Saturday, January 18, 2014

Best remote control ever?


Recently I purchased a Logitech Harmony Smart Control, and I have to admit, now that I've got it set up, that it is probably the best universal remote I've ever used.  It consists of a remote and a hub.  The remote uses RF rather than infrared signals, so it doesn't require line of sight.  The hub produces both Bluetooth and infrared signals, to control my television, my soundbar, and my PS3.

What's really useful is the ability to define activities.  An activity is a macro for things such as listening to music and watching movies. By pressing a single button, you turn all the relevant devices on, and set them to the right settings.  For example, if I hit the movies button, it will turn on the PS3, the soundbar, and the television, and switch the soundbar and the television to receive input from the PS3.  The volume controls will control the soundbar, the play, fast-forward/rewind, and pause and stop buttons will control the PS3.  And all this is set up automatically, via a pretty simple online wizard at myharmony.com.  You can do more complex controls, including assigning individual buttons on the remote (which I had to do to manage the shape buttons for the PS3 remote), or building more complex macros to run, but the automatic set-up runs pretty well.  One thing that I find very nice is that while it takes some significant steps to turn off the PS3 (starting with pressing and holding the PS button, going to the turn off system option, and then confirming turning it off), the hub includes a macro which does all that.  So I can just push the Off button and not worry about turning my computer off.

There are a couple of caveats.  Set up is not as straight-forward as I made it sound just a moment ago.  The online wizard works pretty well, but the instructions that come in the box with it don't make it at all obvious what you have to do to get to that point--they make it sound like you plug the hub in, download the app to your phone, and then you're at the wizard.  They leave out the part where you have to plug the hub into the USB port of your computer, so you can set it up to use your WiFi, and then you can start the wizard.  That's a very important piece of information that's not on the Getting started documentation at all, as far as I can tell.

Second, if you want to do anything more complex than just the standard wizard, it's a bit of work.  Like I said, you can control individual buttons in the remote, or even macros, but macros are a whole other level of effort that I still haven't tried yet.

It also doesn't always behave as expected. By default the Smart Control turns off any equipment you're not using when you switch activities--but there are times I want to pause a show I'm watching, switch to the computer I have attached to my television, and then come back to the show without having to restart the PS3 and find my last point.  You can turn that off under the devices menu, but it took me several times before it finally started working, and I'm still not sure why.

Finally, if your television or soundbar automatically turns itself off when not in use, then there's no way for the Harmony remote to know that fact, and it may think it's turning the device on when in fact it's turning it off, because the remote control is out of sync with the device.  It's probably a good idea to turn the power-saving mode off.

Overall, though, I really like the remote.  It's made things much simpler than juggling three remotes, which is easier for me and easier for my wife, who rarely uses the set-up and thus isn't as familiar with how it works, to figure out.  It also lets me control things with my smartphone, but I haven't found that as useful as the remote that comes with the Harmony Smart Control hub.

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