes, back to configuration. I mainly used the smartphone app to do it, but there’s also software for Windows that can be used. Even if the system guides you through quite nicely it’s a bit cumbersome and you end up watching the “Connecting to Harmony Servers” screen a bit too often. My AVR was autodetected by the app and I configured my TV manually and finally added the NUC and PS3 too. There are many different NUCs in the system and they all seem to have a different keymap even if they all should be pretty much the same. I added my NUC as a D54250WYK as that seemed to give me the largest set of commands available. I then created the “Watch PC” (yes, I did rename this later) activity to turn on the HTPC, the AVR and the TV. After powering on the devices it would change the active HDMI inputs of the TV and the AVR to the correct ports. The programming of activities is fairly easy and you’ll test each step along the way.
Logitech says there’s currently 270 000 devices in the database from which you pull the device configuration data. You’ve got fairly good possibilities to customize the behaviour further to your liking if there’s no perfect match in the database. You can add delays between the commands in a sequence and if the command you want to add is not in the list you can teach the system new commands using the original remote.
Discrete Power Commands for Intel NUC
Most of the remotes have a combined on/off button to toggle the power of a device. Anyone who has played a bit with universal remotes knows that power toggle is problematic in a command sequence. If your devices are not in the expected power state before the execution of the sequence it will essentially fail. You could end up having all the other devices on, but the TV off when you want to watch a movie. Discrete power on and power off commands help you out here as their actions are deterministic. Pressing the power on when a device is on does not power it off. Often the manufacturer has included support for a much wider set of commands than the actual remote controller can send. Thus the power of most devices can be handled using discrete power on and power off commands even if the original remote does not have such buttons. Of course, this is assuming that the discrete power on and off commands are in Harmony’s database.
I configured the NUC to have a discrete power on and off capabilities. The problem is that in an MCE remote there are no discrete buttons for these and Harmony’s database did not seem to have them either. After quite a bit of googling and tinkering I came to the conclusion that there’s kind of no discrete power on and power off commands for the NUC. However, it seems that the NUC will power on when it receives some commands in addition to the power toggle command! So that basically works as the discrete power on. The command used for powering off the NUC could be configured in the operating system to be something else than the power toggle command. This way you essentially have discrete power commands and don’t need to use the actual power toggle command at all.
Funny enough it seemed that different NUCs powered on when receiving a different signal. The table below lists the commands I found out. If you know the commands for some of the other models, let me know and I’ll add!
|NUC||Power ON command||Power OFF command|
|D34010WYK||Power toggle, Pause||Configure in OS, default is power toggle|
|D54250WYK||Power toggle, Pause||Configure in OS, default is power toggle|
|NUC6i5SYK||Power toggle, Audio||Configure in OS, default is power toggle|
|NUC6i7KYK||Power toggle, Pause||Configure in OS, default is power toggle|
|NUC6CAYH||Power toggle, Media||Configure in OS, default is power toggle|
All in all, I’m really happy with the Harmony Smart Control remote. I finally have one button on the remote that reliably turns all my devices on and another that turns all of them off. Using the HTPC that’s connected via an AVR is now pretty much as simple as using a standard TV. And the user does not need to keep the remote pointed at the device rack during the complete execution of the power on/off sequence. The system has its limit but I’ve found it far more flexible than anything I’ve had before and it essentially has solved the major pain points I’ve had with the remote control. Despite the flexibility of the system the setup was not that difficult – although it did take some time.
If you have hard time understanding which Harmony product is which I don’t blame you. It seems Logitech had certain products in 2013 when they first brought out the current hub-based Harmony system and since that they’ve killed some products, introduced some new ones and just renamed some of the others. In some cases you can also buy just the remote or just the hub (and use it with smartphone only). It’s also possible to upgrade the setup later on by adding a better remote for example. Maybe this Logitech support page will help you understand the product line a bit better.
I also made a list of the current products that do include the Harmony hub (which I consider necessary).
|Harmony Hub||None, use smartphone or Amazon Echo / Google Home||US: $87.00 / UK: £69.99
DE: EUR 98,99 / FR: EUR 124,95
|Smart Control||Entry-level remote without LCD screen||US: $119.00 / UK: £158.37
DE: EUR 159,00 / FR: -
|Companion||Entry level remote without LCD screen, 6 more buttons
for home automation (lights, electricity outlets..)
|US: $134.88 / UK: £119.95
DE: EUR 102,98 / FR: EUR 99,99
|Ultimate||Harmony Ultimate One remote with touch screen||US: $178.50 / UK: £229.00
DE: EUR 157,91 / FR: EUR 176,16
|Elite||Harmony 950 remote with touch screen
(has better button layout vs. Ultimate)
|US: $277.25 / UK: £210.99
DE: EUR 170,14 / FR: EUR 238,57
If you have multiple devices in your living room, I’d be happy if you’d left me a comment below and let me know how you’re controlling them!