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 hub, the remote and the app
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 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: Close to perfect
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).
Activities and devices: A Harmony primer
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.