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

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MSRP: $349.99

The Good The Logitech Harmony Ultimate 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.

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7.8 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Value 7

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.

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

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.)

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