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Hands-on with Logitech's Harmony Hub and Harmony Control app

I'll be the first to admit that I'm probably not the biggest fan of remote controls. Over the years, my wife and I have accumulated a literal basketful of remotes. There's one for the HDTV, one for the Blu-Ray, one for the Comcast DVR. Add to that the controls for the Bose surround sound system, the HDMI hub that doesn't work and the Apple TV, and it's no wonder I hate video in all of its many forms.

At one point, I had a really bad experience with the Logitech Harmony One "universal remote" that was supposed to free me from all of those remotes. Well, it worked occasionally, but it was a pain to program, not all of the devices we had in our media center were supported, and chained events -- like "turn on the surround sound, then turn on the TV, and then turn on the DVR" never worked quite right.

The reason I'm giving you this history is to let you know that I'm a skeptic about universal remotes. That's why when Logitech asked if I wanted to review its new Harmony Smart Control (US$129.99), I initially wanted to run away screaming. But since the Harmony Hub (hardware) works hand-in-hand with an iOS app, I was intrigued. Follow along to see how the Logitech Harmony Smart Control worked out for me.

Design

Opening the box for the first time, you're greeted by a black plastic curved "puck" called the Harmony Hub. There's a pretty standard looking remote control (for those times when you don't want to use your iPhone), an AC adapter, and an IR blaster to control all of those many devices that use that common method of talking to remotes. That's pretty much it, and the setup guide basically tells you to go to the App Store, install the app, and then follow the instructions from there.

Handson with Logitech's Harmony Hub and Harmony Control app

Since that's about it for the hardware, let's see how the Harmony Smart Control worked.

Functionality

After my previous bad experiences with universal remotes, I was pretty much filled with trepidation about this, not to mention fearing the wrath of my wife if I somehow screwed up the symbiotic relationship she's built up with other remotes. Upon loading and launching the Harmony Control app, you're greeted with a screen asking if you wish to Buy it or Continue -- since I already had one sitting here, I tapped Continue. So far, so good.

Well, that took me into a Connect screen in the app that said it was scanning for hubs on my network. When it didn't find one, it went off to another screen to ask me to re-scan. It finally occurred to me that I needed to tap the Set Up Remote button on the previous screen. <facepalm> That lead to a page telling me that I was setting up a Harmony Smart Control, not to be confused with the many other Logitech Harmony remotes.

I initially had some issues during the setup process. The device uses Bluetooth to make a local connection to your iPhone, and then grabs the Wi-Fi setup information for your network from the iPhone. My iPhone just wouldn't connect (it's running iOS 7 beta), so I tried an iPad even though the app is really designed for the smaller screen. Sure enough, that worked perfectly. By the way, when I tried to be nice and report to Logitech that the app didn't work with iOS 7, I received a rather snarky reply from its support staff essentially telling me that it was the beta OS, not the app that was broken. Interesting, considering none of the several hundred other apps on my iPhone have had issues...

After this point, it was pretty straightforward to set up the combination of HDTV, DVR, and surround sound system to work properly for watching TV. For the purposes of the review, I chose not to add three other devices -- an Apple TV, a Wii, and a Sony Blu-Ray player -- because of some issues I've had with the Blu-Ray player deciding to turn itself on whenever it is "tickled" by the HDMI hub. In fact, I had to unplug the Blu-Ray player from the HDMI hub just so it would stop turning itself on!

If I can resolve that annoying issue, then I can create a new activity (as Logitech calls them), this one being to use the HDTV, Blu-Ray Player, and surround sound to watch movies. Next, I can set up another activity for the Apple TV, likewise using the Apple TV, HDTV and surround sound.

I found the "interview" type of setup used in the app to be an excellent way to walk someone through the setup of the device. If there's anything that needs to improve, it's the description of when to use or not use the IR blaster. The entire Harmony Hub is an IR blaster and works well even on a shelf below the TV; I wasn't really sure if I'll ever need to use the separate IR blaster. In fact, Logitech may have gone a bit too far in trying to do away with documentation of this product.

That being said, the interface of the iOS app -- both for setup and for control -- is excellent. As you can see from the screenshots in the image gallery, the app uses a combination of traditional buttons and gestures to control your gear. For example, if I want to change channels I simply scroll through my collection of favorites (mostly in the HD channels), and tap on one logo'd button. When I'm watching a show and want to scroll back a bit on the DVR, I just swipe to the left. Want to fast-forward? Swipe across the iPhone screen to the right. Need to crank the volume a hair? Swipe up. It's very intuitive; much more so than any remote I've ever used before.

Conclusion

Logitech's developers knows that the "second screen" is a reality, and they've come up with a winning way to use your iPhone as a universal remote control that really works. Through a combination of the Wi-Fi connected Harmony Hub and the Harmony Control app, the Logitech Smart Control can finally replace your basket of remotes with your favorite smartphone.

Pros

  • Simple setup and intuitive control through the free Harmony Control app
  • Harmony Hub is good-looking, yet unobtrusive
  • App provides a way to "dive down" into DVR and TV controls if needed
  • Price of the Harmony Hub is reasonable
  • "Interview" method of setup is a good way of making sure that all equipment that's needed for a specific activity is added and configured correctly

Cons

  • Documentation of how to set up unit is a bit sparse and may confuse some users

Who is it for?

  • Anyone with a lot of audiovisual gear who would like to replace a pile of remote controls with their iPhone

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