Logitech Harmony Ultimate

KEY INFO

Manufacturer: Logitech
Price: £229

IN THE BOX
Harmony Hub
R, remote control
2 x IR mini blasters
Charging station
USB cable
2 x AC adapters

This remote control costs nearly the same as an iPad; can that price be, ahem, remotely justified? Yes it can. Say you have a moderately complex home cinema setup – an Apple TV and a PS3 plugged into a TV, with some external speakers, for instance. As with all Logitech Harmony remote controls, the idea is that the Ultimate controls all of these together. The setup prompts you to tell the system specifically which components you have, and then you group them into activities: ‘Watch TV’,  ‘Watch a DVD’ , ‘Play a game’ and so on. The list of components is vast, although if you find very new or obscure stuff missing, you can still train the remote.

You’re prompted to set up some basic activities, but you can define completely custom ones. These activities tell each component to switch on or off as necessary, what input it should be set to, which component controls the volume for each activity and so on. After the initial faff of setting everything up, the practical upshot is that you can tap a single icon and everything conveniently springs to life on the right channel. You quickly forget what a complex system it is; when you press volume up in the ‘Watch TV’ activity, for example, it knows that it should send the IR (infrared) command to your speakers, but when you press the channel up button to send that to the TV.

So that’s Harmony in general, but this new flagship model is particularly capable. You get a nicely built physical remote control with backlit keys and a colour touchscreen. You can launch activities from this screen and then control them, either with physical or on-screen buttons, or with a series of configurable gestures. Not only that, anyone in your house can  download a free app for iPhone (or Android) which can be used to control everything (a perfect use for an old 3GS iPhone or later). How does it do this?

The Harmony Hub is a little box that connects over Wi-Fi to your home network, has Bluetooth built-in for controlling a PS3 or Wii, and can also blast out IR commands. The app pulls down your setup from the Hub, and when you tap a button on the app, whether just to mute the volume or trigger an activity, it sends the commands over Wi-Fi to the Hub, which then transmits the correct IR commands. What’s more, because IR requires line-of-sight, you get two IR repeaters in the box – mini blasters on the end of longish wires – with which you could pass on IR commands to components that are tucked away in cabinets, for example.

Once the hassle of the initial setup is over, the experience is really terrific, although it’s not without its flaws. You have to be particularly careful not to brush the touchscreen on the remote as you pick it up, and though the app is good, there are fundamental issues. While the remote can control Philips Hue lightbulbs, for example – tying colour temperature and brightness to particular activities – the app can’t, and there’s no iPad version of the app either. Besides that, if you’re using physical buttons on a remote, you find the right button by feeling, without having to look away from the screen; with a touchscreen device you can’t use your fingers to find buttons, so it’s less convenient. But at least you can switch seamlessly between using the remote and the app.

We like the Harmony Ultimate a lot, but actually we suspect the Logitech Harmony Smart Control is the better buy. It’s identical to the Ultimate except that it comes with a remote that doesn’t have a touchscreen – and frankly, although we appreciate the flexibility and control of a touchscreen, it can be annoyingly easy to press by accident.

Also, with the Smart Control, which costs less than half what the Ultimate does, you still get the Hub and the smartphone app, for when the simpler remote control isn’t rich enough.

Verdict

As useful as the touchscreen is, it’s similar-looking cheaper, simpler stable- mate is probably better.