Logitech's Harmony division makes better universal remotes than just about anyone. The latest model, the Harmony Express $ 250, can be the most practical, though not the company's most powerful.
Harmony Express does not have all the bells and whistles in the company's highest harmony Elite ($ 350 MSRP), which Logitech continues to sell. Expressen does not have a touch screen display, it does not have many programmable buttons, and it cannot perform complex macros that include both home entertainment equipment and smart home devices. But its obvious simplicity is not mistaken for lack of horsepower. Expressen can do much of what the elite can do for much less money, and because the Amazon Alexa has it on board ̵
Genius Harmony's approach has always been the extensive library of remote control codes stored in the cloud. You tell the Harmony Express mobile app available for Android and iOS about the equipment you want to check, and it retrieves the codes for the remote control.
It sniffed out my Samsung Q7F QLED smart TV, my DirecTV set-top box and my Xbox One game console, all of which are connected to my home network. But it wasn't perfect. I had to inform the app that I also had a Cambridge Audio CXUHD 4K Blu-ray player in my equipment rack, even though it also has an IP address.
One room, an entertainment system
Harmony Express is designed to control a single entertainment system focused around your TV in a room. The remote control knows which inputs your TV has – four HDMI ports in my case – and graphs them in the app. The rest of the equipment in your entertainment center is shown below these ports and you simply drag their icons to the relevant HDMI ports.
The hardware element in the Harmony Express consists of three components: the remote control, a large infrared blaster that you sit in front of your entertainment center and an IR mini blaster that allows you to control the audio and video components you might have hidden inside a cabinet. The 5.25-inch long with the 1.75-inch remote has only three rows of three buttons arranged under a directional plate surrounding a round OK button. The functions of the nine buttons can be changed depending on which device the remote control actively controls, but most will be universal: Fast forward, play / pause, volume up, volume down and off.
With the directional panel you can navigate the menu on the screen (up, down left and right) and press the center button select the highlighted function. By pressing and holding this central button, you urge Alexa so that you can use voice commands to turn on all the devices needed to watch TV, launch a smart TV app (either on your TV or on a streaming box) everything else you've done by Alexa. You don't have to say "Alexa" either – just keep the central button down for a second or two is enough. Alexa's voice responds via a small speaker built into the remote control.
User-friendliness is the main attraction
In my setting, hold down the button and say "Turn on TV" was all I needed to start up TV and set-top box and switch active screen to set-top box. To change the channel I just kept the button down and said "Go to channel 200" or which channel I wanted to watch (the system also recognizes channel names, for example NBC or HBO). If I wanted to play a TV program that I had recorded, I could say "Go to DVR" to get a list of recordings. I then used the D pad to move up and down the list until I found what I wanted to look at and pressed the OK button to play it.
With the Harmony Express app, you felt very much about using DirecTV's native remote control to a point. If I wanted to remove a recording with the DirecTV remote, I could just press the red button and it would be gone. Deleting each episode of a series can be done as easily. Removing DVR programs with Express means more steps, even though Logitech says it works so that it becomes easier to use voice commands to perform actions that no physical button is on the remote control.
It is just as easy to start a smart TV app – Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, one with a voice command, even if the phrasing is slightly different. Instead of holding down the button and saying "Turn on …" you say "Go to Netflix app" or "Go to Hulu app." In the few days I have had access to Harmony Express, I have struggled to remember when to say "Turn on" and when to say "Go to". I imagine I get used to the difference with experience.
Love never means saying "Alexa"
When you have Harmony Express configured for your entertainment center, you can also control all your gear with any member of the Echo family. But you will encounter so many other situations where the remote is faster and / or more accurate than barking on your TV. And the only things that you can't ask Alexa to do via Harmony Express is to play music and call with the remote's speakers.
Harmony Express achieves a good balance between power and complexity. It is very easy to install, and it makes most of Alexa's ability to control hardware using voice commands. The remote control itself will not overwhelm you with buttons and blurry icons, but its simplicity limits what you can do with it. If you want a remote control that allows you to assemble complex macros that can cascade through your smart home, mute the lights, close your shades and release the video projector screen from the ceiling at the touch of a button, you want more powerful Harmony Elite. If your needs are simpler than that and you just want to get rid of all the extra remote controls that connect your coffee table, Harmony Express is worth a look.