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In 15-odd years of reviewing TV and home theater equipment, the one thing I always tell people to buy is a "good universal remote." And by that I now mean the Harmony Companion, the best remote for the money I've ever used.
The $150 price tag is steep for a home theater accessory, especially when other universal remotes are available for much less, but if you have a relatively complex home theater system -- say, four or more devices -- it's worth it.
The Companion clicker builds upon the superb Harmony Smart Control with better button placement and dedicated keys for home control systems, like Philips Hue lighting and Nest thermostats. It's also available in black or white, the latter making it stand out better in a dark room. Otherwise it's largely the same as the previous model, complete with a dedicated app and the magical, controls-everything-wirelessly Hub. And that's a Good Thing.
I've been living with the original Smart Control for a year and it's amazing. With it my 5-year-old daughter can easily "turn on Neh-falix"and watch "Pound Puppies" without me having to get out of bed (I'm a bad parent, sue me). Doing so involves turning on the TV and AV receiver, switching them to the correct inputs, and selecting the Netflix app on Roku. But she doesn't know or care about any of that; she just presses a single button and Netflix appears on the screen. Harmony's system just works, seamlessly tying together just about any device with a single remote a child can use.
Such a complex system does have its rough edges still, and despite its lofty aspirations the app for control is a poor substitute for the physical remote. But once you get everything set up -- a lengthy chore but easier than you may think -- the Companion works beautifully. Nothing else comes close to its level of home theater control, ease of use and value.
Editors' Note 9/17/2015: Logitech has changed the name of this product from the Harmony Home Control to the Harmony Companion. This review has been updated to reflect that change, and to mention the new Harmony Elite. The review has not otherwise been modified.
The Harmony Companion isn't your father's universal remote. It's a hybrid of a standard universal remote like the Harmony 650 and newer, app-based control systems, like Peel and Beacon, that use a "pod" or hub to distribute remote signals.
You really do get the best of both worlds. The system includes both a pod called the Harmony Hub (also sold separately for $100) and a full-fledged physical remote. The hub is the real "brains" of the operation, storing setup information, software updates and interfacing with not only your gear and the remote, but also your home network and Harmony's cloud via Wi-Fi, and of course the Harmony app via your Android and Apple phones and tablets.
There's no Windows Phone or Surface app, and unlike previous Harmony remotes you can't use a PC for setup. To use this remote you'll need an Android or iOS phone or tablet for initial setup. See Logitech's system requirements and support page for details.
The Hub is designed to sit on or inside your TV cabinet and fire infrared (IR) remote commands to control your gear. The Hub's powerful IR blasters are capable of bouncing signals off the walls and furniture of your living room, which works remarkably well. In both of my setups, at home with the older system and in CNET's test lab with the Harmony Companion, I never had a lasting problem with the signals reaching the devices.
The system also includes a separate wired IR blaster (and another port for an optional second blaster) that you can position to reach out-of-the-way or finicky gear. CNET editor John Falcone and I had issues with an Xbox 360 receiving the hub's IR commands, for example, but positioning the secondary blaster nearby did the trick.
In addition to IR, the Hub is also capable of sending commands via Bluetooth for supported devices, like the Nintendo Wii and Wii U, PlayStation 3 and Amazon Fire TV. The latter two worked great in our test, and PS3 support is particularly welcome since it obviates the need for Logitech's Harmony Adapter for PS3. Sorry, PlayStation 4 owners -- the PS4 is still not yet on the list of compatible products. Logitech told us they'd love to add it, but cannot because "Sony has not exposed the remote control profile."
The remote communicates with the Hub via radio frequency (RF), which, unlike standard IR signals, doesn't require line of sight. Responsiveness is superb, and using the system felt just as fast as any other remote, with no noticeable delay even during rapid-fire navigation and channel entry.
If you're used to a typical IR-based universal remote, the convenience of RF control feels like a revelation. You no longer have to worry about pointing the remote at your components, which is especially important during the "turn everything on and switch inputs" phase.
With older Harmony remotes like the 650, I would have to keep the clicker pointed at the system for a relatively long time while it sent commands and everything fired up. My wife, kids and visitors often failed to do so, leading to complaints like "Honey, the TV doesn't work again!" Since installing the Smart Control with its RF hub those complaints never happen, which to me is worth the price of entry by itself.
Another cool bonus of RF: you don't have to be in the same room. I occasionally tote my remote into the kitchen and when the kids' show is over, just hit "Off" myself. The app can control the system from even further away (like, anywhere in the world) since it uses your home Wi-Fi or cellular network.
The remote is impressively thinner and lighter than a standard clicker. That sliver-thinness is made possible by a wafer-like watch battery (CR2032) that Logitech says can last a year. I believe it; after nine months at home, my original Smart Control battery is going strong. Swapping in a new battery is dead simple and replacements are less than $1 apiece.
The small size of the remote, along with the soft felt-like backing, makes it really nice to hold. Compared to the larger Harmony Ultimate Home Control it feels more comfortable, and requires less stretching to reach keys. The new Harmony Elite is a better fit, but I still like the feel of the slimmer Companion a bit better better. One big disadvantage, however, is that the Companion lacks the backlighting found on the Ultimate and the Elite.
Button placement, for the most part, is great. The keys are easy to navigate by feel, grouped logically and sized right. Compared to the original Smart Control, the Harmony Companion is mostly identical, with two exceptions that work out to an improvement in sum.
The good news is that the Companion has finally moved the array of "transport" keys -- play, pause, fast-forward, rewind -- lower on the remote, directly below the cursor pad, for easier thumb-reach. As a frequent DVR user (read: commercial-skipper) I find the new positioning much more natural than the old spot at the top of the remote. This change alone makes the new remote superior to the old one.
The other difference is that now the top of the remote has a new button array designed for use with home control products. Unfortunately, unless you actually have compatible home control products, those buttons will go unused. That's because Logitech decided to lock them down, so unlike every other key on the remote, you cannot assign any of the six specialized yellow home control keys whatever command you want.
There are still only three dedicated activity buttons, represented by musical notes, a TV and a strip of film. That doesn't seem like enough to me when device itself supports a "virtually unlimited" number of activities, according to Logitech. Yes, you can long-press each of the keys to access a second activity, but that can be confusing especially for people unfamiliar with your setup. For additional activities beyond those six, you'll need to resort to the app for control (or get the Harmony Elite, which moves activity selection to its touchscreen).
Before I get much further it's worth explaining to Harmony novices the notion of "activities" versus basic device control. The Harmony Companion can command up to eight different home theater devices. For my test system, for example, I set up a TV, an AV receiver, and six different source devices: a cable DVR, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Roku 3 and an Amazon Fire TV. If you need to control more devices, consider the Harmony Elite with its limit of 15. Or maybe try my hack.
These totals do not include home control devices like lights and thermostats; you can have an unlimited number of those according to Harmony. The company's rep told me some Companion users have already integrated more than twenty home automation devices into their systems.
For each home theater device you own, the Companion automatically loads commands for each function. The best way to think of a command is as a button on the remote control that originally came with the device. They range from basics like Power On/Off, Play, OK, and Volume Up to extras like Pay Per View, 5-channel stereo, MTS and Thumbs Down.
A single device can have half a hundred commands or more, and Harmony supports 270,000 devices and adds up to 1,100 new ones each month. I have yet to find a device it doesn't support, although at times I've had to take advantage of the IR learning function (which works great) to "teach" the system a stray command. You can always access every command directly using the Device tab on the Harmony app--the physical remote does not offers access to every device command--but you'll mostly be using Activities.
The quintessential activity is Watch TV, and indeed it's the first activity the Harmony app ask you to create during initial setup (assuming your system includes a TV). An activity can include whichever devices you specify. So for my test system above, the Watch TV activity included the TV, the cable DVR and the AV receiver (for sound).
Pressing the Watch TV button at the top of the Harmony Companion turned on all three of those devices, switched to the correct inputs (HDMI 1 on the TV and "TV" on the AV receiver) and mapped the buttons on the physical remote and the app to the right device commands. For example, the Volume Up/Down keys controlled the AV receiver (not the TV) while the Play/Pause keys controlled the DVR.
With the correct setup a Harmony remote can truly replace all of your standard remotes and make your system as easy to use as possible. Setup itself has always been relatively complex, however, which is where the new app comes in.
In our review of the original hub-based Harmony Smart Control we uncovered plenty of annoyances in using the app for initial setup, to the point where we ended up using the PC interface instead. For the Harmony Companion and Elite remotes however, the mobile Harmony app is the way to go.
With the latest app upgrade that came out at the same time as the Companion and Ultimate Home remotes (version 4.0), setting up a Harmony remote is easier and more foolproof than ever. The app provides step-by-step guidance that not only lets you set up basic control of all devices and activities, but alerts you to potential issues, common mistakes and even the presence of features you might not have known about otherwise, like keyboard text entry for Roku (below) and PS3.
The app starts by getting you to set up a Harmony account or log into an existing one (your profile, including your devices and customizations, is stored in the cloud). Then you'll go through the process of adding devices and setting up activities that use those devices. The app smartly suggests activities based on the devices you input.
Along the way the app guides you with hints like making sure devices are powered on, needing to use the original remote for a section of setup, and making sure devices are updated to the latest software. Bluetooth devices like the PS3 and Fire TV were handled well despite their own peculiarities, and both Xboxes also worked flawlessly. At certain points you'll be asked to test your setup, mainly to ensure the IR commands are reaching the intended devices.
After setting up an activity you can also create an "activity trigger," to schedule it to activate at 7 a.m. for example. If you have a home control device in your system the app reminds you that you can incorporate it into an activity. For example, I was able to turn off the Hue lights (see below) when I began "Watch Movie" and turn them on again when the activity ended.
The app also makes it easy to swap in new devices. When you add a device it automatically suggests an activity to use it, and deleting a device prompts the system to ask whether you want to fix or delete the activity associated with that device. The Hub is always connected to your home Wi-Fi network and it downloads and synchs changes automatically once you make them.
All told it took me, an experienced Harmony user, about an hour to set up my test system of eight devices, and that was before I spent more time honing its usability by customizing buttons. Overall the experience was painless for something so complex, and while I did hit some snags -- my Roku 3 wasn't initially detected, my PS3 setup was stymied at first by the presence of an old Bluetooth remote, and I had to adjust the positioning of the IR blaster a few times to hit everything -- they were easy enough to fix. The spotty performance of the app (see below) can definitely be frustrating, but it was tolerable since I knew most of the setup was a one-time chore.
Most users will be fine with basic setup, but deeper customizations are available in the app's "Harmony Setup" menu. The option I used most is "Remote," which allowed me to customize every button on the physical clicker (with the exception of the home control keys as mentioned above) for both short and long-press.
Holding down on any remote button, as opposed to pressing it briefly, can make it send a second command. The best examples are the activity keys at the top -- each of the three keys can access two activities each, one each for short and long press -- and the fast-forward/rewind keys, which by default are assigned to skip forward and reverse on long-press. Yes, that can get confusing and I'd rather have dedicated physical buttons for the extra activities and forward/reverse skip, but it's better than nothing.
On the original Smart Control I customized the far left and right color keys--red and blue -- to handle rewind and fast-forward while the main arrow keys remained my skip forward and reverse keys. On the new remote the color keys are placed too far away for that, so I made do with a kludgy solution: programming channel up and down with forward and reverse skip. I also like to map my receiver's sound modes to the colored buttons, and having a TV power toggle on certain activities is always nice.
You can also create sequences--basically a series of commands to be executed one after the other, with optional delays between each--and bind them to whatever buttons you wish.
The app itself also allows plenty of customizations. You can reorder and rename devices and activities, change button layouts and add custom commands or sequences of commands to any of the app screens. That's particularly useful on the iPad app since it has a lot more screen real estate for extra "buttons." There's also support for gestures, although I never used it. I did appreciate the ability to set a sleep timer, which turns off the whole system after a set time, and to create certain starting conditions -- you can set up an initial channel, like Netflix on Roku or PBSHD on Watch TV.
As long as I stuck with the remote itself and didn't use the app too much for control, I was a happy camper. But the new, updated Harmony app was a mess at times, and on the whole I found it frustrating to use on a daily basis.
Most Harmony users I know only use the app to control their systems when the remote is missing or otherwise out of reach (I've said it before and I'll say it again: Harmony needs to build a button on the hub, that sounds an alarm on the remote to locate it among the couch cushions). Physical keys are simply better in the living room, allowing easy navigation by feel alone and intuitive button arrangements.
I tried the phone apps for iOS and Android, as well as the iPad app, and none was ideal. The worst annoyance was having to constantly look down at the screen to press the correct button. The big iPad was relatively unwieldy to hold, and it takes advantage of the screen real estate by crowding a bunch more buttons on-screen at once into a jumble that can be visually overwhelming. The alternative on the phones, unfortunately, is to have to scroll among different screens to find the function; the cursor pad and volume controls are on different pages, for example.
For those who enjoy the touch-screen apps -- even occasionally -- the beauty of the system is that it keeps everything in sync. So, for instance, you can switch between an iPad, Android phone, and the simple remote interchangeably, and each one will "know" what activity is already engaged.
Otherwise the app shows lack of polish. It would often slow down or become unresponsive on all three devices, forcing me to restart the app. During setup of home control remote buttons on the iPad app, I could never get the correct screen to appear. On iOS, the Device tab didn't include directional keys for any of the devices I set up. For some reason the Android app force-closed a lot when I selected the Device tab.
While I generally prefer the cleaner layout of the update, it still suffers some design flaws. Text would often overlap and become illegible when I scrolled. Setup relies too much on linear navigation too; a persistent menu and/or Home icon would be very welcome. Being able to add and remove buttons is nice, but I'd also like to resize them, add images and perform numerous other customizations.
If you check user reviews posted after the update hit, you'll see most people aren't happy. I have no doubt Harmony will continue to refine the app, but in the meantime I'm glad I can just forget about using it and stick with the remote most of the time.
Control of home automation devices is definitely nascent and evolving. When I selected home control devices to add to my system, only the devices in the screenshot to the right were available (although Harmony says the system is compatible with more). Like most Harmony buyers I don't have most of those devices, although I did test the clicker with Hue lighting.
I was able to map the three bulbs in my starter kit to three of the buttons on the remote, allowing me to turn them on or off. I was also able to map the +/- rocker to dim the lights. There was no way to adjust color using the remote buttons, however, and confusingly only the last-controlled light would respond to brightening or dimming. With the app control was more extensive, allowing me to adjust color and more easily specify which bulb to control.
Rudimentary control seems to be the weakness of Harmony's system at this stage. The Hue app provides better and easier control, and it's just a click away when I already have my phone in my hand. The same goes, I'm sure, for Nest, Smart Things and other app-controlled devices. The main advantage of using Harmony with your smart home devices is the ability to incorporate them into activities, such as dimming the lights and closing the shades automatically for a movie, and easy access via the physical remote.
I'm looking forward to support for more devices, especially basic switches that don't cost a fortune (Hue bulbs are $60 each). The Harmony Elite remote offers more control options via its touch screen, and of course the upcoming Harmony Hub Extender, which is expected to retail for $130 when it hits the US and Canada in December, will expand compatability to Z-Wave, Zigbee Thread devices. We intend to update this review with further tests once it hits the market.
Harmony has had the consumer universal remote market cornered for years, and the Harmony Companion is its best effort yet. Since no other affordable remote system can touch its capabilities, the main competition comes from within.
You could buy the Harmony 650 for half the price, but in my book, the everyday convenience of the RF-packin' Hub is worth the extra money. You could save a bit by just getting the hub and using your phone or tablet as your main remote, but a physical remote just works better. And of course you could step up to the touchscreen-equipped Harmony Elite (review coming soon), but it costs more than double.
For the money, the Harmony Companion delivers the best universal remote experience available, making your home entertainment center easier to use than ever.