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Friday, April 19, 2013

Logitech Unveils Harmony Ultimate: Best Universal Remote Control Ever?

When Logitech announced plans to sell off its Harmony remote division, there was a cry from the audio video hobbyist community almost as impassioned as when Pioneer gave up making its Kuro plasma TVs.  How could a company on the top of its game, making the most user-friendly remote controls on the planet walk away from that market? The answer, of course, is that the market has dwindled.

With low cost smart phone and tablet apps providing some of the same functionality offered by the Harmony, it became difficult for prospective customers to justify the purchase of a dedicated universal remote control, even one as advanced as the Harmony.  Also, the company's first attempt to capitalize on the touch-screen gesture-controlled craze, the Harmony Touch, didn't exactly achieve universal acclaim. Customers used to button-based remotes such as the excellent Harmony 900, found the swipe screen Touch, with its limited number of hard buttons, hard to adjust to.  And its apparent lack of RF support (more on that later) was a step down from the 900, which could operate through walls or closed cabinet doors.

The Harmony Ultimate and Smart Control are expected to begin shipping later this month. The Harmony Ultimate features a full color gesture-enabled touch screen at its center.There were some other nagging problems with the Harmony remote line.  There was a smart phone/tablet app available, but it required a relatively expensive dedicated hardware interface - the Harmony Link - and that app didn't offer the most robust interface, nor did it "play nice" with other Harmony remotes in the home. Also, some devices which are popular in the home theater, namely gaming consoles like the Wii, Wii U and PS3, were incompatible with the Harmony remote system as those devices do not respond to standard IR (Infrared) remote codes.  They use radio frequency (RF) commands - specifically Bluetooth - instead.  If you were to set up an Activity on a Harmony remote which included a PS3 or Wii, you would always have to switch over to a game controller, or purchase an additional adapter in order to control the gaming device.

All that changes with the Logitech Harmony Ultimate and Logitech Harmony Smart Control, which we recently saw in action at a press preview in New York City. Both of these systems use RF (Radio Frequency) commands from the remote control to a new hub device.  This allows the remote to work through walls or closed cabinet doors. The new Harmony Hub converts the RF commands sent by the remote into IR (Infrared) commands for devices like a TV, receiver or Blu-ray player, but it also supports Bluetooth commands so it can directly control a PS3 , Wii or Wii U without any additional adapter.  So if you use your Wii or PS3 to stream Netflix, you can now do all of that - power up the TV, game console, receiver, etc., and navigate through the Netflix menus - without picking up a gaming controller.

But wait, there's more! The Harmony Hub also supports an enhanced version of the Harmony remote app for iOS and Android devices. So you can now seamlessly switch off between a Harmony remote and a Harmony remote app running on your phone or tablet, without any conflicts.  Did you start an activity on your iPad but then your kid ran off with it to play Minecraft?  No problem. Pick up your iPhone, or the Harmony Ultimate Remote and it already knows which activity you are in so you can adjust the volume, playback and other controls, right from the app.

Also, Logitech isn't leaving buyers of their Harmony Touch remote out in the cold. The Harmony Touch remote is fully compatible with the new Hub.  So if you already own the Touch, you can pick up the Hub in the "Smart Control" package and control your Bluetooth devices without having to buy a whole new universal remote. Also, apparently Logitech made the Touch remote RF-enabled without telling anyone (sneaky devils!) so it can actually control devices through walls or closed cabinet doors by inferfacing with the new Harmony Hub.

Another nice perk of the Harmony Ultimate (which will carry over to the Harmony Touch in a future software update), is that the hard buttons like Play and Fast Forward now have dual purpose: press the button normally and it will take a certain action; press and hold the button for more than 1/2 second and it will take an entirely different action. This means the Fast Forward button will do Fast Forward when you press it quickly, but if you hold the button for more than 1/2 second it will do a Skip function instead. This addresses the complaint from many Touch owners (and reviewers) that there just aren't enough buttons on the Touch.

The color screen of the Harmony Ultimate allows you to control your system by common activities, or by favorite channels. One touch of a button can power up and control multiple devices automatically.

The enhanced Harmony Smart Control app offers the same Favorite channels and activity-based control of Harmony advanced dedicated remote controls.

For those who already own the Harmony Touch, or are more interested in Tablet or Smart Phone features, the Harmony Smart Control ($129.99) is the more affordable option (Hub is pictured at bottom).If you don't care for buttons and prefer controlling your content via a few carefully chosen swipes on a touch screen, the Harmony Ultimate supports that too. Actually Logitech has made access to the swipe screen much simpler than it was on the Touch. Just swipe the main screen on the Ultimate remote up, and you will access the swipe/gesture screen. With it you can swipe left or right to navigate a menu or control playback. Click on the pad for Enter or swipe up and down for channel adjustments.  The Harmony Wizard software assigns commands to specific swipe gestures, but you can always reassign these - or add new ones - as you see fit.

The Harmony Touch was the first of Logitech's remotes that allowed you to tweak the activity and device settings right from the remote, instead of having to make adjustments in the Harmony software on your computer. The Harmony Ultimate goes one step further by offering WiFi networking built into the remote. This way when you make tweaks to an activity or device on the remote, the remote will automatically transmit these updates back to your Harmony account without requiring you to plug the remote into your computer using a USB cable. And if the dog eats your remote, you won't have to program it all over again: just add the new remote to your account and it will download all the codes for your devices and activities.

The Harmony Ultimate package ($349.99) ships with the Ultimate remote and the RF/IR/Bluetooth hub.  The Harmony Smart Control package ($129.99) ships with a much simpler, non-touchscreen remote and the same hub.  Logitech says the remote included in the Smart Control package supports up to 6 activites, and is useful when your smart phone or tablet may be otherwise occupied.

The hub is included with both packages and is compatible with the Logitech Harmony Touch, the Harmony Ultimate, the new non-touch-screen remote and the new Harmony app for iOS and Android.  Both packages are expected to begin shipping in late April/early May, 2013.

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