A first encounter with a multitouch device gets any active imagination running, so of course a home theater fan thinks it could make for the ultimate remote. But can any of that promise be realized in the dead zone that is the consumer remote control space? The leader of that dead zone is ready to give it a try with the Harmony Link -- a WiFi-to-IR bridge that allows you to control your TV from any room of the house via an iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or Android device. For $100, it's a setup that promises to blend ease of programming with network connectivity and multitouch control. So exactly how good is Logitech's attempt? We'll reveal that after the break, of course.
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Logitech Harmony Link review


Hardware

The Harmony Link fits in the palm of your hand, should blend nicely with most any home theater and at the very least requires a small wall-wart power supply and a line of sight to the equipment it's controlling. The little green light provides the reassurance that all systems are a go without being so bright to the point of being a distraction. There are two IR emitter ports on the back for those who'd prefer to hide their equipment, or the Harmony Link itself, but only one blaster is included. Lastly, there is a USB port, used during the WiFi configuration and when learning new IR codes -- the majority of the configuration is done via WiFi. What's apparently missing is support for a RS-232 port for two-way control, or any optional sensors like power or video-out which could raise the accuracy of macros by confirming equipment is on or off.


Programming

Setup was a cinch thanks to the MyHarmony.com configuration wizard, since it knew all the IR codes of everything we wanted to control (namely, our HDTV, AVR, Media Center and Blu-ray player). You plug the Link into your computer via USB, direct your browser to MyHarmony.com and follow the prompts -- although many browsers aren't supported which can be tricky to determine thanks to the misleading wording of the error.



But this is where we ran into our first problem. Logitech wants you to buy a Harmony remote, but just one, as each remote requires its own MyHarmony.com account, which means hopefully you have as many email addresses as you do remotes. After adding in all the model numbers of your devices, you can create Activities to build macros automatically by answering things like which TV input is your Blu-ray connected to. When you're lucky, things couldn't be simpler, but simple configuration usually means limitations. If things just don't work, the flexibility to add your own discrete HEX IR codes and other miscellaneous fixes just aren't on the table. Other customizations like button layout and look and feel are also not in the mix. We do appreciate the simplicity and the fact that the programming is done via our computer instead on the iPad or iPhone -- especially since our configuration is saved on MyHarmony.com.


Like most remotes, the Harmony Link relies solely on IR, which really exposes it to lots of opportunities for things to get out of sync -- and the dreaded Harmony Help. Its Activities are basically macros and break down if an IR signal doesn't make it to the device or if someone turns the TV on via the power switch or uses a different remote. Although IR is the de facto standard in AV remote control, there are lots of other options available on varies devices like RS-232 and IP control via things like DLNA. While these are not even options on a typical programmable remote, it is a big missed opportunity for a device like the Harmony Link since it is designed to live next to the devices it controls, gets plugged into the wall and is already network connected.

Usability

Both the iPhone and the iPad remote interfaces look great, launch quickly and resume when multitasking, as any good app should. The fact that all you have to do on the iOS device is install the app and login via the same MyHarmony.com account, is greatly appreciated. You get things started by selecting one of the activities, like Watch TV, and then wait as the Harmony Link seems to take a lifetime to emit all the IR codes required. Multiple iPads do stay in sync, though, as you switch activities all the remotes update their screens accordingly -- you can actually use two to control your home theater at the same time. The long delays continue as you try to quickly navigate menus, in fact there's a noticeable lag compared to the remote that came with the device. This combined with the lack of gesture-based control on the iPad version, makes navigating on-screen menus a nauseating experience as you repetitively look up and down.


Now, we absolutely love the idea of using a touchscreen for a remote control, but another big miss by the Harmony Link is its inability to integrate with a traditional Harmony remote. While there are times when nothing beats a touchscreen, there are many others when you can't beat an old-fashioned, wand remote. Theoretically, you could switch back and forth, but with the way the Activities work, you'd pretty much have to turn off your TV and back on to switch between remotes. Or hold your hand over the emitter on the physical remote and let it think it's doing something your Harmony Link already did -- not to mention program them both separately. It would've been really cool if Logitech would've designed the Link to work in cooperation with its other Harmony remotes, but considering that is all done in software, who knows what's to come.

Harmony Link and the iPad

Using your phone as a remote is pretty slick, but you might take a phone with you while someone else wants to watch TV, and the screen isn't exactly big enough to do anything terribly interesting. That is where the iPad app comes in. The first difference we noticed during setup on the iPad is that we were prompted for our TV provider. The reason is quickly revealed as we were presented with a view of what's on TV right now. While that view is inviting, it isn't familiar.


We're always looking for new ways to discover content, but when all else fails we like to go back to the old faithful grid guide, which is glaringly absent. The clip art does look cool, though, but isn't high-quality. You can tap Watch Now on a show and wait while the Harmony Link fires off all the required IR signals to tune to that show, but that's about it. We would've appreciated more show info, links to other shows, like the one in question, or perhaps the ability to share what we're watching with our friends -- like some other iPad apps out there. You can search to see what's on now, but not what's coming on in the future. Due to the one way nature of IR, the app also doesn't know what you're watching right now, can't give you quick access to what's on your DVR or let you quickly record something without navigating on-screen menus. The other big miss -- that we've actually never seen before -- is a sports mode. What we mean is that it would be really cool if you could quickly see all the sporting events that were on right now, their scores and be one tap away from changing the channel to that game without ever knowing which channel it's on.

The one last missing feature, that the competition does have, is integration with services like Netflix or Hulu. The ability to control a set-top or TV with one of these over-the-top services would obviously be very useful, but even a list of all your viewing options that included both shows that were on TV now as well as shows in your queue. Leverage this integration to help you discover content and you could have something really special.

Wrap-up

Like most Harmony products from Logitech, the hardware is fantastic and the software leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, it's easy to program and get up and running, but going outside the box even a little isn't something we'd recommend trying. Combine that with an inability to customize the button layout, no gesture control on the iPad version and the bare-bones touchscreen features, and we can think of other IR-to-WiFi bridges that might be a better option. If all you need is the basics and love how simple MyHarmony.com is to use, then this is still the missing-IR-link for you, but anyone looking for the next great thing in home theater control can keep looking.
Logitech

Logitech Harmony Link

Pros

  • Easy to setup via MyHarmony.com
  • Solid hardware

Cons

  • Inflexible programming
  • Limited touchscreen features
  • Only supports IR control
  • Limited one-way control
Summary

Aside from an easy setup through MyHarmony.com, nothing sets this IR-to-WiFi bridge apart from the competition.