Five ways Logitech can improve Harmony remotes

Logitech's Harmony line of universal remotes are already pretty great. But we think they can be even better. Here's how.

Logitech

Here at CNET, we love Logitech Harmony remotes and have recommended them for years. But--like any product--there's always room for improvement. To that end, here are five changes we'd like to see made to the Harmony line--some via software upgrades, others in forthcoming models:

1. Allow multi-remote accounts for each user. Harmony remotes are programmed via online software wizards--answer a few questions on the screen, customize your buttons, and the codes are uploaded to the remote via a USB tether. In order to use the online software, of course, you need to create an account--nothing onerous, just an e-mail address and password. But for some reason, Logitech requires a separate account for each remote you register.

That was fine back when Harmony remotes cost $200 to $300, but now that the company has several models in the $20 to $60 range, there are plenty of multi-Harmony households who would like the convenience of having all of their remotes under one account. Apple, Sony, Netflix, and countless other companies let users manage multiple devices from a single account--Logitech is long overdue to join the club.

2. Add real macro support to all high-end models. For the "enthusiast" (geek) community, one of the big advantages of high-end universal remotes was the ability to program macros--multi-step, multi-device programs that would handle complex home theater boot-ups and the like. Harmony remotes offer two alternatives to macros. Harmony "activities" handle the complex boot-up sequences that involve multiple devices--"Watch TV," "Listen to music," "Watch a DVD," and so on--by making it easy to program power-ups and input toggling for TVs, AV receivers, and disc players. Also, some--but not all--of the Harmony models support "sequences," which is just another name for custom macros.

Harmony remotes are easy to customize--unless you want real macros. Screenshot by John P. Falcone/CNET

Unfortunately, for reasons only know to Logitech, sequence support is only limited to five steps. So if I want to create a macro for my Panasonic plasma TV to initiate its sleep timer, that's not enough; I'd need seven steps (menu, down, down, enter, enter, right, exit). For home theater enthusiasts with high-end systems that include light dimmers and retracting screens, macros can be even more elaborate.

It's fine if sequence support isn't in Logitech's entry-level Harmony models, but the fact that it's missing from the company's two flagship models--the Harmony 900 and the Harmony 1100--is frustrating to the extreme. (That's the reason that CNET users have nuked the otherwise excellent Harmony 900 down to a 2-star user rating.) Logitech's answer is that users should opt for the Harmony 700 or Harmony One models, but doing so means omitting the built-in RF features on the 900 and the 1100. The bottom line is that it's an unnecessary choice--Logitech should add sequence support to both of those models, and expand the limit to 10- to 15-steps.

3. Build Bluetooth support into some models. The Sony PlayStation 3 is arguably the best all-around home entertainment device you can own--it handles Blu-rays and DVDs; offers Netflix, Vudu, and Hulu Plus; and delivers a huge library of games. The problem is that Sony neglected to include an infrared sensor on the thing, so you can only control it via Bluetooth. That means--unlike the Xbox 360 and nearly every other device on the market--the PS3 can't be controlled by standard universal remotes.

Logitech's workaround was to create the Logitech Harmony Adapter for PS3 . It's a tiny AC-powered gadget that converts the infrared commands from a Harmony remote to Bluetooth signals that the PS3 can process. The adapter works flawlessly, but it costs around $60--that's more than many of the entry- and mid-level Harmony remotes currently on the market.

A better solution--for future Harmony remotes, anyway--would be building Bluetooth into the remote itself. While the effect on battery life would be a concern, the power-saving advances of Bluetooth 4.0 could be a perfect match. Yes, it really only offers compatibility with one product, but I think a lot of PS3 owners would pay a premium to have PS3 control built into the remote.

4. Continue to embrace the smartphone and the tablet. I'll admit I have mixed feelings about this one. The whole idea of touch-screen remotes for TVs seems flawed to me--you want to keep your eyes focused on the big screen, not looking down to the touch-screen in your hand (be it a tablet, smartphone, iPod Touch, or a dedicated remote like the Harmony 1100). But a lot of people disagree, and the real estate provided by an ample tablet screen certainly gives a lot of room to do things that wouldn't work on an ordinary remote.

The Harmony program guide as seen on an iPad: A good starting point, but it needs to be better.

Logitech has already released the Harmony Link , a $99 Wi-Fi-to-infrared adapter that transmits commands from Android phones, iPhones, and iPads (running Harmony apps) to your home theater gear. It's a promising start, but the software needs to be even better. It's a challenge for TV viewing because the feature everyone wants--detailed programming guide look-up and DVR control--is largely the purview of the cable and satellite providers, many of whom are now offering their own apps. But those competing apps show why Logitech needs to focus here: every Internet-enabled device can be controlled via a specialized app. And as more devices go online and Android and iOS apps proliferate, there's less and less reason for a dedicated remote. That's precisely why Harmony needs to stay relevant here, even if that means the future Harmony is merely a $9.99 app, with no hardware component.

5. Streamline the product line. Currently, there are eight models in the Logitech Harmony product line (not counting some discontinued models that still remain available at retail). That's too many. I'd recommend that Logitech streamline its offerings down to five models. Here's my recommendation, complete with new theoretical model numbers:

Harmony 410 ($25): The entry-level Harmony would replace the Harmony 200 and Harmony 300. Think the Harmony 200's body but upgraded to control four devices. Like those current models, the only supported "activity" would be "Watch TV," but this is basically a basic bedroom remote that would sell for only $25.

Harmony 610 ($65): This upgrade to the Harmony 650 would keep that model's same basic design and feature set--including a color LCD screen and full activity support--but control six devices instead of five.

Harmony 810 ($100): This replacement for the Harmony 700 would retain that remote's same basic feature set (backlit keyboard, rechargeable battery) but control eight devices and add full macro support.

Harmony 1210 ($180): Replacing the Harmony One and Harmony 900, the new 1210 would retain the 900's basic design and feature set (including a touch-sensitive LCD screen at the top, backlit keys, and a charging cradle), while adding full macro support and Bluetooth and RF control (in addition to IR). It would control 12 devices.

Harmony Squeeze ($120): This upgraded version of the Harmony Link would let you control your home theater gear with Android and iOS smartphones and tablets. (It also replaces the touch-screen Harmony 1100, with the thought that everyone would prefer to invest that money into an iPod Touch, Kindle Fire, or iPad instead.) In addition, though, it would include Bluetooth (for PS3 control) and audio outputs, so it could double as a Squeezebox base station. Logitech already makes the Squeezebox hardware and apps , so this should be a no-brainer.

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That's my Harmony wishlist. What's yours? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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