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Logitech Harmony Ultimate universal remote review: A remote that almost has it all

While it's pricey at $350, the company's flagship touch-screen remote is packed with features that will appeal to high-end users, including RF, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth control.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

Executive Editor / Reviews

Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable e-reader and e-publishing expert. He's also the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks and Nook e-books, as well as audiobooks.

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12 min read

When you name a product the Ultimate, customers tend to have rather high expectations for it. But I can understand Logitech's rationale. In many ways the Harmony Ultimate is a dream remote, adding RF (radio frequency) and Bluetooth capabilities to last year's infrared (IR) touch-screen model, the Harmony Touch. Neither RF nor Bluetooth require line-of-sight like IR, so your remote commands can literally pass through walls and doors, making the Ultimate ideal for users who have gear hidden away in closets and cabinets. And just as importantly, having Bluetooth onboard finally gives you a powerful universal remote that's natively compatible with the IR-less Sony PS3 (and, presumably, upcoming PS4), as well as Nintendo's Wii and Wii U game consoles, which also employ Bluetooth.

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7.8

Logitech Harmony Ultimate universal remote

The Good

The <b>Logitech Harmony Ultimate</b> is a sleek universal remote with RF, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, IR, and a 2.4-inch color touch screen that recognizes some gestures; it's Web-programmable via Macs or Windows PCs, but can edit commands without having to connect to a computer; rechargeable via the included cradle; controls up to 15 devices and offers good customization options; works interchangeably with app-based control from iPhones and Android phones.

The Bad

Expensive compared with Harmony Smart Control package; poorly placed "transport" buttons; lacks dedicated forward and reverse skip keys; rechargeable battery is not replaceable; takes significant time and effort to set up large, intricate home theater systems.

The Bottom Line

Despite its high price and a handful of drawbacks, the Logitech Harmony Ultimate is an impressive, feature-rich universal remote that's well worth the investment, particularly if you have a lot of components in your system.

The other big addition is a Wi-Fi component that allows you to update your Harmony's settings on a computer (or the remote itself) and sync them wirelessly without having to tether the remote to your PC or Mac via a USB cable (as you have to do with old-school Harmony remotes, such as the Harmony 650). Moreover, Logitech also lets you use free apps for iPhone and Android phones to control your devices as well (again, over Wi-Fi), so you can use them interchangeably with the Ultimate. There's even more, of course, and features-wise the Ultimate's got almost everything you could ask for in a universal remote. Plus, its design is sleek and slightly improved from the Touch, which looks nearly identical.

Overall, I liked it a lot. However, it's not without a few blemishes. Some of them are more minor and hopefully fixable via software updates, but others are potentially more grating, depending on your pet peeves when it comes to universal remotes.

The $350 Ultimate also competes with the company's much more affordable Harmony Smart Control package ($130), which offers all the features of the Ultimate -- RF control, Bluetooth communications, and app control on iPhones and Android phones -- but instead of a touch-screen remote, it bundles in a new, very basic but slick Harmony remote with no display.

Those with more-complicated setups -- and who crave a dedicated touch-screen remote that also has hard buttons -- will be better served with the Ultimate, which can control up to 15 devices. That said, the Harmony Smart Control package -- which controls up to eight devices -- is certainly the better value, and arguably the pick of the current Harmony litter.

The Harmony Ultimate and the included Hub, which has integrated WiFi and Bluetooth. Sarah Tew/CNET

Design
The Ultimate looks identical to the Touch, except for a small but important design change to the bottom of the remote that improves its ergonomics: a hump that pushes your hand forward, making it easier to access the transport controls at the top of the remote.

If you look at our review for the Touch, you'll notice that CNET editor and video guru David Katzmaier didn't like that the transport controls were at the top of the remote instead of at the bottom like they are with the entry-level Harmony 650 and Logitech's previous RF remote, the Harmony 900. If you're a heavy DVR user, you really want those buttons to be within in easy reach of your thumb, and having the transport controls in the middle to bottom third of the remote is definitely preferable.

Logitech added a more pronounced hump to the Ultimate (left). Sarah Tew/CNET

I think the hump helps with the ergonomics, but I also didn't mind using the touch screen to control playback with my DVR. The screen recognizes a limited number of gesture controls, and I thought it worked pretty well. To pause and play you simply tap the screen and you can program the swipe gestures to create rewind and fast-forward controls.

It's a matter of preference, of course, for when I showed Katzmaier the Ultimate and he held it in his hand, he thought the ergonomics were better, but the buttons' locations remained a sticking point for him. So did the 2.4-inch screen, which just isn't as sharp or quite as responsive as the touch screens found on today's smartphones and tablets.

I, too, thought the screen could use a little more resolution, but I felt the screen was adequately responsive. I think the addition of RF helps -- IR is inherently sluggish -- so things just felt zippier all around.

The touch screen allows for a limited number of gesture controls. David Carnoy/CNET

To some degree, how you feel about the remote will be determined by how you feel about the touch screen, because it does replace a fair number of physical buttons. For instance, you have to change channels by pressing virtual numbers on the touch screen. I didn't mind that, but if you've grown used to the clicker that comes with your cable or satellite box, it takes some getting used to.

On the flip side, one of the big pluses to having the touch screen is that you get easy access to all your favorite channels. The Harmony software makes it simple to select up to 50 of your favorites and quickly add them to the remote as a grid of icons. Of course, since the screen is pretty small, you're going to end up doing some scrolling to get to all your favorites if you add more than 20 or so.

What you get in the box (in addition to the remote). Sarah Tew/CNET

As noted, the touch screen also supports some gesture controls. During TV watching, you can swipe up to raise the volume and swipe down to lower it. Swiping sideways left or right skips channels forward or back. You can also assign other actions to a particular gesture control or button and add sequences ("macros"). Some people complained when Logitech left off the ability to add sequences to some of its previous advanced remotes, but that functionality is here if you need it.

Beyond the nitpicking, my broader impression is that it takes some time to get completely familiar with the remote, and there is some satisfaction in tweaking your settings to improve the user experience. Everything worked well, though I sometimes felt I had to go through an extra layer of navigation (or a menu) to get to the control or function I wanted. It helps to reassign the hard buttons and customize everything to your liking.

You can customize how buttons function. Screenshot by David Carnoy/CNET

But just be aware that you may have to give a quick tutorial before other members of your household use the remote for the first time. It's ultimately pretty user friendly, but I wouldn't say everything is intuitive. For instance, the skip forward/back button for video watching has two modes for the same button, depending on whether you hold it down or click it quickly (one's a chapter-skip mode and the other is a fast-forward/rewind mode). That's can be a little confusing at first.

Setup on myharmony.com is fairly straightforward, but expect to run into a few hitches. Screenshot by David Carnoy/CNET

It's also worth mentioning that since the remote has a glossy finish, it does attract fingerprints, so expect to have to wipe it down from time to time. And while it seems reasonably durable, I'd be careful about dropping it on hard surfaces. You basically should treat it like a smartphone or tablet that doesn't have a case on it. You're most likely not going to shatter anything when it drops, but the simple, lightweight remote that comes with the Harmony Smart Control seems better at handling drops.

Finally, a few words about the battery and charging cradle. The rechargeable battery, which gives you several days of use, is sealed into the remote and is not replaceable. Apparently, when the battery dies, the remote dies. It's supposed to last several years, but I'm still waiting for Logitech to give me an exact number for how long it should last. (By contrast, the battery in the Smart Control remote is a replaceable watch battery that costs less than $2.)

The cradle for the Ultimate is the same one that comes with the Touch. You dock the remote vertically inside it, and it's a better design than the horizontal cradle for the old Harmony 900 (you laid that remote down). Most people will simply leave the remote in the charger when not in use, so battery life shouldn't be an issue. But if you accidentally leave it out of the cradle for a few days, expect the battery to wear down.

Key upgrades from the Touch

One key difference between the Ultimate and the Touch is the addition of the Harmony Hub, an accessory that lives near your TV and serves as an IR blaster and Bluetooth link between the PS3 and Nintendo Wii and Wii U game consoles. (The Hub is also sold separately for $99 -- if you just want to use your smartphone as a remote -- but we strongly recommend that you get the Smart Control bundle, which includes the Hub and that simplified remote for just $30 more.) Also, the touch-screen display on the Ultimate adds vibration feedback so you know it received your touch-screen commands. And finally, the Ultimate has tilt sensors so it wakes up upon being picked up, and you can program buttons for both short and long presses, doubling the available functions.

The Hub sends out IR signals but also comes with two mini IR blasters that can be plugged into the back of the unit and then placed near components outside a closet or cabinet. sarah Tew/CNET

In addition to Bluetooth, the Hub also features integrated Wi-Fi. As I said, you can now update your Harmony's settings on a computer and sync them wirelessly with your remote. It also allows you to use any iOS or Android device to control your system via the Logitech Smartphone App. While the app can be used with tablets, it's really a smartphone app; you use the "2X" button to blow it up to the iPad's larger screen size, but there's not a tablet-optimized app. Not yet, at least.

With previous Harmony remotes, you had to install Harmony software on your Mac or Windows PC, and set up up the remote via that application. But with Harmony's latest remotes, everything is done via a Web-based interface (though, for reasons unknown, browser support is wonky: IE, Firefox, and Chrome on Windows; Safari and Firefox on Mac.).

In my case, I was previously using a now-discontinued Harmony 900 (also an RF remote), and already had a Harmony account set up. However, when moving over to the Ultimate, I had to set up a new account at myharmony.com. Luckily, when setting up the new remote, I was given the option to migrate over my old settings from my old Harmony 900 account. It worked pretty well, though I still had to do some tweaking.

Using the remote with the PS3 requires a quick setup procedure. David Carnoy/CNET

It's worth noting that while I have most of my components in a closet, my Panasonic plasma and JVC projector are out in the open (a screen comes down in front of the plasma). I could have chosen to control those components via IR, but I wanted to keep everything on RF, because you can't use the iPhone/Android app to control any components that don't interact with the Hub (the Hub is one giant IR blaster, but if it's in a closet or cabinet, the IR signals only end up bouncing around inside the closet or cabinet).

I ran one of IR mini blasters out to the TV, setting it under the TV, just in front of the TV's bezel. The mini blaster was able to send commands to the projector mounted on the ceiling on the other side of the room about 12 feet away (I have a 110-inch screen that comes down over the plasma).

The free Harmony app for iOS and Android turns your smartphone in a remote (shown on Samsung Galaxy S4).. David Carnoy/CNET

Everything was worked pretty smoothly, though I did run into a problem with the projector not shutting down when I hit the off button (with the JVC projector you have to confirm shut down, which creates another step). I was able to get it working correctly with some tweaking, but this is an example of the small hitches you may run into, particularly with more-complicated setups.

The fact is, even after I had everything set up satisfactorily, I still spent another 1.5 hours tweaking things, which included adding custom icons for activities (the icons don't show terribly well on the remote's screen because of the lack of resolution and alas, those custom icons don't transfer over to the iPhone Harmony app's interface). And I'm still make small tweaks as I write this review.

The Ultimate also supports control of Philips' Wi-Fi-controlled Hue lights via the Hub, and it turned out to be remarkably easy to incorporate them into my setup. You actually do it right from the remote rather than online and the lights don't appear in your saved settings online. Once you've added Hue to the remote, a small light icon appears in the lower-left-hand corner of the screen. You tap on that to adjust brightness or turn off the light. Eventually, you'll be able to change the color of the lights, but for now, you can only adjust the color temperature and customize it for various activities.

The Ultimate is compatible with Philips' Hue WiFi lighting system. David Carnoy/CNET

Conclusion

Back in the day I used to program Philips Pronto remotes, a rather tedious affair, and comparatively speaking, the Harmony Ultimate's setup was a breeze, though not without a few frustrations and snafus. As Matthew Moskovciak stated in his review of the Harmony Smart Control, setup can require some patience, and while Logitech is finally getting around to revitalizing the once revolutionary Harmony software, some legacy issues remain (for instance, Roku is listed under DVD players and Apple TV is considered a computer device). In other words, there are still a few kinks to be worked out.

Some things about the remote you can't change. The transport controls placement at the top of the remote will bother some people more than others (they're also placed at the top of the basic controller that comes with the Smart Control package, but because that remote is smaller, their placement is less of an ergonomic issue). And if you have some resistance to using the touch screen -- or simply don't think it performs well enough -- you're not going to love this remote and would probably be better going with the much more affordable Harmony Smart Control.

Personally, I grew to like the Ultimate the more I used it -- and customized its settings -- and I came away preferring it to the older Harmony 900, which we rated very highly when it launched. Some of my fondness for it has to do with the inclusion of the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which just makes it a whole lot easier to update the remote via wireless syncing. And while the layout of the physical buttons on the 900 was better (and there were also more of them), I was fine with the Ultimate's design and preferred its improved touch screen and the gesture controls that come with it. The new vibration feedback feature is also a plus, and the tilt sensors mean the remote automatically wakes up when you pick it up (with the 900 you had to shake it a bit).

I can't say I used the smartphone apps much other than to try them out because it's just easier grabbing the remote if it's there. I do think the apps can be improved a bit, and it would interesting to see what sort of interface Logitech could come up for tablets. But to me the apps are just an added bonus, and it allows other family members to use their smartphones or iPod Touches as remotes (as long as you download the app and are within range of the Hub, you can use your device as a remote, there's no security or lengthy setup to deal with). Of course, it might not be so good to get into a dueling remote situation with a significant other or your kids.

While there's a bit of a critical undertow to this review, I recognize that it's hard to do what Logitech's done, creating a remote that brings together all these elements while trying to keep it simple enough for average consumer to set up and use. The Ultimate is mostly quite impressive -- as I said, I liked it a lot -- though its $350 price tag seems a bit high.

Of course, compared with the high-priced remote control systems that custom installers will try to sell you, the Ultimate is actually a reasonable deal. And for better or worse, Logitech doesn't have too much competition in this space, so it's hard to go out and recommend other products to you that are better for the money.

So while I'd like to see the price dip to below $300, for some people, particularly those who have lots of components, the Ultimate is worth buying. I also think it's a better choice than the Touch, and would recommend spending the extra money on the Ultimate if you're trying to choose between the two. The addition of the Hub and small improvements to the design make it worth the extra dough.

As for this model versus the $129.99 Harmony Smart Control package, it really comes down to how many components you have. If you have a setup with four to six components and don't feel it's going to grow, the Smart Control package is probably the way to go. However, I currently have 10 components in my system and perhaps more on the way once the PS4 and Xbox One hit the market, so the Harmony Smart Control option just won't cut it; the Ultimate is my only option.

I'm fine with that, I just wish it cost a little less.

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7.8

Logitech Harmony Ultimate universal remote

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 8Value 7