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Logitech Harmony Companion review: Remote really ties the room together

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.

Initial setup: Easier than ever with the new app

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.

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Sarah Tew
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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

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.

The joys of customization

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.

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

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.

After setup, an app you can forget about

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.

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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.

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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.

Home Control: Sparse support, lots of potential

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

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.

Conclusion: The best mainstream remote

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.

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