I’ve been searching for a good universal remote for awhile and, honestly, there isn’t one that does everything I want exactly how I want it. No matter what, there will be compromises. I ended up with the Harmony Companion Remote and Smart Hub, but it wasn’t an obvious choice.
I first looked at the “app” remotes like iRule and Roomy. They each have their pros and cons that I won’t spend a lot of time dwelling on. For instance, iRule is expensive and ugly as sin while Roomy is gorgeous but requires a cloud subscription (a fatal flaw to me). The overall fatal problem for all of the app remotes, to me, is that they require the use of a touch screen. I want physical and tactile buttons in my remote.
See, I did have a touchscreen remote quite a few years ago in the form of a Phillips Pronto. I discovered very quickly that I really like the ability to play/pause and fast forward or reverse at a moments notice and a touchscreen absolutely requires a notable amount of time to find the proper buttons. There’s no concept of “instant”. The modern app-based remotes have gestures, which supposedly take care of that… but even that didn’t really hit the sweet spot for me. No, I needed physical buttons.
Next up is the ability to control everything in my theater. That includes several wireless devices, a bluetooth device, and an IR device. Eventually, that list will also include potentially z-wave devices and maybe Insteon ones (we’ll see). That left out most of the legacy remotes since those tend to be IR or RF and handle only a subset of my requirements.
There are a couple of interesting remotes coming out in the next year or so, but I wanted one now.
Honestly, when everything settled, the only remaining contenders were the Logitech Harmony remotes with their Smart Hub.
The Elite (~$300) was my first choice since it’s the most full featured and looks the most like my beloved Harmony One from back in the day. I realized, though, that I didn’t care about any of the features it had that elevated its price. For instance, it has a touch screen — I don’t care about those. In fact, if I did want the touch screen experience, I could just use the Harmony app. It has a recharge dock so no need to switch out batteries. It’s competition, the Companion, has a battery that lasts a year — who cares about a recharge dock in that case. I believe it also supports more devices, but I’m only going to control my theater and so don’t need the additional devices.
So when all was said and done, my only remaining choice was the Harmony Companion (~$130). I bought it and so far, it’s been pretty awesome!
The Logitech Companion is made of three components — the Smart Hub, the Companion remote, and the Harmony app.
Here’s the hub on top of my AVR:
The Companion remote, then, looks like so:
The remote and app only exist to control the hub, as 100% of the actual functionality is the hub. The remote and app are inherently “dumb” and communicate with the hub wirelessly.
Thus, setting this up is all about setting up the hub. You can do it with either the Harmony iPhone or Android app or via a desktop application on your PC or Mac. I prefer desktop apps, personally, so I downloaded the Mac app. It’s terrible. Really really terrible. I couldn’t get it to recognize my hub no matter what I did… and honestly, the more reviews I’ve seen of it, the more I realized it probably wouldn’t have done much even if it had.
So I was stuck setting it up via the iPhone app. And, well, it really wasn’t bad at all. In fact, most of the setup was trivially easy. It automatically detected my Roku without me having to do anything. Adding my Denon AVR was as simple as tapping through a very intuitive wizard. Same goes for my Panny projector, even though that’s IR. More on that later.
Really, the only hiccup in my setup was controlling my Kodi instance running inside of OpenELEC (at first) and then LibreElec on my HTPC.
After the devices are setup, I associated them with “activities” like “Watch Movies” or “Watch Roku”. One press of them starts up everything needed to do that activity.
All in all, this was the simplest setup I’ve ever had for a universal remote and better than I expected for a smart remote.
Old School IR
It was important to me that my remote solution use wifi and bluetooth since I thoroughly dislike IR to control devices. IR is one-way (no feedback) and in my experience, flaky and unreliable. Thankfully, the only device I have that still requires IR is my projector, since it’s decently old tech.
The Harmony hub comes with one IR blaster and has a port for a second optional one. Each blaster can support a number of devices so the number of them is more dictated by physical locations rather than anything else. In my case, my hub was going to be in my equipment closest outside of the theater while my projector is on the ceiling in my theater.
The IR blaster is about 1-1/2″ wide and 1″ deep and is attached to an 8′ long cable with what looks like a headphone jack at the end.
I knew I’d eventually have to thread that through my conduit to get to my projector but since that conduit run is 17′ long or so, I needed to get an extender first. That all happened later. I’m going to have a post and video on that process next week or so. No, it didn’t go smoothly.
In the meantime, though, I just snuck the cable under the door and left the blaster on the floor. That worked well enough for setup and testing.
The Kodi Conundrum
Really, the only issue I had at all was getting the hub to control my Kodi instance. This was an absolute necessity since that’s my primary means of watching movies — everything else is in support of my HTPC and thus the most important control I have is the control of Kodi.
Kodi can be controlled via its API over a network (wifi or LAN) and I prefer that since it’s instant and two-way. The Kodi iPhone apps use this very effectively. Alas, the Harmony does support Kodi but it doesn’t do so via its API.
Instead, it controls Kodi via either IR or bluetooth. I already mentioned my opinion on IR. And since I would have to buy a separate IR receiver for my HTPC (likely a Flirc), I wanted to use that as my nothing-else-worked option.
That left bluetooth. The reason this works is because Kodi is fully controllable via a keyboard. That is, each of its commands can be mapped to a keystroke. That meant that if I had a bluetooth keyboard, then I could fully control Kodi. It’s not strictly two-way like the API is, but it’s almost surely going to be more reliable than IR.
Handily, the Harmony does support bluetooth keyboards out of the box! In theory, I just needed to choose Kodi as the device and it should Just Work.
First of all, Kodi doesn’t really exist as a dedicated “thing” in the Harmony database, since it’s just an application running on a computer. That makes it mildly dependent on the computer type it’s running on. There is no option for Kodi running on a Linux system like my OpenELEC instance was. I did a lot of reading and experimenting and finally discovered that choosing Apple as the vendor and then Kodi would mostly work.
Then came the wailing and gnashing of teeth as the next couple of weeks were spent getting this to fully work. I bought an external bluetooth USB adapter that had highly rated compatibility with Linux. Even with that, though, I couldn’t get a working paired solution out of the box. Was the problem with my HTPC, my adapter, or my hub? It was hard to tell.
I first suspected my OpenELEC instance and since I was having other issues with that, I nuked it and switched my HTPC to running a Kodi-specific instance of Ubuntu. I couldn’t get that (older) instance to recognize the bluetooth adapter at all, though, and so I updated it. Updating it to the latest Ubuntu broke everything. So I nuked that and installed a “pure” Ubuntu instance since that had the highest guarantee of recognizing the bluetooth adapter. Yes and no. I was on the path of getting everything working (it was not straightforward) when I started casting my eye towards LibreELEC.
LibreElec is a forked version of OpenELEC with a more dedicated development team and a better architecture. In particular, it now had native support for the Emby Server and so my hacked version that I did earlier was no longer needed.
Thus, I scrapped my Ubuntu instance and installed the latest alpha of LibreElec.
And… it all mostly worked! It recognized my adapter with no hassles and it only took me a few tries and some choice cursing to get the hub to pair with it.
So after all of that hassle, I did finally have an almost 100% working solution with Kodi. Really, the only issue I’m still having is that I haven’t figured out how to map the Stop action to any key. That means that when I want to stop a movie (not pause), I have to open up the OSD and choose the stop icon. That’s not a fatal flaw since I only need to do that once per movie.
As I mentioned, I got this because of the physical remote but it does come with a very full featured app. I use this for setup purposes and day to day, only use it if I want to start up my theater from my living room so that the projector is fully warmed up and running by the time I get there. Otherwise, I use the remote.
But if I wanted to use the app, I could. It connects to the hub either via the local wifi network or roundabout via the cloud (no subscription required!). You are presented with the Activities menu:
The other main screen is the Devices tab which shows all of the individual devices available:
I don’t have any Sensors (yet) but do have my Nest thermostat as part of my activities in addition to my other devices.
When you select an activity like “Watch Movie”, it starts up this animation and you can hear at a distance the various components all clicking on. When the animation is done, you know that everything is on and working (“hopefully” in the case of the projector since it’s IR and there’s no way for the hub to know if it worked).
The “Watch Movie” activity turns on my AVR and switches the channel to the one associated with my HTPC; then switches on the projector and ensures that it’s set to the right HDMI input; then turns of “Away” mode on my Nest thermostat; and finally sets the remote to control Kodi, which is always on.
The remote screen reminds me of iRule quite a bit with just a bunch of pre-defined icons for the actions spread over a few pages. All of the necessary actions can be accessed via these three screens. There’s also a keyboard option to use my phone’s keyboard to write out stuff without having to select each letter one at a time.
There’s also a gestures screen, which is also a lot like iRule. In theory, I could setup my phone or a tablet or something to never go fully to sleep and use the one or two finger gestures to control the action.
I don’t use that since I use the buttons but I do like that the option is there should I ever need or want it. Very slick.
As an aside, the difference devices do have different options that are usable in the activities. In the case of my “Watch Roku” activity, for instance, it does everything that the “Watch Movie” does but instead switches everything to my Roku and then switches the Roku to the YouTube app. It does so flawlessly.
I could go on and on with the app since it’s really very very featureful. But… I feel like a broken record stressing how on a day to day basis, I don’t tend to use it at all.
Day to Day
The way I use the Harmony system most days is by pure muscle memory and feel. I have gone into my theater so many times now that I can do everything in the pitch dark or completely blindfolded (yes, I tested that). In one fluid motion I’m reclining my primary chair while my other hand is grabbing the remote and then switching to the proper activity. When it all comes up on screen, I can then manipulate the action without ever even glancing at the remote.
It’s not quite as ergonomic as my old TiVO remotes and not even as much as my old Harmony One… but I’ve no complaints. It’s comfortable enough.
It also works flawlessly so far. There is no discernible lag between pressing a button and seeing the action happen. It’s never “lost” the signal from my hub. I’m loving the reliability of it all.
If I could change anything about the Harmony, it would be all with respect to Kodi. I wish that it recognized Kodi as a first-level device rather than “just another application”. I with that it could control it via the Kodi API for true two-way communication rather than via the bluetooth keyboard “hack”. And more immediately, it would be nice if I could get the Stop action mapped to a key on the remote.
Next up will be integrating my lighting automation into the system. I don’t know yet if I’ll do a z-wave solution; an Insteon solution; or even get a bunch of individual wifi enabled lights like the Hue. The former two will require an external hub that the Harmony would then need to integrate with while the latter might run into the device control limits of the Harmony itself. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how seamless such support will be and how easy it will be to get working.
I’ll finish with the $64,000 question: do I recommend the Logitech Harmony Companion?
I answer that with a resounding yes! It may not be perfect, but it’s very very good and frequently wonderful. At $130 I consider it a no-brainer for anybody that wants a physical remote that can control an entire theater.