A touch-screen remote at first glance seems like an obvious evolution over the button-festooned scepters of yore, but the Logitech Harmony Touch is a significantly worse remote than many traditional universal clickers, like the superb and much less expensive Harmony 650.
The Touch evokes buttonless tablets and smartphones while still offering dedicated keys for the most important functions. Logitech's newest high-end remote sports a 2.4-inch color touch screen accompanied by 27 buttons, exactly half the number found on the Harmony 650. The $250 Touch features the same Web-based programming and activity-based controls (such as "Watch TV") that have made Harmony remotes so popular, but the focus is clearly on the touch screen, which takes up about a third of the length of the remote.
The screen has its advantages, including more flexible customization, the capacity to display a bunch of channel icons at once, on-remote editing, and support for a few gestures. But its main disadvantage -- the fact that you have to look down at the remote to make sure you're pressing the right virtual button -- is a deal-breaker for me. Logitech could have minimized this issue with better placement and selection of the hard keys, using the discontinued Harmony One as a model perhaps, but instead it plopped the screen front and center. Throw in the exorbitant price and the fact that you can circumvent Logitech's arbitrary device limit (more about this later), and there's simply no good reason to buy a Harmony Touch instead of a 650.
Design and button layout
You might be tempted to buy a Touch if appearance and feel were your only criteria. It's probably the nicest-looking remote I've seen, and it fits great in the hand. The glossy black face is a bit of a fingerprint magnet but no more so than a phone or tablet. It arcs gracefully down from back to front and sexy curves extend around the softly textured back, for an easier grip than with larger wands like the 650.
All of the keys are illuminated a pleasing white, feel well-made and solid when pressed, and exhibit just the right amount of travel before culminating in a satisfying tactile click. Their shapes and positions are well-differentiated for easy navigation by feel.
My middle finger rested naturally in a subtle groove on the back, perfectly positioning my thumb above the center of the big screen. That's great for screen-centric activities, but of course I used the Touch's hard buttons much more often than the screen. Unfortunately, their placement ranges from inconvenient to outright annoying.
From that starting position, swinging a thumb down to mash the cursor-controlling right, left, up, down, and OK keys was a slight stretch even for my big hands, and reaching all the way down to the oft-used DVR and Guide buttons was even worse without hitching the remote down in my hand. I own a Galaxy Note 2 that I mostly use with one hand, however, so I'm used to frequent digital calisthenics. But I shouldn't have to work this hard to reach buttons, especially ones I use all the time -- and especially when I'm in couch potato mode.
The worst part is that the main transport keys (Play, Pause, Fast-Forward, Rewind, Stop, and Record) are perched atop the clicker in the least accessible position. It's a disastrous ergonomic move, as I was reminded every time I reached for those keys. In contrast, the 650 keeps its transport keys right under your thumb.
As someone who skips commercials every time I watch TV -- I haven't watched live TV in years, and consequently almost never see commercials -- for me the single most valuable key on a remote is Forward Skip. And the Harmony Touch omits that hard key entirely. The closest that ill-placed pod of transport keys can offer is the Fast-Forward button, a much less efficient way to skip ads. I was able to easily edit the touch screen's button set to move the "Skip Forward" (aka 30-second skip) virtual button as high as possible, but that's no substitute for a physical button. Alternatively I could have programmed the Channel Up/Down hard keys to skip forward and back, but that's pretty confusing, especially to my channel-flipping wife.
Using the touch screen
Unlike the 650 the Touch doesn't awaken, illuminating its keys and screen, when you first grab it off the coffee table (I love that feature). Instead you have to actually touch the screen or a button to wake it up. Once awake the Home page of the big color screen shows the principal activity, which is typically "Watch TV," along with the time, battery level, and a couple of icons along the bottom, one for Help and another for jumping directly to device control.
Unfortunately there's no way to jump directly to subsequent activities like "Listen to Music" or "Watch Movie," so I had to swipe horizontally to scroll among them. I was annoyed because the screen shows only one activity at a time (something you can't customize, although you can rearrange the order in which they appear) and it didn't "wrap," but at least scrolling was quick. Once I selected an activity the Touch did its Harmony thing, prompting me to keep it pointed at my gear, sending remote codes to turn on (or off) devices, selecting inputs, and generally being awesome.
Once the activity was, er, active, the screen showed four big horizontal buttons, much like a scrollable list of e-mails or settings on a smartphone (there's no way to resize them). For activities like Watch TV the first virtual button will always be "123," and pressing it takes you to a number pad for direct channel selection and the like. The second is "gestures," which takes you to a blank screen where you can swipe in the four cardinal directions, or tap, to perform actions. For example, I programmed a left-to-right swipe for commercial skips. The rest of the buttons are accessible by simply scrolling down -- similar to accessing additional "pages" of commands on past Harmony remote screens, and just about as convenient. My wife noticed that it's easy to accidentally hit the menu bar at the bottom of the screen, however, sending the remote into Edit or Help mode inadvertently.
Edit mode is one big advantage the Touch has over past Harmony remotes. It lets you program gestures and rearrange buttons on the remote itself, as opposed to having to program those changes via Harmony's software. Unfortunately there's no way to move or remove the "123" and "gestures" buttons. The rest of the buttons can be moved or renamed at will, and as usual with Harmony remotes you can program them to control any device or even initiate a sequence of commands (a macro).
One useful function of the touch screen was the ability to directly select channels via icons, rather than having to sift through a DVR's onscreen guide. Hitting the Star key above the screen summons a list of favorite channels (up to 50) and you can add, edit, and reorder your favorites right on the remote. Past Harmony remotes only had room for a four or six favorite channels at a time on their screens, while the Touch's big screen shows nine.