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Logitech Harmony Smart Control review: A fresh take on the universal remote

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In the age of ubiquitous Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, it remains a minor scandal that home theater devices continue to heavily rely on ancient IR (infrared)-based remote controls. With no clear replacement standard in sight, companies tend to stick with IR in new products to maintain compatibility, with some network-connected gadgets getting Wi-Fi control apps or -- like Sony's notoriously IR-free PlayStation 3 -- going a Bluetooth-only route, and ending up needing kludgy adapters to work with existing universal remote controls.

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8.2

Logitech Harmony Smart Control

The Good

The <b>Logitech Harmony Smart Control</b> is a unique universal-remote system that makes it possible to control eight devices -- including the PS3 and Wii -- using your iPhone or Android phone or the included simple remote, which communicates with the included Harmony Hub. The remote is remarkably light and thin, and operates via RF, rather than IR, so you don't need line-of-sight to your components. Harmony's activity-based buttons offer a single button for functions like "Watch TV."

The Bad

Harmony's setup can take a lot of initial work and requires some tech savvy. The included remote only has three dedicated activity buttons, which isn't enough for many home theaters. And the option to control your devices via a smartphone is cool, but not really that useful. There aren't any dedicated tablet control apps, either.

The Bottom Line

The Logitech Harmony Smart Control combines RF functionality and smartphone control in an affordable universal-remote package, but the complexity of the initial setup will burden some buyers.

The Logitech Harmony Smart Control ($130) is a fascinating new universal remote control system that attempts to bridge the gap between our clunky infrared past and a more modern wireless future. It works like other RF (radio frequency)-based remotes, using a separate "hub" to translate wireless commands so IR-only devices can receive them -- but it one-ups other systems by being capable of directly controlling both the Bluetooth-only Sony PS3 and Nintendo Wii without a separate adapter. But that's not all: the hub also makes it possible to use your iPhone or Android phone as a remote (using Logitech's free app), communicating with those smartphones via your home Wi-Fi network. In most cases you'll likely prefer to use the supplied "simple" remote, which is great, albeit a few buttons short of being truly excellent. The real magic remains Harmony's excellent activity-based buttons: you hit a single button for, say, "Watch TV" and the remote takes care of everything else.

Despite its forward-thinking ways, the Harmony Smart Control isn't quite a home run product, largely due to finicky setup that requires a good deal of patience and technical know-how. The Harmony 650 ($65) remains the best value for most buyers, but the Harmony Smart Control's added features are seriously worth considering if you'll appreciate its RF capability, especially for PS3 owners.

The hub and the remote
The Harmony Smart Control isn't quite like any other universal-remote system. It's a hybrid of a standard universal remote (like the Harmony 650) and newer, smartphone-based control systems, like Peel and Beacon, that use a "pod" or hub to distribute remote signals. The idea behind Harmony Smart Control is you get the best of both worlds, as it includes both a pod called the Harmony Hub (also sold separately for $100), and a stripped-down simple remote. (The Hub module bears a resemblance to the now-discontinued Harmony Link, but that model lacked Bluetooth.)

Logitech Harmony Smart Control
Sarah Tew/CNET

The Hub is designed to sit on your TV cabinet and it fires remote commands (via IR) to control your gear. The placement may seems a little odd, but the Hub's powerful IR blasters are capable of bouncing signals off the walls and furniture of your living room, which works remarkably well. If the remote signals aren't reaching your components, the Hub also has two IR ports on the back for connecting separate wired blasters, which can be especially useful if you keep your components hidden behind a cabinet.

In addition to IR, the Hub is also capable of sending commands via Bluetooth for two supported devices, the PlayStation 3 and the Wii. Support for the PS3 is particularly nice, considering it's an excellent all-in-one media device, but inexplicably lacks an IR receiver; prior to the Hub, you had to pony up for Logitech's Harmony Adapter for PS3 if you wanted to control the PS3 via a standard universal remote.

Simple remote: A few buttons short
The remote communicates with the Hub via RF, which, unlike standard IR signals, doesn't require line of sight. That means you don't have to point the remote at your devices, which is especially useful when using one of Harmony's "activity" buttons. (Longtime Harmony fans are familiar with the awkwardness of holding the remote pointing at the screen while the remote fires out its long sequence of commands.) I had some skepticism that this two-part system could offer the same responsiveness as a standard universal remote, but it felt just as fast as any other remote I've used, after I tweaked the settings -- more on that later.

Logitech Harmony Smart Control
Sarah Tew/CNET
Logitech Harmony Smart Control
Sarah Tew/CNET

Physically, the remote is impressively thinner, shorter, and lighter than any of Harmony's other offerings. That sliver-thinness is made possible by a waferlike watch battery (CR2032) that Logitech claims can last for a year. Swapping in a new battery is dead simple and replacement batteries are cheap -- you can get five for under $2. The small size of the remote, along with the soft feltlike backing, also just makes the remote nicer to hold; even though I left my trusty Harmony 650 on my coffee table too, I tended to reach for the Smart Control remote.

Logitech Harmony Smart Control
Sarah Tew/CNET

The button layout is similar to that of other recent Harmony remotes, and yes, that includes the transport buttons (Play, Pause, Fast-Forward and Rewind) positioned toward the top. The repositioning of those buttons (compared with classic Harmony remotes) has generated a lot of criticism, which I largely agree with, but the smaller size of the Harmony Smart Control's remote makes it less of an issue. The lack of an LCD screen makes the transport keys reachable without having to reposition your hand and I found myself easily finding them without looking. I'd still prefer a more central location for transport buttons, but it's not a major issue on this remote.

Logitech Harmony Smart Control
Sarah Tew/CNET

The more disappointing aspect of the button layout is that there are only three activity buttons. These remain Harmony's killer feature, letting you set up dedicated buttons for tasks such as "Watch TV" that take care of all the remote commands you need to send, such as turning on your TV, cable box, and AV receiver and switching to the proper inputs. Unfortunately, having only three activities feels too limiting -- even more one more would make a big difference. You can actually access six activities from the remote, as you can assign separate activities to long presses, but that requires you to remember those "hidden" activities, which isn't a proper substitute. It doesn't help that one of the activity buttons is marked for music listening; gaming likely would have been a better choice. (Despite the icons, you can assign whatever activity you'd like to each of the buttons.)

Smartphone control: Neat, but superfluous
You can also control the Hub using Logitech's dedicated Harmony smartphone app, which is available for both iOS and Android. The app features the same activity-based buttons, although you can see all six activities in the smartphone interface. (Surprisingly, there's currently no dedicated tablet app, although I was able to make do on my iPad using the blown-up iPhone app.)

Logitech Harmony Smart Control
David Carnoy/CNET
Logitech Harmony Smart Control
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Logitech really stresses the phone control aspect of the Smart Control, but in practice I found myself almost exclusively using the simple remote control. It may not sound like much, but waking up your phone, sliding to unlock, entering a password, swiping to the relevant home screen, then loading the app is a hassle every time you want to simply adjust the volume a little.

With the old-fashioned remote, you can easily pick it up, nudge the volume up a little, and you're done, all without taking your eyes off your TV. That last point is a crucial one; physical buttons are easy to navigate by feel, while the flat, featureless surfaces of smartphone and tablet touch screens require you to look at them.

Setup: Patience required
When Harmony's PC-based setup was released, it was a huge leap forward from the tedious trial-and-error method of looking up remote codes in a booklet. In the intervening years, however, Harmony's setup hasn't changed much and has slowly started to seem out-of-date and occasionally maddening.

The Harmony Smart Control (along with the Harmony Ultimate) is Logitech's first step toward evolving past the old setup routine, by letting you set up the remote using your smartphone, rather than a PC. It's the right idea, but I immediately hit a wall, as smartphone setup requires an iPhone 4S or higher -- my iPhone 4 wouldn't cut it. I tried to switch over to my newer iPad (fourth-gen), but was initially stymied by the lack of a dedicated tablet app. Next, I resigned myself to the desktop-computer-based setup, but Harmony's Web-based setup doesn't work on Macs with Chrome.

I ended up completing the initial setup using my iPad running the iPhone app, which ends up feeling a bit like a hack that won't be obvious to many people. The setup using the app did feel simpler than the Web setup, but ultimately it did not get my system set up properly when I was finished. There were little annoyances, like that my Roku 3 was classified as a "DVD player" since there's no "streaming box" device type, but more frustrating was that my Watch TV activity with the Roku had the wrong buttons assigned by default. I ended up having to go back to the PC setup to assign all of the functions manually.

Even once you get the activities straightened out, you'll probably need to experiment with settings to get things working exactly right. I needed to adjust the delay settings on a few devices to make the remote feel more responsive, and CNET editor David Carnoy had to make similar tweaks when setting up the Harmony Ultimate. I'm a huge advocate of universal remotes overall, specifically Harmony remotes, but you'll likely need to invest a considerable amount of time up front to get it working perfectly.

On the plus side, the Smart Control allows you add up to eight devices, which is three more than you can control with the step-down Harmony 650.

Living with it: RF rocks
If you (like me) are used to a typical IR-based universal remote, the main difference you'll notice is the convenience of RF control. Not relying on IR means you no longer have to worry about pointing the remote at your components, plus you'll end up with fewer instances where the remote becomes "out of sync" with your system because all the commands didn't fire correctly. It sounds like a small advantage, but in day-to-day use it ends up feeling much more convenient.

Logitech Harmony Smart Control
Sarah Tew/CNET

Another major perk of the Smart Control system is that updates are considerably easier with the always-connected Hub. Older Harmony remotes required you to connect the remote to a PC via USB every time you wanted to make a change to the settings, and the data transfer was slower than you'd expect. The Hub is always connected to your home Wi-Fi network and it downloads changes automatically once you make them on a PC or your smartphone. That won't make much of a difference for most buyers, but if you swap in new devices regularly, it's a big advantage.

As I mentioned, I tended to stick with the simple remote, and avoid the control apps. But for those who enjoy the touch-screen apps -- even occasionally -- the beauty of the Smart Control system is that it keeps everything in sync. So, for instance, you can switch between an iPod Touch, Android phone, and the simple remote interchangeably, and each one will "know" what activity is already engaged.

My primary frustration with the Harmony Smart Control after several weeks is that the simple remote is just a little too simple. I definitely wanted more activity buttons, but I also wanted separate buttons for Skip forward/Skip back, rather than the double-duty Fast-forward/Rewind buttons that are included. They're quirks you can live with, but they made me miss the superior button layout on the Harmony 650.

Finally, you should also be prepared for some experimentation regarding the placement of the Hub. My initial positioning appeared to work perfectly, but over time I noticed that Play/Pause commands to my Roku would occasionally just not work for some reason. Simply moving the Hub to a new location solved the problem.

What are the alternatives?
The Smart Control's toughest competitor is Harmony's excellent entry-level remote, the Harmony 650 ($65). It's half the price with a better button layout and can control five devices, which is just enough for basic home theaters. For most buyers, it's the best choice, solving the "too many remotes" headache for the least amount of money. If someone asks me what universal remote to get, my first recommendation remains the Harmony 650 due to its excellent overall value.

That being said, the Smart Control is a close second, especially if you own a PS3. And the Smart Control strikes me as a much better value than the Harmony's other step-up remotes, the Harmony Touch and Harmony Ultimate. Not only are they very expensive, but they both lean heavily on the built-in touch screen that -- at least for me -- isn't a good fit for a universal remote.

Conclusion: Difficult setup, but great performance for the price
If you take a step back, the Harmony Smart Control can easily seem like a crazy Rube Goldberg-esque contraption. You have an RF remote that actually only controls the Hub, which accepts remote commands and then fires them back into your living room, where the signals should bounce off something and eventually get to the device you want to control. It's incredibly convoluted, but the most surprising thing is it works.

The Harmony Smart Control's greatest accomplishment is bringing the convenience of RF remote control to a price below $150, although the initial setup is still too difficult for tech novices. That won't be right for everyone, but it's a great value for enthusiasts willing to put in the effort.

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8.2

Logitech Harmony Smart Control

Score Breakdown

Design 7Ecosystem 10Features 7Performance 9Value 8