The "smart home" is a blossoming market within the consumer electronics industry. The number of networkable lighting systems, thermostats, security cameras, locks, appliances, and power management products is growing exponentially. In most cases, each of these smart devices comes with its own app that allows you to wirelessly (and, in many cases, remotely) control and monitor your home environment. Build a system with multiple smart home products, and prepare to jump between multiple apps to control them all.
The other option is to integrate these apps into a compatible control system that unites everything into a single control interface. Those who prefer to go the professional route can hire an installer to put in a Crestron, Control4, or similar system--but what about the do-it-yourselfers who want to, well, do it themselves for less cost? Logitech has introduced the new Harmony Living Home Line that is specifically designed to unite the company's AV system control with smart home devices, all programmable via the Harmony setup wizard we've come to know so well. The product line includes three models: the Harmony Home Hub ($99.99), the Harmony Home Control ($149.99), and the Harmony Ultimate Home Control ($349.99). I requested the mid-tier package, as I wanted to see exactly what kind of whole-house control I could get for $150.
The Harmony Home Control includes three main elements. First is the Harmony Home Hub, a small box that connects to your home network and controls AV and smart home devices via WiFi, Bluetooth, or IR. Second is the Harmony mobile app for iOS or Android, which allows you to use your smartphone or tablet as a remote control. And finally, for those who don't wish to be tethered to a mobile device for control, the package includes a physical Harmony remote control. The $350 package includes the touchscreen/hard-button combo remote, the same design used on the Harmony Ultimate One and the Harmony Touch I reviewed a couple years ago. The $150 remote omits the touchscreen and adds a physical number pad and five buttons dedicated to smart home control (more on this in a second).
In order to test the smart home aspects of this system, I requested a few compatible devices--namely, the Lutron Caseta wireless lighting system and a Honeywell WiFi Thermostat. Other compatible products include the Nest thermostat, Philips Hue lighting, Lutron Serena window shades, August smart locks, Rheem water heaters, and the SmartThings and peq product lines. For an updated list of compatible smart home devices, click here.
First, let's talk about basic setup for AV system control. As with other recent Harmony remotes, Logitech would like you to set up this system using the Harmony app on your mobile device. I wasn't particularly fond of the app's setup process when I reviewed the Harmony Smart Keyboard last year, and I had trouble with it again here...which proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Setup begins when you plug in the Harmony Home Hub near your AV system and download the Harmony app to your iOS or Android device. The app automatically connects your mobile device to the Hub via Bluetooth and allows you add the Hub to your home WiFi network (your device must support Bluetooth LE to follow this setup procedure; my older iPhone 4 does not, so I used my Samsung Galaxy tablet for this part). Obviously, you must have a home WiFi network in place to use this system...and why would you be purchasing smart home products if you didn't?
Once the Hub is added to your home network, the app asks you to either create a Harmony account or sign in to your existing account, if you already own Harmony remotes...which I do. This is where I ran into a problem with both the Android and iOS apps: I would get to the "Connecting with Harmony" stage of the sign-in process, and nothing would happen. The system would freeze. I tried restarting everything (app, Hub, WiFi router), and nothing worked. A search of Harmony's support page revealed that I'm not the only one who's had this problem, and it led me to a valuable answer: If you can't get the app to handle system setup correctly, you can connect the Hub directly to your computer via the supplied USB cable and perform the setup process through the MyHarmony software for your PC or Mac. I personally recommend that you skip the app setup and use your computer from the get-go, as the MyHarmony computer software is much better than the app-based setup wizard. It's faster, more stable, and just plain easier to use. You can download the computer software here (https://setup.myharmony.com ). In no time at all, I added all of my AV system components (Samsung TV, Oppo Blu-ray player, Dish DVR, Harman/Kardon receiver, and Apple TV) and configured three activities: Watch TV, Watch a Movie, and Watch AppleTV. You can add up to eight AV devices total, and the basic Home Control remote has three activity buttons that support up to six activities total. (FYI: If you're an existing Harmony customer and sign in to your account, you can easily port over your devices and activities from a previous remote: I chose to walk through the whole process again just for review purposes.)
Then I hit the sync button to upload the info to the Hub and put the Hub back near my equipment rack. There is no need to connect the physical Harmony remote to your computer to upload anything. The Hub is where the system brains reside: It receives commands from the physical remote via RF (so line of sight is not necessary) and from the Harmony app via WiFi, and it converts those commands to IR to control your AV devices. It blasts out those IR signals so that you don't have to run IR cables; I simply placed the Hub atop my gear rack, and it controlled all of my IR-based devices (including my TV several feet away) with great consistency. One long IR blaster cable is included to extend the coverage, if needed. The Hub can also control WiFi and Bluetooth devices directly. It automatically detected both the Apple TV and an Amazon Fire TV (in another room) on my WiFi network during setup and asked if I wanted to control them.
Once the Hub was set up and functioning properly with the Harmony remote control, I revisited the iOS and Android apps. This time, I didn't have any trouble signing in. Each time you launch the app, it looks for available hubs; if only one hub is found, it will automatically sign in and load the control settings. You're then taken to the Activities page to begin your AV system control.
The next step for me was to install the smart home products. I installed two Lutron Caseta wireless lighting kits: an in-wall dimmer kit and a plug-in dimmer kit, each of which costs $59.95. I also installed the Honeywell RTH9580 WiFi thermostat ($229.99 MSRP, about $180 through Amazon). I will be writing up separate reviews of those products to discuss the specific details of their installations and performance. What's relevant for this review is that, once those smart devices were added to the same home network as the Harmony Home Hub, it was easy to add them to the control system right from the Harmony app. I simply had to navigate to Harmony Setup, Devices, Add Device, Home Control, and then select my products from the list of compatible devices and follow a few steps to link the products and assign the function to one of the automation buttons on the Harmony remote. The smart home products were then instantaneously controllable via my Harmony system. It was pretty slick.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
I'm going to discuss performance in three parts: the physical remote, the Harmony app, and the smart home control. I still prefer using a physical remote over an app for everyday control of my system, and this one worked very well for me. It launched all activities correctly from the get-go and had all the buttons I needed for my Dish DVR, Oppo player, Samsung TV, and Apple TV. The only command it struggled with was power off for my HK receiver, and EVERY remote I've used has failed on that one--there's something quirky about the way the HK receives that command, and even my Control4 installer couldn't get the receiver to turn off reliably. Although commands have to go from the remote to the Hub and be converted to IR, the system responded very quickly to each button press and reliably executed every command.
The Harmony Home Control remote is very light (4.2 ounces) and has a compact form factor (7.25 inches long by 2.125 wide by 0.8125 deep). It has a slight curve to its backside to help it rest comfortably in your hand, but it's not nearly as bottom heavy as the Harmony Touch. The remote is available in black or white and has a soft rubbery texture. It sports 41 hard buttons, with the three Activity buttons and an off button up top. The Activity buttons have icons for music, TV, and movies to cover the three most likely programmed activities; in my case, Watch Apple TV was placed on the music icon because I did not set up a Listen to Music activity. You can actually program up to six activities; a short press and long press of each button can launch a different activity, and you can reassign which button controls which activity.
Below the activity buttons are five automation buttons: two for lights, two with plug icons, and an up/down control. I'll discuss these more when I talk about the smart home control.
Below that is your standard assortment of TV/DVR controls, transport controls, and a directional pad with OK in the center. I found these to be intuitively organized and easy to get to reach with my thumb while holding the remote with one hand. At the bottom is a number keypad. As I mentioned at the start, Logitech originally wanted to send me the Harmony Ultimate Home touchscreen remote, which looks identical to the Harmony Touch I currently use. Having lived with that remote for some time, I've grown less enamored with the responsiveness of its touchscreen, and I really missed having a physical number pad to tune in desired TV channels. I actually like the design of this basic (and lower-priced) Harmony Home Control model better. Yes, you lose the ability to customize activity names and buttons on the touchscreen, as well as set favorites...but hey, if you want those things, you can always turn to the Harmony app...
So let's talk about the app. I primarily used the Harmony app on an iPhone 4, but I also experimented a bit with the Android app on a Samsung tablet. On the smaller iPhone, the "buttons" have to be divided amongst multiple pages, but I found everything to be laid out in a clean and logical manner, and every button I needed was available somewhere. Along the bottom of the screen, you'll find: the Help tool (a question mark) to correct any command that didn't work properly during the activity launch; a touchpad tool that lets you initiate commands like pause, rewind, fast-forward, skip forward/backward, and volume up/down with various finger slides; and a Favorites page where you can add up to 50 icons for your favorite channels.
As with the physical remote, I was impressed with how quickly and reliably the app executed AV commands. For the most part, everything consistently worked as it should. Even my tough-to-please, remote-hating husband had no real complaints about the way the Harmony app controlled our system. One really nice perk is the ability to use your mobile device's volume buttons to control the system volume, so you don't have to search for the virtual buttons to do a quick volume adjustment. You can also set up the app to keep your screen awake and unlocked when using the device as a controller so that you don't have to go through those extra steps to get to the control interface.
The Harmony app is loaded with options to fine-tune system control, and you can sync changes right from the app, without needing to connect to a computer. You can edit button functions, button layouts, activities, touchpad gestures, favorites, and much more. While I don't prefer using the app for initial system setup, it's great to be able to make quick changes on the fly if something isn't working exactly the way you want it to.
Finally, let's discuss the smart home control. For this review, I was only able to add the Lutron lighting system and Honeywell WiFi thermostat. Each of these devices has its own control app, but it's still nice to have them integrated in one place within the Harmony app. On the Devices page, Lights and Thermostat were listed alongside my TV, Blu-ray player, et al. I could see instant feedback as to whether lights were on or off, and I could see the current and target home temperature. If I clicked into "Lights," I got a list of all the lights on the network, and I could control each as desired. You can also set up groups to be controlled. It was super easy to add lighting control to an activity; in about a minute, I set up the theater room lamp to dim to 10 percent when launching the Watch a Movie activity and go back to 100 percent when ending the same activity. I was also able to designate a "When to Adjust" time for this lighting command--so that it only happens, for instance, after sunset when your room lights might already be on and need dimming. A nice touch.
For the thermostat, I could control all the major options: turn the system on or off, change from heating to cooling, change the target temp, and turn the fan on or off. I could not adjust the daily or weekly schedule, though.
The Lutron lights responded instantly to commands sent through the Harmony app, but the Honeywell thermostat was often slower to respond, sometimes taking 30 seconds or more to register a change. But hey, I can be more patient with the thermostat than with the lights.
One important perk is that the Harmony app will still communicate with the Home Hub even when you're away from home, as long as your mobile device is connected to a WiFi or cellular network, so the lighting and temperature controls were still at my disposal to control remotely.
On the physical Harmony Home Control remote, there are only a few automation buttons, so you don't get all the control options and feedback that the more expensive Ultimate Home remote probably offers through its touchscreen. However, this $150 remote delivers the basics. I was able to set the two Light buttons to handle power on/off for the two Lutron dimmers I set up, while the middle +/- buttons can brighten or dim each light. The speed of the dimming function was comically slow using the +/- buttons, compared with the app's slider control that gives you an instant response. Still, it got the job done. Similarly, with the thermostat, I could program buttons for on/off, then raise/lower the temperature using the +/- buttons. However, the Honeywell was even slower to respond to the physical remote commands than it was to the app, so I'm not sure how useful this feature really was. The app was definitely my preferred control option when it came to home automation.
The biggest downside to the basic Harmony Home Control system is that the physical remote lacks backlighting. Yes, the core buttons are logically arranged in the center and differentiated by shape, and the white version of the remote is a tad easier to use in a dark room. Still, for $150, a little backlighting isn't too much to expect. Likewise, a rechargeable battery and base station would be a welcome addition. These features are available on the $350 Harmony Ultimate Home remote, which also gives you the customizable touchscreen and the ability to control more AV devices (15 versus eight).
Because this whole-house system is built around WiFi devices, the system will only be as stable as your WiFi network. I had no communication issues between the RF remote and the Home Hub, but I did occasionally lose connection between the Harmony app and the Hub over WiFi. A few times, when I initially launched the app, it would not see the Hub on my network to automatically sign in, so I would have to hit the Connect button or quit the app and try again. I never lost connection with the Lutron lights, but I did lose connection with the thermostat one time. This the price you pay for taking a DIY approach and building your home automation system on your existing WiFi network.
The number of compatible home automation devices is a bit limited right now, but Logitech will soon introduce the Home Hub Extender, which will open up compatibility to a wider range of ZigBee- and Z-Wave-based smart home products. You will have to spend an extra $129 to get it, though.
Comparison and Competition
When it comes to combining AV system control with home automation in a remote or touchpad, you usually have to look to the custom market, at offerings from Crestron, Control4, Savant, and the like. RTI recently announced a packaged kit that combines the T2i remote, RTiPanel app, and RP-4 processor that also supports home automation devices--but the remote alone costs about $499. Universal Remote Control's Total Control line combines system controllers with lighting, climate, and other automation products.
Logitech's Harmony Home Control system delivers a whole lot of control functionality for just $150, combining reliable AV system control from both a physical remote and an app, WiFi/Bluetooth device support, and the ability to integrate control of various WiFi-based smart home products. And it delivers this functionality in a true DIY package. I have a lot of experience programming universal remotes, and I still appreciate how easy the MyHarmony computer software is to use (the app setup tool is another story). On the other hand, I have virtually no experience installing thermostats and in-wall lighting switches, but Lutron and Honeywell made that easy, too. The smart integration between all of the products was exactly that: smart.
The complete system I reviewed (system control, two lighting dimmers, and a thermostat) runs about $450. If you're willing to spend more money, you can get a lot more customization and integration options in a more advanced control platform. However, for the DIYer with modest system and automation needs, the Harmony Home Control delivers very good performance at a very appealing price.
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