Questions about Universal Remotes, Harmony especially
February 6, 2013 7:22 PM   Subscribe

I am looking into Universal Remotes in order to manage my media center and make it easier for other household members and guests to use.

I have a lower end LG 3D TV, a Sony HT CT-150 soundbar and subwoofer, an XBox 360, a Playstation 3, a second generation Apple TV and a Mac Mini Server. I'm also going to get Sonos, but it's not hooked up or purchased yet.

I currently have 4 remotes! And a bunch of iOS devices that I'd love to put to good use! And while I understand what device needs to be set to what in order to see video and hear audio without getting idiotic DRM messages, no one else in the household really does. So, Logitech's Harmony Link or one of the other Harmony remotes looks like possibly a good idea. The goal here is to make it easier for non-geek guests to use the whole system. But are there other solutions?

I realize that with the Harmony system I'd need a special PS3 adapter (another $60 - $75) in order to have the universal remote system include the PS3. Mostly my question about the Harmony system, especially Harmony Link is sparked by the crappy reviews it gets on Amazon.

Logitech's documentation says that the Harmony Link app and the various Harmony remotes support something called "One-Touch Activities" which to me sound like I can program, say, the power button for "Watch TV" to turn on the TV, the Sony sound system and the Apple TV and maybe even start at the Apple TV home screen, and then I can assign individual buttons on the activity screen for that activity to control things like volume and selection and so on. But the crappy reviews on Amazon seem to indicate that users couldn't manage to configure their remote apps to do that or couldn't figure out how to configure it. I'm pretty tech savvy so I think if it's a figuring-out issue it probably won't apply to me, but if the system and their online configuration tool are buggy, then it will apply to me. So those of you who own Harmony devices, is there really a problem getting the tech to work? Or is it just challenging for less savvy users to set up?

Also, Harmony seems to be almost the only solution for this problem on the market. Are there AskMe users who have similar or same entertainment devices to mine who found other solutions to the same problem? If so, I'd like to know what other universal remote systems there are to consider.

I already read the "universal remote" and "harmony remote" related posts and comments on AskMe. And as always, thanks in advance.
posted by kalessin to Technology (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think Harmony is absolutely the way to go, and speaking as a techie guy who has had several, no, they're not tough at all. The included setup software isn't the absolute best, but it's probably gotten better since I bought my last remote 4+ years ago.
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:27 PM on February 6, 2013

I should say that while their software isn't great, it certainly isn't broken or buggy. At least my version isn't, anyway. It can just be a little strange to navigate at first, but you get used to it.
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:29 PM on February 6, 2013

I've had 2 Harmonys and love them. I don't find them difficult to set up at all (also a techy person, but really it seems pretty easy to me) and haven't had issues with the software or whatever.

I would make different UI decisions than they did, but its just a question of a little clunkiness, not broken/missing functionality.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:30 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've had no problems with configuring the Harmony, nor in showing family members and house guests how to use it.

I wouldn't bother with the PS3 adaptor: we have a Wii and use the Harmony to configure the TV and sound system to "point at" the Wii and then use the Wii's own remote to control the Wii.
posted by monotreme at 7:49 PM on February 6, 2013

I have a Harmony. It's great. Do it. Online config takes a bit of time, but mine works with my late model TV, Apple TV, Xbox, 15 year old stereo system. Should work with your setup nicely. One touch activities works really well too.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:50 PM on February 6, 2013

Love my Harmony. Mostly used to watch TV on a Mac Mini through Plex. (Everything that the remote can't do I use Mobile Mouse for.) Harmony software is terrible but usable-- worst thing about getting a new device. Haven't noticed bugs; it's just ridiculously non-intuitive.

I wanted the PS3 adaptor thing for a while for playing Blu-Rays, but never got around to it. Then got a standalone BRD player and it's ten times better.
posted by supercres at 7:59 PM on February 6, 2013

I'll be the voice of dissent.

I have had two Harmonys over the past five years or so, the 880 and the 900, and I think they're pretty poor. Yes, they are better than most of the other options out there, but IMHO that doesn't actually make them good. It just makes them less bad. The form factors are not great (especially compared to a really well-designed remote like Tivo's) -- I don't think they fit well in my hand, the balance isn't very good, and the button placement is poorly thought out. The interface is mediocre, and while guests and family members do figure it out, they also get confused from time to time (like what happens if the TV turns on and the DVD player doesn't?). And the programming software is abysmal.

I don't have a great alternative to suggest, but I will say that I think the market is ripe for a decent solution. Harmony ain't it.
posted by primethyme at 8:11 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm thinking if I do the Harmony, it'll be the Link, which relies on a software remote app on the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad or similar Android smart phone/tablet.

So, thank you for the feedback about the other Harmony remotes. I'll keep that in mind, but it doesn't directly address my questions.
posted by kalessin at 8:24 PM on February 6, 2013

I'd recommend thinking long and hard before relying on a touchscreen device as your remote. It's very hard to adjust volume while watching a movie without looking, for example. My experience is that using my iPhone or iPad as my primary remote really sucks. It's nice as a secondary option, but I would never want it as my only remote. YMMV.
posted by primethyme at 9:02 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a Harmony One and love it. It does exactly what I want it to. I wish the setup software was a bit more intuitive, but really, it works very well in practice - if my 70 year old parents are over to babysit, I can hand them the remote and trust that they'll be able to watch TV or a DVD through our probably typical/overly complicated A/V system.

I tried several iPhone and iOS based remotes first, but I hated the touchscreen interface as you couldn't easily chsnge channels or adjust volume in the dark by feel alone. That was a HUGE drawback, IMO.

My 2 cents would be to pick up a used Harmony One on Craigslist and just enjoy the freedom of using a well made, flexible, capable, and easily programmable remote. I know you have your eyes on the Link, but really, in this case a dedicated unit is better.
posted by mosk at 10:21 PM on February 6, 2013

Lots of people really like the Harmony remotes. But a word of warning: I was given a Harmony 650 for Christmas and it's a piece of junk. It's honestly harder to use than just juggling my setups's 3 remotes.

So get a Harmony - just not a Harmony 650. Read the reviews on Amazon before you buy one.
posted by Tehhund at 4:01 AM on February 7, 2013

Yeah, I can tell you from experience that using your touch enabled phone to control your home media setup sounds like a great idea, but it actually isn't. I dabbled with the Plex remote control iOS app for a while to control Plex on my Mac Mini. It's a great app but between unlocking the phone when all you want to do is something simple like pause the playback or change the volume, or not having your phone handy because it's charging on your bedside table because you want to do the right thing and calibrate the battery as often as possible... and it gets inconvenient fast.

I know you say you'll get the Link if you get a Harmony remote, but given it seems to rely on your phone, I'm going to second what mosk said. I also have a Harmony One and it's great.

But it almost very nearly wasn't. When I first got it I almost considered returning it because while the "one touch activities" worked well for simple things like watching TV and using the PS3, it was a massive PITA when trying to get it to work with my Mac Mini and my media centre software of choice, Plex.

This was because the setup software is pretty much horrible. Still is, even today. It's clunky, slow, web based and setting up a very complex activity (which takes time) can lead to your session timing out, having to log back in, and then start over.

So trying to get it to work with Plex, specifically getting it to start Plex itself (so I didn't need to use the mouse or keyboard to do it) was a lesson in pain. Like you, I'm tech savvy and even though I followed Plex's instructions (to the letter, I thought) and the behaviour was still erratic. Then, when I had made up my mind to return it, it suddenly just... worked.

I don't know why but it did.

I suspect most of the bad reviews you refer to are related to people who just gave up trying to get it to do something complex with the setup software. It really is its worst feature. I suspect the Link probably uses the exact same software.

Soldier through that though, and you have an awesome universal remote. I love the fact that I can just press a button on its touchscreen and whatever device needs to turn on just does so. And any devices that were on and no longer need to be for the new activity turn off. It's rad. And when you need everything to be off, one button makes that happen.

I also like the fact you can assign actual TV logos to the favourite station buttons for on the "Watch TV" activity. It's a small feature, little more than eye candy really, but I really, really like it.

Keep in mind, though, if one of your devices doesn't have IR, it won't work with the Harmony. You've already noted the fact the PS3 needs a special adaptor, and its worth getting. Other devices, like the Wii U for instance, also use Bluetooth but don't have such an adaptor. The PS3 adaptor theoretically would work with these devices, but you'd need a separate adaptor for each device, and i haven't tested yet.

In short I do recommend the Harmony One, with the warning that setting it up is an awful, awful experience (but one that does get easier as you learn its many quirks).
posted by Effigy2000 at 4:26 AM on February 7, 2013

Yeah, we tried going the Harmony route to manage TV, cable, Xbox, and sound system and it ended in tears. It seemed to take forever for the remote to do anything and Glob forbid something happen to the devices without the remote knowing as then everything gets all messed up. After fielding one too many calls from my wife who is not tech inept about how the heck to watch a DVD or REMOTE IS BEING STUPID AND MY SHOW IS ON IN TWO MINUTES I junked the system. It just wasn't worth the hassle.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:31 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'll add to the chorus of people for whom Harmony remotes work well.

If your system components get out of sych with what the remote expects, there's a "help" feature that figures things out 95% of the time.

The programming software is vastly improved than what it used to be. I've found Harmony support to be very helpful both times I've called them over the 6 years or so that I've owned their remotes.

I've had the 676s and now have upgraded to the 700s. The One just doesn't seem necessary to me.

True, the TiVo remote is well designed, but it's a rarity; I haven't come across anything like it.

I wouldn't bother getting the smartphone version of the Harmony, unless you can leave a dedicated phone / iPod in the room for it. Also, battery life on the phone / iPod will be much more than in a dedicated remote control.

I have a Roku and sometimes I use the app instead of my remote, but mostly it's not a big upgrade. The places where it would make an improvement are for entering text via a keyboard and programmable shortcuts to whatever channels or features you want.
posted by reddot at 5:02 AM on February 7, 2013

So for those of you who had poor experiences with Harmony and junked it, what did you end up doing instead? Going back to multiple remotes and writing a mini-manual for guests, house-sitters and spouses? (Which I note I have already done.)
posted by kalessin at 6:55 AM on February 7, 2013

I ended up ordering a refurb Harmony One via Amazon's resellers. It was about $120. I will report back.
posted by kalessin at 10:49 AM on March 27, 2013

After a couple of days of possession, initial configuration and tweaking, I have a configuration on the Harmony One that I really like. It's quite easy to configure but you forget things about what buttons you expect to work versus the ones you think you need when you initially set up.

A couple of minor usage points which I will enumerate below, but overall I'm really happy with the whole package.

  • After the remote is configured to turn on/off multiple devices and set them to the right inputs and so on, the first act of turning the system on (in the remote's parlance, "using an Activity") takes a few seconds. In contrast to pushing multiple buttons on multiple remotes where the response is pretty much immediate, you have to keep the Harmony remote pointed in the general direction of your systems so everything falls into place. You wouldn't think it'd be difficult but it's surprisingly difficult the first few times to remember that key point.
  • Settings syncs to the remote (at least in the case of this Harmony One) are full transfers. There don't appear to be any diffs. So if you've got lots of activities and customized settings the remote sync operation may take a few minutes.
  • If you have a PlayStation 3, you need to get an extra doohickey to integrate with the remote. I'm so pleased with the Harmony One that the doohickey purchase is already gone through and I'm waiting for shipping.
  • I'm very happy with the quality of the refurbished unit I got, save that the battery seems a little slow to charge. I ordered another battery and I'm waiting for that too.
  • I have not so far encountered a situation where all the devices get out of sync and the remote system refuses to work. I'm a little skeptical that that happens since every time you initiate an activity the remote allows you to press "Help" to redo if for some reason one of the devices is not in its proper state. You can also turn everything off and start again. Maybe this happened with older Harmony remotes? It seems like it's easy to get back to base state by pressing the power button on the remote and then, for good measure, making sure everything else is off. I will report back (if I still can in the thread) if I discover how this out of sync thing might happen or if another user/guest manages to make it happen.

posted by kalessin at 6:20 PM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Okay, I managed to get the system a little screwed up by reprogramming the remote and using it against the system while not all devices were off. It was a little confusing at first and at worst, the absolute worst I experienced, the fix was:
  • Turn every device off.
  • Resync remote programming to Harmony configurator.
  • Give everything a little time to recover and reset.
  • Use remote as normal.
This was only necessary when the remote was clearly messed up and out of sync with everything. The remote was acting funny and it seemed to have been doing so since last sync with the configrator.

In most cases if anything gets out of sync the best way to handle it is to turn everything off with the remote's power off button, wait about 5 - 10 seconds, use the remote normally to turn things on again.

The out of sync issue happens if you punch buttons madly on the remote while it's in the middle of a major Activity-scale operation, like turning on three devices and setting them to different inputs. It's also good to note that on rare occasions the remote gets hung up on a command and doesn't respond. Don't keep hitting buttons. In a few seconds it'll get unstuck and start sending the backlog of buttons you pushed, further confusing the issue.

Otherwise, exactly what I wanted.
posted by kalessin at 12:19 PM on April 2, 2013

Added the PS3 doohickey to the system. Points of interest:
  • Doohickey replaces any PS3 Bluetooth remote you may already have registered to the system, so the docs really do mean you should use your controller to configure the system or when you register the doohickey the remote you may have been using at the time stops working.
  • It's small and can be essentially anywhere within range of the Harmony and the PS3 (I think 10 feet?)
  • It has a power adapter. Which means for me and my setup the real kicker is how many plug-in things you have in your entertainment center, but whatever. Plugin means not having to mess around with batteries.
  • It works fine otherwise. Perfect. Only you can decide whether buying it is worth it to you.

posted by kalessin at 7:27 AM on April 10, 2013

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