Bend the Harmony Smart Control to Your Will

This remote system has just enough flexibility to do the job in spite of itself.  My use case:  Sony KDL-55EX501 TV, Onkyo TX-SR508 Receiver, Sony PS3 and a Windows Media Center PC with an ORtek VRC-1100.  Tips:  Use the Windows app instead of the smartphone app for configuration, and make use of selective HDMI control for TV/receiver speaker switching.

My past experience with “smart” universal remotes was that it’s better to just keep all the dedicated remotes that originally came with the electronics, suck it up and use them, because there will always be features or conditions that the universal remote will not handle, and annoyance will ensue.  Forget the arduous process of getting the things configured in the first place. But that was a long time ago, so it was time to check out the state of the universal remote art and see how far things have evolved — after all, the Harmony Smart Control comes with an iPhone app, so somebody must have finally figured out that the capacitive touch screen and hardware behind the phone was better than anything put in a clunky plastic universal remote… or so I thought. 4 Remotes The challenge was straightforward:  to avoid having to use a Sony TV remote, Onkyo receiver remote, Sony PS3 controller and Logitech wireless keyboard at the same time.  Four input devices to control my “feed” with only two hands — less than ideal.  The feed consists of whatever I can capture with two antennas, and whatever else I can pull in with a PS3 and Windows Media Center HTPC.  The cable subscription was cut long, long ago.

First a caveat:  until consumer electronics are generally capable of communicating status information back to a remote control system, any so-called universal remote control will always be a kludge, because there will always be some slop between what the remote control tells the electronics to do, and what actually happens.  It’s not so much a universal remote “controller” as a universal remote “requestor.”  There’s still just too much complexity between all the possible states and features of a modern receiver, television, game console, HTPC etcetera to be handled by the current crop of remotes.  And as the remotes add more features to handle more devices, the devices become more complex and outgrow the remotes.  It’s a technology arms race, and the loser is the poor primate trying to juggle increasing numbers of remotes with just ten fingers.  We devolve from controller, to requestor, to obsequious mass of pathetic submission.  But if you can triumph over the Harmony Smart Control’s limitations, your monkey brain will dominate the devils of its own creation, and the electronic devices in your home will assume their rightful place to heel. The Harmony Smart Control The technology arsenal that Logitech has assembled is impressive.  A little hub/server with an infrared transmitter, a radio frequency remote control with a very nice, simple layout, a pretty iPhone app for both programming the system and controlling the devices, and a seemingly superfluous PC app which, like the phone app, also programs the little hub in case you don’t have a smartphone — which should definitely be your priority before the purchase of a universal remote, FYI.  The system connects to a Logitech MyHarmony account.

As soon as the basics are configured, the newly unboxed unit automagically flashes itself to the latest firmware.  The system is a long way from the old days of keying in numeric codes off a long, fine-print and finite list of supported devices.  The full kitchen sink of modern tech is incorporated, and most of it works well.  This remote is designed to function according to which  Activity you are currently performing, i.e. “Listening to Music,” “Watching TV” or “Watching a Movie.”  We’ll go ahead and assume that “activity” is the correct word for sitting on a couch twiddling your thumbs at a softly glowing sheet of plastic.

If you’re reading this while programming or planning to program the remote, here’s some free advice:  don’t bother using the iPhone app to program the remote.  It’s fine as a remote control, but after hours of frustration configuring settings with the phone app, switching to the PC app was a major relief.  Even with a fast phone, the burden of coordination between the phone app, the hub and the Logitech web service results in a flaky, frustrating, and unnecessarily time-consuming experience.  The PC app, on the other hand, is well-made, quicker, easier and more reliable.  Plugging the unit into the PC is a tiny inconvenience compared to the hair-pulling fiasco of the phone-based setup.  Ok, then.

Even with the PC app, I ran into numerous issues that required creative configuration and experimentation to bend my setup to my will.  For example, the Logitech instructions recommend HDMI control be disabled to not interfere with the Logitech paradigm of remote control, but I found that the easiest way to make the television use its own speakers in one mode, and the Onkyo receiver’s speakers in another, was to partially enable HDMI control such that the receiver and TV controlled the audio output gracefully.

The Logitech software is surprisingly stultifying in many respects.  It has specific premises about how one should go about controlling electronic devices, and to a degree enforces them in an attempt to keep users from shooting themselves in the foot.  Instead, the result is a frustrating lack of control.  In some cases, functionality that appears to be available just doesn’t work, and in others, some functions are selectively omitted, ostensibly to protect the user from doing the “wrong” thing.  It’s unexpected that with such a sophisticated universal remote system, a simple way to exert full control and override the process does not exist, but luckily, it’s unintentionally flexible enough to allow subversion and thereby success.

A full discussion of the software and system’s features are beyond the scope, but I will include the key configuration options that allowed me to consolidate the TV, receiver and PS3 controllers into one sleek little remote, and even use the remote as a Windows Media Center controller that largely eliminates the need for a keyboard.

To remote control Windows Media Center, the HTPC has to have a compatible wireless infrared receiver.  An old Nero LiquidTV TiVo remote, even after finding the elusive drivers, failed to deliver because of its limited functionality.  A cheap specialized HTPC remote is the recommended accoutrement.  Even with the HTPC remote, it’s still nice to have a keyboard for typing in URL’s.  Until a voice-recognition solution is readily available, a keyboard still has a necessary role with a HTPC.

For my current setup, the desired function is to use the TV with an over-the-air tuner, a Windows Media Center PC with its own separate tuner, and a PS3.  I want to use the TV speakers for all three functions, but be able to switch to the Onkyo receiver for high-quality sound at will.  This is simple but clumsy to perform with the existing four-remote setup, so it’s reasonable to expect that it can be done with such a high-tech universal remote, and it can… with some effort.

After hours of various unsuccessful permutations, what finally worked was configuring just three Activities:  Watch TV, Media Center and PS3.  The Red button on the remote was programmed in each Activity to send a PowerToggle command to the Onkyo receiver.  In order for this to work without having the TV speakers and receiver speakers both on at the same time, I had to configure the HDMI control sections of the TV and the Onkyo receiver such that they did not control each other’s power state, but did control whether the TV speakers or receiver speakers were in use.  Here are the magic HDMI control settings that worked: Sony TV HDMI Settings Onkyo Receiver HDMI Settings With the HDMI control settings and the custom Red power button, sound switching worked properly.  But, the changing power states of the Onkyo, even though controlled within the Harmony system, were not successfully tracked.  In some cases, the power and/or input selection of the Onkyo receiver was not where it needed to be and had to be manually switched.  This is exactly what I did in typical use with the multiple remotes before the Harmony, so switching power and inputs with one remote in hand felt very convenient.

In the pre-Harmony setup, sometimes even when the receiver input was correctly selected, the handshake between the TV and the receiver failed and nothing showed up on the TV.  The receiver input needed to be toggled to another setting and then back for the display to show up.  For example, Media Center might be selected on the receiver, but no picture was visible until the input was changed to something else, like Game, and then back to Media Center again.  This is a bug/feature with the particular hardware configuration that has nothing to do with the remote, but the universal remote provided a convenient workaround: create a custom sequence to switch the input.  My Green button is now a different “Input Toggle” sequence for each Activity. Input Toggle Sequence Now, the Red button controls receiver power for every Activity, and the Green button toggles the receiver input selection depending on which Activity is selected.  With these two functions and HDMI control, I’m able to switch from the Onkyo sound system to the TV speakers at will. Whenever there are any issues, I can easily turn on/off the receiver or switch inputs with a single keypress.  Almost there.

The final hurdle was configuring the volume control.  The Harmony system, unable or unwilling to keep track of the Onkyo power state, kept the remote volume buttons as receiver volume controls, so no volume control was available when the receiver was off.  To fix this, the volume buttons were assigned to control the TV instead of the receiver in each Activity.  When the receiver switched on, HDMI control allowed the TV volume setting to control the receiver.  Perfect, only it didn’t work properly the first time.  The volume controls would not repeat when held down as they normally do.  Deleting and recreating the Activity solved this problem.  Glitchy, but it worked.

To sum up,  after choosing the right Media Center remote control hardware, selecting appropriate Activities, using the Windows app instead of the phone app for configuration, setting up selective HDMI control, and programming some custom buttons, all four devices are now under control as desired.  While it required some finagling, this setup is much better than having to fumble with a bunch of remotes and a keyboard.  A final Activity for listening to music with the receiver was easy to configure. The current state of universal remotes is far from perfect, but with some persistence, the Logitech system can be successfully pummeled into serving the primate and his mere ten digits.  The iPhone app is neat, too, but the tactile feedback and good design of the Harmony Smart Remote is hard to beat.  If geeking out for hours with a universal remote doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, keep your remote collection handy and wait for the next generation, but Logitech has provided enough tech to let you sit down, veg out and minimize any cognitive or motor exercise you might endure by having to figure out which remote you need, physically extending a hairy appendage, or maybe even tilting your torso to grasp a material object.  Hopefully the software and flexibility will continue to improve to the point that absolutely no extraneous activity will be required for our… Activities.  I look forward to the Logitech Atrophy 9000.