Logitech Harmony Touch review: Fancy touch screen fails against cheaper clickers
A touch-screen remote at first glance seems like an obvious evolution over the button-festooned scepters of yore, but the Logitech Harmony Touch is a significantly worse remote than many traditional universal clickers, like the superb and much less expensive Harmony 650.
The Touch evokes buttonless tablets and smartphones while still offering dedicated keys for the most important functions. Logitech's newest high-end remote sports a 2.4-inch color touch screen accompanied by 27 buttons, exactly half the number found on the Harmony 650. The $250 Touch features the same Web-based programming and activity-based controls (such as "Watch TV") that have made Harmony remotes so popular, but the focus is clearly on the touch screen, which takes up about a third of the length of the remote.
The screen has its advantages, including more flexible customization, the capacity to display a bunch of channel icons at once, on-remote editing, and support for a few gestures. But its main disadvantage -- the fact that you have to look down at the remote to make sure you're pressing the right virtual button -- is a deal-breaker for me. Logitech could have minimized this issue with better placement and selection of the hard keys, using the discontinued Harmony One as a model perhaps, but instead it plopped the screen front and center. Throw in the exorbitant price and the fact that you can circumvent Logitech's arbitrary device limit (more about this later), and there's simply no good reason to buy a Harmony Touch instead of a 650.
Design and button layout
You might be tempted to buy a Touch if appearance and feel were your only criteria. It's probably the nicest-looking remote I've seen, and it fits great in the hand. The glossy black face is a bit of a fingerprint magnet but no more so than a phone or tablet. It arcs gracefully down from back to front and sexy curves extend around the softly textured back, for an easier grip than with larger wands like the 650.
All of the keys are illuminated a pleasing white, feel well-made and solid when pressed, and exhibit just the right amount of travel before culminating in a satisfying tactile click. Their shapes and positions are well-differentiated for easy navigation by feel.
My middle finger rested naturally in a subtle groove on the back, perfectly positioning my thumb above the center of the big screen. That's great for screen-centric activities, but of course I used the Touch's hard buttons much more often than the screen. Unfortunately, their placement ranges from inconvenient to outright annoying.
From that starting position, swinging a thumb down to mash the cursor-controlling right, left, up, down, and OK keys was a slight stretch even for my big hands, and reaching all the way down to the oft-used DVR and Guide buttons was even worse without hitching the remote down in my hand. I own a Galaxy Note 2 that I mostly use with one hand, however, so I'm used to frequent digital calisthenics. But I shouldn't have to work this hard to reach buttons, especially ones I use all the time -- and especially when I'm in couch potato mode.
The worst part is that the main transport keys (Play, Pause, Fast-Forward, Rewind, Stop, and Record) are perched atop the clicker in the least accessible position. It's a disastrous ergonomic move, as I was reminded every time I reached for those keys. In contrast, the 650 keeps its transport keys right under your thumb.
As someone who skips commercials every time I watch TV -- I haven't watched live TV in years, and consequently almost never see commercials -- for me the single most valuable key on a remote is Forward Skip. And the Harmony Touch omits that hard key entirely. The closest that ill-placed pod of transport keys can offer is the Fast-Forward button, a much less efficient way to skip ads. I was able to easily edit the touch screen's button set to move the "Skip Forward" (aka 30-second skip) virtual button as high as possible, but that's no substitute for a physical button. Alternatively I could have programmed the Channel Up/Down hard keys to skip forward and back, but that's pretty confusing, especially to my channel-flipping wife.
Using the touch screen
Unlike the 650 the Touch doesn't awaken, illuminating its keys and screen, when you first grab it off the coffee table (I love that feature). Instead you have to actually touch the screen or a button to wake it up. Once awake the Home page of the big color screen shows the principal activity, which is typically "Watch TV," along with the time, battery level, and a couple of icons along the bottom, one for Help and another for jumping directly to device control.
Unfortunately there's no way to jump directly to subsequent activities like "Listen to Music" or "Watch Movie," so I had to swipe horizontally to scroll among them. I was annoyed because the screen shows only one activity at a time (something you can't customize, although you can rearrange the order in which they appear) and it didn't "wrap," but at least scrolling was quick. Once I selected an activity the Touch did its Harmony thing, prompting me to keep it pointed at my gear, sending remote codes to turn on (or off) devices, selecting inputs, and generally being awesome.
Once the activity was, er, active, the screen showed four big horizontal buttons, much like a scrollable list of e-mails or settings on a smartphone (there's no way to resize them). For activities like Watch TV the first virtual button will always be "123," and pressing it takes you to a number pad for direct channel selection and the like. The second is "gestures," which takes you to a blank screen where you can swipe in the four cardinal directions, or tap, to perform actions. For example, I programmed a left-to-right swipe for commercial skips. The rest of the buttons are accessible by simply scrolling down -- similar to accessing additional "pages" of commands on past Harmony remote screens, and just about as convenient. My wife noticed that it's easy to accidentally hit the menu bar at the bottom of the screen, however, sending the remote into Edit or Help mode inadvertently.
Edit mode is one big advantage the Touch has over past Harmony remotes. It lets you program gestures and rearrange buttons on the remote itself, as opposed to having to program those changes via Harmony's software. Unfortunately there's no way to move or remove the "123" and "gestures" buttons. The rest of the buttons can be moved or renamed at will, and as usual with Harmony remotes you can program them to control any device or even initiate a sequence of commands (a macro).
One useful function of the touch screen was the ability to directly select channels via icons, rather than having to sift through a DVR's onscreen guide. Hitting the Star key above the screen summons a list of favorite channels (up to 50) and you can add, edit, and reorder your favorites right on the remote. Past Harmony remotes only had room for a four or six favorite channels at a time on their screens, while the Touch's big screen shows nine.
In practice the screen wasn't as responsive as a button. Quickly hitting Skip Forward in succession was a recipe for under- or overshooting the target, such as the end of a commercial break, and I found I had to pace my clicks to the slower remote. Compared with my phone the pace of scrolling was slightly more sluggish, and occasionally my swipes didn't register or there was an annoying delay in response. Speaking of phones, I really would have appreciated the subtle reassurance of haptic feedback, but it's not available. The numeric keypad should be fine for all but the fattest of finger, however, and overall the touch screen is usable enough for what it has to accomplish.
Like Logitech's other recent remotes including the 650, the Touch uses the excellent MyHarmony.com Web site for programming and customization. The site makes an irreducibly complex process as simple as possible with ample wizards and help options, although it's not without its issues.
The setup process is identical to that of previous Logitech Harmony remotes. You connect the Touch to your Internet-connected Windows PC or Mac with the supplied USB cable, sign in to MyHarmony.com (or create a new account) and answer a fairly simple online questionnaire. You choose your home theater components from a list, explain how they're connected, and define their roles in activity-based functions, such as Watch TV, Watch DVD, and Listen to Music. For each function, you specify which devices and inputs the remote must control. The software makes many common decisions automatically, for example mapping volume keys to control your AV receiver rather than the TV's volume. After you've completed the questionnaire, the software uploads all the relevant control codes to the Harmony Touch.
The initial setup process supposedly provides the option to copy your existing commands from your old Harmony to the Touch, but that failed for me. The software told me, "Devices and activities cannot be copied from this particular account." Even if the copy works, however, favorite channels and button customizations won't work.
As a Harmony veteran I was able to program my modest setup (six devices, five activities) in about 20 minutes, but it took another half hour or so of fiddling with button customizations to get everything just right. One annoyance was that two of my activities, using a Roku box and a PS3, didn't map most of the buttons correctly by default, so I had to manually program every hard key (easier than it sounds thanks to the site's drag-and-drop interface). Learning extra commands was a cinch, and interestingly the Touch's IR sensor is on the back, rather than the base as with previous remotes.
I did hit a snag trying to use another USB cable than the one Logitech supplies. I figured any old cable would work, but most of the ones I tried failed to sync entirely, or would fail halfway through. Moral of the story: use the supplied cable.
Harmony deserves credit for upgrading its software on a regular basis. It recently added the option to change the order in which devices are powered on, and more importantly now allows more than one Harmony remote to be associated with each account.
The Harmony Touch features a built-in, nonremovable rechargeable battery along with a charging cradle. A Logitech representative quoted an approximately weeklong battery life for light TV watchers, but closer to two or three days for heavy TV watchers. That was pretty conservative; I found it was closer to a week in my household with the touch screen turned up to full brightness, and we aren't light TV watchers.
This battery life is quite weak compared with what I get with my 650 -- a few months at least on standard AA rechargeable batteries. Many people will keep the Touch happily ensconced in its cradle, however, so battery life shouldn't be an issue. It's too bad they made the battery nonremoveable, though, because batteries can fail, and in this case you'd be left having to call Harmony as opposed to simply replacing the batteries yourself.
On the other hand, with a cradle as a home base, you might spend less time hunting around the living room for the clicker.
The Touch shares a few other notable features with other Harmony remotes, such as Help. If something doesn't seem right after initiating an activity, you can hit the question mark on the screen. It calls up a "Fixing problem" notification and automatically tries to correct the most common issues, for example by switching inputs on your device or devices. If that doesn't work you'll be walked through a series of questions like, "Is the TV on?" or "Is the TV set to input 1?" Answering yes or no causes the remote to attempt more fixes and ask follow-up questions until the problem is resolved.
My wife uses Help all the time on our 650 and it works great. She also mentioned that she noticed the Touch didn't require her to use Help as much as the 650 did, which might mean it has better infrared coverage or doesn't take as long to carry out an activity (I didn't notice any such difference myself, however).
Harmony arbitrarily limits the number of devices its remotes can control, I assume as a way to encourage you to buy a more expensive remote. The 650 can only officially control 5 devices, while the Touch (the more expensive model Logitech wants you to buy) can control up to 15. Of course, if you feel cramped by the device limit on the 650, you could always try my easy hack.
Some past Harmony remotes included RF compatibility to allow control of devices hidden out of sight in cabinets and extend range of control, but the Touch does not support RF at all, and unlike the Harmony 1100 it won't work with the company's RF extender.
Harmony also talks up the Touch's ability to integrate with the Skype-enabled Logitech TV Cam HD: "Accept and place calls, mute, control pan/tilt/zoom and more, all from one simple-to-use remote." I didn't test this feature.
There's only one universal remote I recommend, and it's the Harmony 650. Logitech has pared down its formerly prodigious line to only three remotes -- the $65 Harmony 650, the $250 Harmony Touch, and the $325 Harmony 1100. Unless you have money to burn and a compulsion to blindly purchase the newest cool-ish gadget, no matter what it is, there's no good reason to buy a Harmony Touch while the Harmony 650 exists. The 650's reliance on buttons is a major asset in a living-room remote, not a liability, and its price tag makes the Touch seem like a cruel joke. If you must have a touch screen in the living room, save some money and buy a Kindle Fire HD or Google Nexus 7, and save controlling your entertainment center for a Harmony 650.