If you have a slew of remote controls littering your coffee table, you've probably often thought of consolidating them with a universal remote such as one from Logitech's extensive line of Harmony remotes. The company's $100 Harmony Link gives you another option -- to control all your A/V components via your iOS or Android-based tablet or smartphone, courtesy of your Wi-Fi network.
Setting up the Harmony Link
To program the Harmony Link, which looks like a glossy black smooth-edged hockey puck, you plug the unit into power, point your browser to Myharmony.com, create an account, and click a button to start the configuration process (which kicks off a Sliverlight app that runs within the browser). The app soon prompts you to connect the Harmony Link to your PC via the included USB cable, and then scans for available Wi-Fi networks to connect to (only 2.4 GHz 802.11g/b networks are supported).
Once the Harmony Link's been, well, linked, it's time to tell it the about the various A/V devices you want the unit to control. The Link supports a maximum of eight devices, which should be more than enough for all but extreme scenarios. We set ours up with a Samsung DLP HDTV, TiVo Premiere DVR, and Xbox 360 game console. Although we also had a Sony PS3 on hand, that particular device uses Bluetooth rather than IR for remote control, so the Harmony Link won't work with it.
Adding your devices to the Harmony Link is generally pretty simple. As you enter the manufacturer name and model number for each device, the software looks up the necessary command information from Logitech's extensive device database. In cases where more information is needed about a device, the software will prompt you to fetch the remote, point it at the Harmony Link, and press one or more buttons on the remote to "train" the latter. We encountered this when we added the TiVo Premiere, and though our first few training attempts resulted in "unable to recognize command" errors, on the fourth try the Harmony Link correctly recognized the button presses and successfully registered the device. (During training, the Harmony Link seems especially particular about the angle and distance of a remote and how long its buttons are pressed.)
After all the devices have been added, the next step is to set up your activities -- groups of commands executed in sequence to power on the necessary devices and switch to the appropriate inputs based on whether you want to watch TV, watch a DVD, play a game, etc. The software automatically creates one or more default activities based on the devices you've registered, and when you configure an activity you're asked to specify how the relevant devices will be used (e.g. When watching TV, do you change channels on the TV or on a cable/satellite box?).
Gathering this information can take some legwork, but the software provides animations that can help you dig up the info if you're not familiar with how all your gear is connected. The software also makes default choices for you, which are easy to override if needed.
With device and activity configuration complete, you can disconnect the Link from your computer and place it somewhere that's both near your A/V gear as well as within solid earshot of your Wi-Fi signal. If some of your devices live behind closed cabinets, you can use Link's included IR Blaster to reach them. The Link has a connector for a second IR blaster if needed, but you have to buy it separately.
The final step to setting up the Harmony Link is to download and install the app from either the Apple or Android online stores. We tested the Harmony Link app on an iPad 2.
Using the Harmony Link
When you fire up the Harmony Link app on the iPad, you're greeted by an electronic program guide (EPG) that's attractive as well as easy to browse and search. At the upper right corner of the EPG, there's a button to launch and switch between your activities. Basic controls -- volume, channel, play and pause -- are available along the right edge of the screen, while swiping to the left exposes two more levels of buttons for less frequently-used functions.
Unfortunately, there's no way to customize the generic layout of the on-screen remote to reflect your own preferences. On the plus side, although we thought there might be some delay in executing commands since they had to travel across both Wi-Fi and IR en-route to devices, the response was instantaneous. In addition, since you're issuing commands via Wi-Fi, you don't have to point your tablet/smartphone at your gear -- or even be in the same room -- to control it.
The Harmony Link's EPG is much more user-friendly than the one you get with many cable and satellite boxes. Unfortunately, its practical use is limited because it only lets you tune to shows that are currently on. If you find an upcoming show in the guide and want to record it, you have to do it manually through the DVR remote buttons. (It's also worth noting that only the iPad app provides the EPG feature.)
Some other shortcomings of the Harmony Link stem from the inherent weaknesses of using a touch screen remote. For example, you can't use the Harmony Link's remote by feel the way you can with physical buttons on an actual remote control. Moreover, if you frequently use your tablet/smartphone for other purposes while watching TV, you have to consider the inconvenience of repeatedly switching back and forth between the Harmony Link app and whatever else you're doing.
Pros: Straightforward set up process, and easy to use; switches between up to eight devices for activity-based (e.g. watch TV, watch movie) control.
Cons: Program guide can't automatically record future programs; on-screen remote layout isn't customizable.
The bottom line
The Harmony Link handles basic device switching just as well as its purpose-built remote control brethren. But significant limitations ensure that controlling A/V equipment from a tablet or smartphone can sound better in principle than it works in practice. Logitech's regular Harmony remotes offer better control and flexibility, and some models cost less as well.