When Logitech announced plans to sell off its Harmony remote division, there was a cry from the audio video hobbyist community almost as impassioned as when Pioneer gave up making its Kuro plasma TVs. How could a company on the top of its game, making the most user-friendly remote controls on the planet walk away from that market? The answer, of course, is that the market has dwindled.
With low cost smart phone and tablet apps providing some of the same functionality offered by the Harmony, it became difficult for prospective customers to justify the purchase of a dedicated universal remote control, even one as advanced as the Harmony. Also, the company's first attempt to capitalize on the touch-screen gesture-controlled craze, the Harmony Touch, didn't exactly achieve universal acclaim. Customers used to button-based remotes such as the excellent Harmony 900, found the swipe screen Touch, with its limited number of hard buttons, hard to adjust to. And its apparent lack of RF support (more on that later) was a step down from the 900, which could operate through walls or closed cabinet doors.
All that changes with the Logitech Harmony Ultimate and Logitech Harmony Smart Control, which we recently saw in action at a press preview in New York City. Both of these systems use RF (Radio Frequency) commands from the remote control to a new hub device. This allows the remote to work through walls or closed cabinet doors. The new Harmony Hub converts the RF commands sent by the remote into IR (Infrared) commands for devices like a TV, receiver or Blu-ray player, but it also supports Bluetooth commands so it can directly control a PS3 , Wii or Wii U without any additional adapter. So if you use your Wii or PS3 to stream Netflix, you can now do all of that - power up the TV, game console, receiver, etc., and navigate through the Netflix menus - without picking up a gaming controller.
But wait, there's more! The Harmony Hub also supports an enhanced version of the Harmony remote app for iOS and Android devices. So you can now seamlessly switch off between a Harmony remote and a Harmony remote app running on your phone or tablet, without any conflicts. Did you start an activity on your iPad but then your kid ran off with it to play Minecraft? No problem. Pick up your iPhone, or the Harmony Ultimate Remote and it already knows which activity you are in so you can adjust the volume, playback and other controls, right from the app.
Also, Logitech isn't leaving buyers of their Harmony Touch remote out in the cold. The Harmony Touch remote is fully compatible with the new Hub. So if you already own the Touch, you can pick up the Hub in the "Smart Control" package and control your Bluetooth devices without having to buy a whole new universal remote. Also, apparently Logitech made the Touch remote RF-enabled without telling anyone (sneaky devils!) so it can actually control devices through walls or closed cabinet doors by inferfacing with the new Harmony Hub.
Another nice perk of the Harmony Ultimate (which will carry over to the Harmony Touch in a future software update), is that the hard buttons like Play and Fast Forward now have dual purpose: press the button normally and it will take a certain action; press and hold the button for more than 1/2 second and it will take an entirely different action. This means the Fast Forward button will do Fast Forward when you press it quickly, but if you hold the button for more than 1/2 second it will do a Skip function instead. This addresses the complaint from many Touch owners (and reviewers) that there just aren't enough buttons on the Touch.
The Harmony Touch was the first of Logitech's remotes that allowed you to tweak the activity and device settings right from the remote, instead of having to make adjustments in the Harmony software on your computer. The Harmony Ultimate goes one step further by offering WiFi networking built into the remote. This way when you make tweaks to an activity or device on the remote, the remote will automatically transmit these updates back to your Harmony account without requiring you to plug the remote into your computer using a USB cable. And if the dog eats your remote, you won't have to program it all over again: just add the new remote to your account and it will download all the codes for your devices and activities.
The Harmony Ultimate package ($349.99) ships with the Ultimate remote and the RF/IR/Bluetooth hub. The Harmony Smart Control package ($129.99) ships with a much simpler, non-touchscreen remote and the same hub. Logitech says the remote included in the Smart Control package supports up to 6 activites, and is useful when your smart phone or tablet may be otherwise occupied.
Also announced (and shown at the briefing) was integration with Philips' new Hue LED lighting system. Hue bulbs are dimmable and go in standard light sockets, but they're also wireless-enabled so they can be controlled via the Philips Hue app. They're not only more efficient than standard incandescent or CFL bulbs (so you'll save on your electric bills) but they can be programmed to dim or even change color to match your mood. The Harmony Ultimate and Smart Control are Hue-compatible, which means you can program your activities to control individual bulbs or groups of bulbs. So now, "Watch a Movie" can dim the lights, in addition to powering up your TV and receiver, and "Listen to Music" might transform your living room with a soft red glow to accompany your romantic play list.
The Hub is included with both packages and is compatible with the Logitech Harmony Touch, the Harmony Ultimate, the Harmony Smart Control remote and the new Harmony app for iOS and Android. The Harmony Ultimate is expected to ship later this month with the Harmony Smart Control to follow in May. Logitech reps tell us the Hub may be available as a standalone product this Summer for an as yet undisclosed price.
Expect a full review from us soon. Meanwhile, you can pre-order one from Amazon: