Top critical review
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Complex configuration, but works well with persistence
on 6 August 2013
You can tell this product is at the top of its tree by the fact that the packaging itself has quite a premium feel. It is well styled and neatly put together.
Pulling everything out, it becomes apparent that there are a few bits to this device. There is the remote itself, the remote's charger with associated power lead and plug, the main IR blaster intended to sit amongst your A/V equipment together with its associated power lead and plug, 2x mini IR blasters on leads that optionally attach to the main IR blaster, and the USB cable for hooking up to a PC. This is not just simply a remote control, and the requirement for 2x power points is worthy of note if you weren't expecting it.
Speaking of the power points, the form factor of the plug could cause issue for some especially in the world of A/V equipment, as often the availability and orientation of socketry can pose issues. Instead of the plug protruding down or up as you often find with transformer-plugs, this one protrudes outwards. That might be ok for some people, but in my case I have an 8x gang socket located underneath my entertainment centre. These plugs with their tall form-factor have required me to relocate it.
Setting the remote up is supposed to be a simple-enough process, and I work in the Digital sector so it should have been child's play for me. Unfortunately, it wasn't..
You are instructed to visit the `myharmony' website in order to get going, as instructed on the display of the remote. On doing so, you must create an account. Choosing a location shows USA and Canada at the top in a typical bout of geographical favouritism, and results in a long scroll down to get to United Kingdom. They suggest that you do this all in the same room as the main IR blaster, but for some that might not be possible. I didn't find it to be an issue though. Eventually I got to the end of the set-up process and the site requested I hook up the Remote to my laptop to process the changes using the supplied cable - this in itself is worth bearing in mind in case you only have tablets in your household.
It is at this point that I hit a problem. The progress bar would reach about 48% on the first step and then claim it could not communicate with the Remote. I rebooted and tried again, with no improvement. I was using Chrome browser, so tried Firefox, but again no improvement. I re-booted into Ubuntu Linux (which is normally a reliably fall-back when it comes to certain USB-device hookups), but the myharmony.com site proclaimed that it was not compatible with Linux!
I was all but ready to assume I had a faulty remote, but I rebooted back into Windows and tried Internet Explorer as a last resort, and low-and-behold it worked. Unfortunately it didn't completely work, because the Remote continued to request that I visit the `myharmony.com' website and refused to let me do anything else. I initiated a "Recovery" of the system, which forced an update of both the Remote and the Main IR Blaster via the USB lead. Everything then started to work as normal.
On attempting operate my devices (a Playstation 3, a Sony TV, a Sony A/V Amplifier and a Sony PVR) I was struggling to get the PVR from working (little did I know I was simultaneously also suffering the much-advertised Freeview / Sony PVR hardware failure of July 2013, which threw me off). Once I realised that, I continued to refine the positioning of the blasters, and all appeared well.
Total grief time consumed up-to this point - approximately 2 hours.
The remote itself locked up twice in the first week, but I discovered that holding 'Off' and 'Menu' will reset it. It has been stable ever since then, so maybe it was teething trouble.
Initially the Activity macros didn't start up all my designated devices, but that could have been down to placement of the IR blasters which I have juggled about a bit.
The IR blasters are a novel solution to controlling your AV equipment. It means that the remote itself, or any other controlling devices such as smartphones or tablets can issue the commands over WiFi and the IR blasters relay the signals to the devices. I hadn't anticipated it controlling my PlayStation 3, but low-and-behold it does! It pairs up using Bluetooth and can completely control the navigation. I make use of LoveFilm on my PlayStation, so being able to control that too was a bonus for me and meant that I could put away a fairly bespoke Playstation remote commander.
Now that I have used the Harmony Ultimate for a little while, I have warmed to it. The curved shape fits nicely in the hand, although it means you have to pick it up in order to operate it, instead of press the buttons with it resting on the table, as its curved profile is not suitable for this type of operation. The device can be set to wake up the display on detection of movement, but I have turned this feature off as I found it too sensitive. The buttons themselves are backlit, but not very bright. The Remote itself is a sealed unit, so you don't need to worry about batteries, but then even integrated rechargable cells have a limited lifespan so this could be a concern longer-term.
I have occasionally caught the touchscreen unintentionally and issued commands I hadn't intended, but that has diminished over time as I have gotten more used to the layout. I have found that I have not used the touchscreen for much other than the initial macro activation, instead resorting to the navigation buttons and the volume/channel buttons - which feel a little low-down for ultimate comfort, but I can live with that.
On the whole, it has met the needs of controlling several devices from one remote - like any good Universal Remote Control should. The fact that it also controls my Playstation 3 using bluetooth is very handy, and the fact that there is an Android app means I can also use my smartphone or tablet to do the same - although the App itself is very large considering, and not very customisable, not to mention there are no Homescreen widgets, which might have been useful - but then these are things that could be changed with software updates.
The setting up process proved a nightmare for me, but maybe I am an isolated incident. Linux incompatibility may prove to be an obstacle for some.
Then there's the price. At £229 (at time of review) this is a lot of money for something which is ultimately there to solve an itch (of having too many remotes) and could probably just be alleviated by a decent brand's main device Remote, such as my Sony TV's remote which could also control my Amp and my PVR. If you simply must have the top-of-the-range universal remote control, then this is your guy. Not having to point the remote over obstacles is a subtle plus-point that I didn't realise I would appreciate.
On the whole, it's a good effort. In some respects it feels a bit experimental, and there seems to be more effort required on the part of the user in getting it all set-up and configured - but then that's probably par for the course in this line of tech. The technical hiccups concerned me, and only through persistence did I overcome them. I wonder how many other people would have given up long before I did. The price is the elephant-in-the-room for me though.
As a result of my time with the Harmony Ultimate, I am prepared to give it 3-stars. If it were half the price and the setting-up process were more simplified (and trouble-free), I'd bump it up to 4.
UPDATE: There has been a Firmware and an App update for this device since I first wrote my review, which improved stability and added some setup functionality from the app itself.