I’ve always been a fan of Harmony’s universal remotes, mostly because I’ve appreciated the simplicity of the company’s Web-based setup wizard that intuitively walks you through the process of adding devices and programming activities like Watch TV, Watch a Movie, etc. About a year ago, Logitech introduced the $100 Ultimate Hub, which allows you to use your smartphone or tablet as the universal remote, in conjunction with a small box that converts WiFi signals from your phone/tablet into IR and Bluetooth signals to control your AV gear. This approach of using an existing touchscreen device as a remote control is not new. Most major manufacturers of smart AV gear offer a free remote app to control their devices, and recent research by The Diffusion Group Says that 16 percent of adult broadband subscribers use a tablet or smartphone as a TV remote control. In the arena of universal remote apps that control multiple devices, Logitech originally offered the Harmony Link (now replaced by the Hub), and we’ve also reviewed similar products like the Griffin Beacon and Peel remote.
Now, Logitech has gone one step further by combining the Ultimate Hub with a full-sized Bluetooth keyboard that can also serve as your universal remote. The $149.99 Smart Keyboard system allows for control of up to eight devices, via compatible smartphone/tablets and the keyboard itself, which comes with its own set of Activity buttons and is labeled with many commonly used remote functions like DVR, Guide, Menu, Volume, Channel, Page, etc.
Why would anyone want to use a bulky keyboard as a universal remote control? A lot of networkable HT devices support the addition of a Bluetooth keyboard to speed up text entry and Web browsing, and some people find using a keyboard with dedicated hard buttons to be more intuitive than a traditional remote or control app for these tasks. If you own an Apple TV, a Roku, an Xbox, or a PlayStation and want a faster way to search for content within Netflix, Hulu Plus, iTunes, etc., then a keyboard might be the way to go. Likewise for smart TV owners who also browse the Web via their TV. Anyone who wants to integrate their computer as a source and control it remotely through a keyboard might want to look at the Harmony Smart Keyboard. With this device, you don’t have to set the keyboard aside and grab the HT controller to perform other AV-related tasks; you can do most everything via one product.
The $150 package includes the Ultimate Hub, the Smart Keyboard, two USB receivers that let you integrate certain (but not all) non-Bluetooth devices, and an IR blaster if you need more IR coverage than the Hub provides on its own. The free Harmony Remote app is available for both iOS (6.0 or later) and Android (4.0 or later), and the setup process begins by downloading that app and plugging in the Hub near your AV system.
For the Ultimate Hub and Smart Keyboard products, Logitech has moved the setup wizard from your computer directly to the iOS/Android app, so you don’t need a computer at all to configure your system – unless, like me, you own an older iPhone that does not support Bluetooth LE to initially communicate with the Hub. To set up the system via my iPhone 4, I would’ve needed to first go to my computer and download the newer version of the MyHarmony software to add the Hub to my wireless network. Then I could go back to my iPhone to set up the rest of the system. Luckily, I also own a Samsung Galaxy tablet that was able to communicate directly with the Hub over compatible Bluetooth, so I performed initial setup through the tablet instead.
I first set up the Harmony to control my living room system, which consists of a non-networkable Samsung TV, a Dish Network Joey, an Oppo BDP-93, and an Apple TV. Later, I set up the system to control my more complicated home theater ensemble, which is normally controlled by a Control4 system: a smart Panasonic TV, Harman/Kardon AVR 3700 receiver, Dish Network Hopper, Oppo BDP-103, and Autonomic MMS-5A music server. The iOS/Android setup wizard follows the same basic philosophy as the Web-based computer platform: add your devices and then create activities by answering questions about how those devices are connected to each other. All of my devices were in the Harmony code database except the Autonomic server, so I had to teach the system the device codes using the Autonomic remote.
Click over to page two to learn about the setup, high and low points, comparison and competition and the conclusion . . .
As someone who has always heralded the Harmony setup process – how easy it is and how it generally controls most everything correctly from the get-go — I was disappointed by the setup process for this particular system. I found the app-based platform to be much slower and the flow to be less intuitive than that of the Web-based MyHarmony software on my Mac. I won’t go into every little detail of my setup frustration, but let’s just say that I encountered a lot of little hiccups and had to do a lot of tweaking to get the system to work exactly as I wanted. As just one example, when I first set up the Smart Keyboard to control my Dish Hopper, the number keys and cancel/select buttons did not work properly, even when I tried to reprogram them (they worked fine with the Dish Joey, though). When I deleted the Hopper as a device and put it in again later, everything worked fine.
On the plus side, once I was finished with the lengthy setup process, the Harmony system – both the control app and the keyboard — provided fast, generally reliable control, even with my more complicated theater system. The Activity functions worked as advertised, with smart-sensing technology designed to prevent each product’s power on/off state from getting out of sync. I didn’t encounter any major communication issues between the Keyboard, Hub, smartphone/tablet, and my devices – although I sometimes had to press the Keyboard’s Activity buttons multiple times to initially power on the system. The Harmony system was actually more reliable with my Harman/Kardon receiver than my Control4 system, which initially needed a lot of tweaking to get the commands right. The Harmony remote, in contrast, required no tweaking to reliably execute the HK commands.
The Hub was able to control almost all of my gear on its own, without the add-on IR mini blaster – simply by placing it beside or atop the AV equipment. The only device that required the use of the blaster was the Autonomic music server, which has a very, very narrow IR window that barely works with the company’s own IR remote. Since your phone, tablet, and Smart Keyboard communicate with the Hub over WiFi, you don’t need line-of-sight with your gear; I was able to control my system from anywhere in my home.
The templates within the iOS/Android control app, for activities like Watch TV or Listen to Music, allow for some customization. You can move and reassign buttons, add new buttons, and fix commands that aren’t working properly. Each person in the house can customize their own template on their own phone or tablet. I found the larger tablet screen to be a bit more desirable to use than the smaller iPhone screen because more buttons could fit on a single page, but both layouts got the job done. The app includes a touchpad slider to perform tasks like volume up/down, channel up/down, mute, and play/pause with the slide of a finger, for those who don’t want to search the touchscreen for virtual buttons to perform basic tasks. You can also set up favorite channels and control Philips Hue lighting via the app.
One very smart feature is the option, under Settings, to keep your phone or tablet awake and unlocked when the Harmony app is running. A huge complaint against all these universal control apps is that you have to wake up and unlock your screen and sometimes restart the app every time you want to execute a simple command like pause or mute. With the Harmony system, the app will stay open for immediate response (you can dim the screen to help save battery life).
As for the Smart Keyboard, three buttons at the top serve as Activity buttons. Up to six Activities are supported; you can launch different activities based on a short or long press of the assigned button. The Smart Keyboard can also be customized a bit; through the setup tools, you can add commands and change how buttons function.
The Keyboard’s all-important text entry function was hit-and-miss. It worked great with my Apple TV, paired via Bluetooth. It worked with my Panasonic smart TV, paired via USB receiver. It worked with many apps in my Roku 3 box (paired via WiFi), but not all of them – including YouTube and Hulu. I couldn’t get the Bluetooth in my Dish Hopper to pair with the Harmony, and the supplied USB receivers did not work with the Hopper or the Oppo players, even though they were listed as compatible devices during setup.
I’m one of those people who prefers to control my system using button-based remotes over touchscreen apps, and I quickly got used to the Keyboard’s layout and enjoyed using it, although the lack of backlighting was a huge drawback in a dark room. The keyboard made signing in to apps and searching for content so much faster (when it worked), and I liked it a lot better than using the virtual keyboard within the control app.
• This product combines a universal remote with a keyboard, designed for faster, easier text entry, Web browsing, and computer control.
• You can also use a smartphone and/or tablet as a controller.
• The Ultimate Hub communicates with your phone/tablet and the Smart Keyboard over your home’s WiFi, so you don’t need line-of-sight with your AV gear.
• You can pair the keyboard via Bluetooth, WiFi, or USB receiver, although success varies per product.
• You can set up the control app to stay active on your touchscreen so that you don’t have to wake up/unlock your phone/tablet to issue commands.
• Setting up this system wasn’t as easy or intuitive as previous Harmony products I’ve tested. The iOS/Android setup wizard is much slower than the Web-based wizard, and I had to reprogram a lot of buttons to control my system(s) properly.
• The Smart Keyboard lacks the Harmony Help button that lets you quickly fix a problem during the launch of an activity, and I sometimes had to press an Activity button several times to initially power on my system.
• The Smart Keyboard lacks backlighting.
Competition & Comparison
There are a lot of products on the market that allow you to use your phone/tablet as a universal remote, including converter boxes and devices that plug directly into your handheld. The two products we have previously reviewed – the $70 Griffin Beacon and $99 Peel remote — have been discontinued. The iRule system is a popular option amongst more serious HT enthusiasts because it allows for a lot more customization and flexibility to build your own templates.
The Smart Keyboard is the only one I know of that combines the app approach with a Bluetooth keyboard, so you get the benefit of a dedicated device with physical buttons. For those who already own a universal remote that they like, you could simply add a Bluetooth keyboard to the equation, and Logitech sells a few, including the backlit Living Room Keyboard, but you won’t necessarily get the integrated AV system control in a basic Bluetooth keyboard.
The Harmony Smart Keyboard may be a universal remote, but it’s not going to have universal appeal. This control product is designed for a narrow audience of heavy “apps” users and computer-oriented users who desire a keyboard for controlling certain aspects of their system. The basic tenets of the Harmony approach are in place, but the app-based setup process is slower and more tedious than previous Harmony products. I wouldn’t recommend this product for anyone who has an overly complex HT setup that requires a lot of control customization. However, for a more basic AV setup or secondary system – one with, say, a smart TV, cable/satellite box, streaming media/gaming console, and/or HT PC – and wants a faster, easier way to handle text searches and computer commands, the Smart Keyboard is worth a look.