Logitech has a new plan to simplify the clutter of streaming devices in your living room: The company has built a universal remote dubbed the Harmony Express that relies on voice control to switch between streaming devices connected to your TV, launch apps and flip channels. To supercharge its new voice remote, the company has teamed up with Amazon, and directly integrated the company’s Alexa assistant.
Logitech has been making universal remote controls under the Harmony brand for nearly two decades. Some of the company’s devices have been traditional universal remote controls with lots of buttons to control a multitude of devices, while others have incorporated touch screens.
For the Harmony Express, the company ditched the screen, and reduced the number of buttons down to the essentials. All of this is being replaced by an internal microphone, which can be triggered with the press of a button, and a small speaker. The idea of the latter is not to add yet another Echo to your house — it sounds worse than your average phone speaker, so you won’t want to listen to music on it anyway — but get quick voice feedback.
The remote uses a combination of infrared, Bluetooth, Bluetooth LE and Wifi to control devices, and comes with a IR blaster puck as well as an IR extender to reach TVs and other living room devices. The remote itself is rechargeable via micro USB, and is supposed to last for a month or longer between charges. Harmony Express is available effective immediately online for $249.99, and is supposed to come to Best Buy stores soon.
The Harmony Express setup is done via a mobile companion app, which identifies streaming devices on the same Wifi network, and makes it easy to allocate them to HDMI ports on your TV. Cable boxes, A/V receivers and other accessories can be added manually as well. Users can decide which device they want to use for which streaming app, and then simply say things like “Go to Netflix,” “turn on Fire TV” or “go to NBC” to switch devices, apps and channels.
The Harmony Express does not yet know which shows run on which apps, so you won’t be able to search for content across your devices. The company plans to add this functionality at a later point; Fire TV users can actually get a glimpse of such universal search, thanks to the remote’s deep integration with Alexa, which powers voice search on Amazon’s streaming devices.
During a demo given by Logitech staff, the remote performed flawlessly, switching back and forth between a smart TV interface, a game console, streaming devices and a old-school Comcast Xfinity cable box. However, briefly tested under real-life conditions, the Harmony Express didn’t always do so well. The remote wasn’t always able to find the right HDMI inputs on an older TV, frequently ending up on the wrong device.
Moved to a different TV set, the device performed more reliably, but still revealed a number of quirks. While the Harmony Express knows a number of standard apps, it can quickly stumble with others. Asked about launching the Roku Channel, Alexa simply responds “I couldn’t find that channel.” Tasked to switch to the ABC news app, the remote instead suggested to add ABC News to Alexa’s audio-only news briefing. Even more perplexing were instances when Logitech’s nomenclature clearly collided with Alexa’s. Here’s one of the more perplexing dialogues:
“Go to Prime Video.”
“I can’t do that on Harmony Express.”
“Go to Amazon Video.”
“Getting Prime Video from Harmony Express.”
Even when asking for the exact names for apps assigned via the Express companion mobile app, like “iTunes TV Shows,” the remote would sometimes respond: “Here is what I found: Harmony Express doesn’t support that.”
There were also some other quirks specific to the test set-up. The Harmony Express remote is supposed to allow channel surfing while watching live TV, but none of the buttons worked out of the box to flip channels, which made it necessary to manually reprogram a button. Launching apps on Fire TV was a bit of a hit or miss as well. And finally, the remote doesn’t seem to support the launching of apps on the Nvidia Shield Android TV streamer at all.
The bottom line is that building a universal remote for the streaming age isn’t easy. Others have tried with different approaches. Amazon built its own device control into the Fire TV Cube, which isn’t really meant to launch apps on other streamers. Caavo built its own remote complete with a HDMI switch that uses complicated image recognition technology to identify apps on connected devices — an approach that can be painfully slow, and adds unnecessary layers between users and their devices.
Logitech’s approach seems make the most sense — but its failings also show that devices that try to be smart can still at times look pretty dumb. For some consumers, that may be a trade-off worth taking. Others may decide to instead just stick with an extra remote or two on their coffee table.