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Turning your iPad or iPhone into a universal remote control isn't a new idea, but we had high hopes that Logitech could do it right, given the company's excellent line of Harmony remotes. The Logitech Harmony Link ($100) also goes one step further with its iPad app, by integrating the full listings of your local TV providers and letting you browse shows with a slick interface, rather than the clunky grid your cable company offers up.
While the Harmony Link gets a lot right (like including Harmony's activity-based buttons like "Watch TV"), its limitations hold you back from what you really want to do: browse and set recordings from your iPad rather than your DVR's interface. There are also inherent problems with using a touch interface instead of physical buttons, and you'll find yourself constantly looking at the screen to do even simple tasks like adjust the volume. Until the Logitech Harmony Link can integrate more deeply with DVRs (like the apps available from cable companies themselves), buyers are better off sticking with the traditional line of Harmony remotes for their "one remote to control them all" solution.
There's not much to the Harmony Link. It's a sleek puck-shaped device with a glossy black finish, and just a few ports (USB, power, and two IR blaster ports) around the back. There's an indicator light that just peeks out from the bottom, and though it's useful for knowing the Harmony Link is working properly, we could always use fewer glowing LEDs in our home theater cabinet.
In addition to the main unit, there's an AC adapter, USB cable, and IR blaster in the box. We thought the USB cable and corresponding port may have been an option for powering the device, but instead it's only used for setup.
Before you place the Harmony Link in your living room, you need to connect it to a PC for the initial setup. It's all browser-based via Logitech's My Harmony Web site, and you'll have to answer a series of simple questions about how your home theater is set up. (We were surprised that the My Harmony site doesn't support Google Chrome as a browser; we switched to Firefox.)
The most painful part of the setup process will be writing down all the model numbers of home theater devices, which might involve crouching behind your home theater cabinet. The only major hitch you may run into is if you own a PS3. The Harmony Link is an IR-only affair and the PS3 only works via Bluetooth, so you'll have to shell out another $50 for a Logitech Harmony Adapter if you want to control your PS3.
Once the Harmony Link is configured, you'll need to place it in your living room. The Harmony Link "blasts" out IR commands like a standard remote control, so it's tempting to think you'll need to place it so that it's facing your TV and gadgets, but luckily that's not the case. Like last year's Logitech Revue, the Harmony Link's IR-blasting capabilities are powerful enough to bounce off walls and objects in your room, so you can place it right under your TV pointed toward the couch, if you want. It may seem like a feature that is just bound to be finicky and unreliable, but we've had nothing but perfect performance from both the Harmony Link and the Revue.
Can it replace your cable box's EPG?
The Harmony Link is really designed to be used with the tablet-size screen of the iPad. That's because rather than just duplicating the remote functions, Logitech also integrates full television guide data into the app, so you can browse your local TV listings using colorful images, rather than the clunky electronic program guide (EPG) built into your cable/satellite box.
It's a great idea, but our enthusiasm quickly wore off once we realized all the caveats. The first thing we tried to do is search for one of our favorite shows ("Parks and Recreation") to schedule a recording, and the search showed no results. That's because the search function can only search programs that are on within 24 hours. That's a frustrating limitation for those used to DVR-based TV viewing. We're not even sure when some of our favorite shows air.
It was strange that the Harmony Link app seemed so geared toward what's on today, until we ran into the other stumbling block: you can't really schedule recordings from the app. If you find a show airing in the future, the option to Watch Now is not selectable and there's no option to schedule a recording. Sure, you can switch over to the remote functions on the app, then schedule the recording using the standard onscreen display of your DVR, but again, that defeats the purpose of using the app.
While we understand that the ability to work that seamlessly with a DVR would require collaboration with cable and satellite companies, the lack of capability to record really limits the functionality of the Harmony Link. (We had the same problem with last year's Logitech Revue, although the Revue at least offers deeper integration with some Dish Network DVRs.) We really love the concept of browsing TV listings and shows right in your lap, rather than from several feet away on the big screen, but the experience just isn't satisfying with the current limitations of the Harmony Link.
Two screens is one too many
The other thing you'll quickly notice is that the iPad doesn't really make for a good universal remote. The problem with the iPad and other touch devices is that there's no tactile feedback. You need to look at the display to know what button you're pressing; what ends up happening is that you find yourself constantly looking back and forth between the iPad and the TV. It gets tiresome quickly. With a standard Harmony remote, you can keep your eyes on the TV and navigate the remote's buttons by feel.
This problem is even more noticeable if you don't have an iPad. The Harmony Link app is available on all iOS and Android devices, but only the iPad app has the ability to browse TV listings. You'll essentially only get a replication of a remote with the app, which has all the problems we just mentioned. There are slight advantages to using the app, such as not needing "line-of-sight" since the commands are sent over Wi-Fi, but those are easily outweighed by the negatives.
The Harmony 650 may not seem as cutting-edge as the Harmony Link's iPad app, but it's a much better way to control your home theater.
What works well
It's easy for us to focus on the new functionality we found underwhelming, but it's worth pointing out that many of the excellent features that we love on standard Harmony remotes still work well. It's simple to program easy-to-understand activities like "Watch TV" or "Watch a Movie," and Harmony's database of IR codes is excellent. If you're dead set on using an iPad accessory to control your home theater, the Logitech Harmony Link is certainly better than the Peel Universal Remote Control we tested earlier in the year.
As much as we'd love the idea picking TV shows from an iPad app rather than your DVR's interface, the Logitech Harmony Link doesn't fully deliver on that promise, so you're best off sticking with a traditional universal remote for now.