In the age of ubiquitous Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, it remains a minor scandal that home theater devices continue to heavily rely on ancient IR (infrared)-based remote controls. With no clear replacement standard in sight, companies tend to stick with IR in new products to maintain compatibility, with some network-connected gadgets getting Wi-Fi control apps or -- like Sony's notoriously IR-free PlayStation 3 -- going a Bluetooth-only route, and ending up needing kludgy adapters to work with existing universal remote controls.
The Logitech Harmony Smart Control ($130) is a fascinating new universal remote control system that attempts to bridge the gap between our clunky infrared past and a more modern wireless future. It works like other RF (radio frequency)-based remotes, using a separate "hub" to translate wireless commands so IR-only devices can receive them -- but it one-ups other systems by being capable of directly controlling both the Bluetooth-only Sony PS3 and Nintendo Wii without a separate adapter. But that's not all: the hub also makes it possible to use your iPhone or Android phone as a remote (using Logitech's free app), communicating with those smartphones via your home Wi-Fi network. In most cases you'll likely prefer to use the supplied "simple" remote, which is great, albeit a few buttons short of being truly excellent. The real magic remains Harmony's excellent activity-based buttons: you hit a single button for, say, "Watch TV" and the remote takes care of everything else.
Despite its forward-thinking ways, the Harmony Smart Control isn't quite a home run product, largely due to finicky setup that requires a good deal of patience and technical know-how. The Harmony 650 ($65) remains the best value for most buyers, but the Harmony Smart Control's added features are seriously worth considering if you'll appreciate its RF capability, especially for PS3 owners.
The hub and the remote
The Harmony Smart Control isn't quite like any other universal-remote system. It's a hybrid of a standard universal remote (like the Harmony 650) and newer, smartphone-based control systems, like Peel and Beacon, that use a "pod" or hub to distribute remote signals. The idea behind Harmony Smart Control is you get the best of both worlds, as it includes both a pod called the Harmony Hub (also sold separately for $100), and a stripped-down simple remote. (The Hub module bears a resemblance to the now-discontinued Harmony Link, but that model lacked Bluetooth.)
The Hub is designed to sit on your TV cabinet and it fires remote commands (via IR) to control your gear. The placement may seems a little odd, but the Hub's powerful IR blasters are capable of bouncing signals off the walls and furniture of your living room, which works remarkably well. If the remote signals aren't reaching your components, the Hub also has two IR ports on the back for connecting separate wired blasters, which can be especially useful if you keep your components hidden behind a cabinet.
In addition to IR, the Hub is also capable of sending commands via Bluetooth for two supported devices, the PlayStation 3 and the Wii. Support for the PS3 is particularly nice, considering it's an excellent all-in-one media device, but inexplicably lacks an IR receiver; prior to the Hub, you had to pony up for Logitech's Harmony Adapter for PS3 if you wanted to control the PS3 via a standard universal remote.
Simple remote: A few buttons short
The remote communicates with the Hub via RF, which, unlike standard IR signals, doesn't require line of sight. That means you don't have to point the remote at your devices, which is especially useful when using one of Harmony's "activity" buttons. (Longtime Harmony fans are familiar with the awkwardness of holding the remote pointing at the screen while the remote fires out its long sequence of commands.) I had some skepticism that this two-part system could offer the same responsiveness as a standard universal remote, but it felt just as fast as any other remote I've used, after I tweaked the settings -- more on that later.
Physically, the remote is impressively thinner, shorter, and lighter than any of Harmony's other offerings. That sliver-thinness is made possible by a waferlike watch battery (CR2032) that Logitech claims can last for a year. Swapping in a new battery is dead simple and replacement batteries are cheap -- you can get five for under $2. The small size of the remote, along with the soft feltlike backing, also just makes the remote nicer to hold; even though I left my trusty Harmony 650 on my coffee table too, I tended to reach for the Smart Control remote.
The button layout is similar to that of other recent Harmony remotes, and yes, that includes the transport buttons (Play, Pause, Fast-Forward and Rewind) positioned toward the top. The repositioning of those buttons (compared with classic Harmony remotes) has generated a lot of criticism, which I largely agree with, but the smaller size of the Harmony Smart Control's remote makes it less of an issue. The lack of an LCD screen makes the transport keys reachable without having to reposition your hand and I found myself easily finding them without looking. I'd still prefer a more central location for transport buttons, but it's not a major issue on this remote.
The more disappointing aspect of the button layout is that there are only three activity buttons. These remain Harmony's killer feature, letting you set up dedicated buttons for tasks such as "Watch TV" that take care of all the remote commands you need to send, such as turning on your TV, cable box, and AV receiver and switching to the proper inputs. Unfortunately, having only three activities feels too limiting -- even more one more would make a big difference. You can actually access six activities from the remote, as you can assign separate activities to long presses, but that requires you to remember those "hidden" activities, which isn't a proper substitute. It doesn't help that one of the activity buttons is marked for music listening; gaming likely would have been a better choice. (Despite the icons, you can assign whatever activity you'd like to each of the buttons.)
Smartphone control: Neat, but superfluous
You can also control the Hub using Logitech's dedicated Harmony smartphone app, which is available for both iOS and Android. The app features the same activity-based buttons, although you can see all six activities in the smartphone interface. (Surprisingly, there's currently no dedicated tablet app, although I was able to make do on my iPad using the blown-up iPhone app.)