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

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
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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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