Logitech Harmony Smart Control is a Problem Solver

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).

Many remotes Logitech Harmony Smart Control

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.

Harmony Hub

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”).

Logitech Harmony Smart Control Unboxing

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.

Logitech Smart Control Remote

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

Conclusion

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).

Product Remote Price (Amazon)
Harmony Hub None, use smartphone or Amazon Echo / Google Home US: $99.99 / UK: £95.30
DE: EUR 205,46 / FR: EUR 147,00
Smart Control Entry-level remote without LCD screen US: $129.78 / UK: -
DE: - / FR: EUR 89,90
Companion Entry level remote without LCD screen, 6 more buttons
for home automation (lights, electricity outlets..)
US: $149.99 / UK: £119.95
DE: EUR 107,00 / FR: EUR 99,90
Ultimate Harmony Ultimate One remote with touch screen US: $286.99 / UK: £134.96
DE: EUR 157,32 / FR: EUR 180,83
Elite Harmony 950 remote with touch screen
(has better button layout vs. Ultimate)
US: $298.00 / UK: £217.19
DE: EUR 202,89 / FR: EUR 259,90

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!

9 Responses

  1. kingrob says:

    Excellent article!! Thank you, Olli, I’m ordering my Logitech remote from Amazon.co.uk now….. 🙂

    *PS : This looks like my baby -> Logitech Harmony Elite Remote Control, Hub and App, works with Alexa

    • Olli says:

      Hi Rob,

      Thanks for the feedback! Harmony Elite is supposed to be the real thing. If you end up getting one, I’d be happy to hear how you like it. I currently like my Smart Control but if cost were no object I’d certainly get a Harmony Elite!

  2. TheWombat says:

    I’ve been using a Harmony Hub for since May 2014 and we now have 3 in the house. I have to say that it is one of the most useful pieces of technology we have and it just works. I’ve recommended them to my friends and family a number of times.

    In the last couple of months we have also linked up the Harmony in our main Living Room to our Amazon Echo Dot so we have voice control. Logitech have also just launched a new (second) Alexa skill that also allows you to do more detailed commands such as Volume Up/Down.

    I also found the mobile phone app not as convenient to use. I mainly use the mobile app when I am with the kids (1.5 / 3.5 yrs) and have put the Logitech remote out of their reach.

    For those with more complex set ups you can also have commands go to a specific IR transmitter, this is useful when you have multiple devices from a manufacturer. For example we have 2 Yamaha receivers in our family room. A stereo receiver for the ceiling music system and a more full featured AV surround sound for the TV. The receivers are hidden away in two different cupboards.

    Note: there are a number of different remotes you can get – including ones with home automation dedicated buttons. Personally I still prefer the basic “Harmony Smart Control” which doesn’t have the home automation buttons and can be found for $80-$120. The battery in the remote lasts > 1 year.

    From the reviews some of the more expensive Logitech Harmony Hub remotes have issues with battery life (such as the one with the touch screen) or odd button placement. Unless you have a very complex set up there really is no need for the touch screen remotes.

    Our set up across the 3 hubs includes:
    3 x Yamaha receivers
    3 x Vizio TVs
    3 x Raspberry Pi with Flirc
    Apple TV (4th Gen)
    Roku Ultra
    Amazon Fire TV 1st gen & 2nd gen
    Monoprice HDMI switch

    The only device we had to manually program the remote for was the Monoprice HDMI switch. All the other items were already in the Logitech database. I also found Logitech support responsive when I asked them to add the id2 codes for one of the Yamaha receivers. They added the codes within 48 hours.

    The biggest issue I have had, and it isn’t really the fault of the Harmony Hub, was where I have multiple inputs in use on a TV. I found switching between multiple HDMI and TV inputs on one of our older TVs caused issues. The TV has to cycle through the inputs sequentially and the Harmony Hub got out of sync on what input was currently selected. To solve the issue I bought a $20 HDMI switch from Monoprice which can be set to a specific output with a command (e.g. output 1) and plugged the multiple HDMI inputs into the switch rather than the TV. For my other TVs it is not an issue as I have AV receivers.

    I’m not sure if they have improved it now, the other minor irritation was that if you set up a specific layout of controls on the Mobile App for an activity, the layout wasn’t synced across other mobile phones (e.g. my wife’s). It would be nice to be able to select to do this. Note: It was 18+ months ago that I last looked at syncing layouts so maybe something has improved now.

    You can also buy an extra IR transmitter (official) or IR transmitter extension cables (not official) depending on how your media cabinet etc is laid out.

    Hope that helps

  3. Lori says:

    Hi Olli,

    What actual brand/type is your Dell remote (in the picture)? I have the exact same one. only without the Dell branding (it belonged to an Asus eeeBox). I was planning to use it on my NUC6i5YK, but it seems that it won’t play along with it. It powers it on, but that is all. When booted into windows, I am unable to control any of the player apps VLC, MPC, etc. windows sound volume. Do I need additional applications installed for windows?

  4. Lori says:

    Wow, thanks Olli. I’ll try out the remote re-mapper tool later on! Though it looks pretty complicated and cumbersome to assign each individual button. Is there a configuration export file for this specific type of remote somewhere? I don’t really want any extra-special preset, just the standard play-pause-stop buttons to work, at least.

  5. Pete says:

    Harmony Elite and Ultimate

    Discrete power on:

    D54250WYK – Pause
    NUC6i5SYK – Audio (from D54250WYK profile in Harmony database)

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