Harmony Smart Control, Touch, and Ultimate.

Mid way through 2013 Logitech introduced a new line of smart remotes. Harmony Touch, Harmony Smart Control, and Harmony Ultimate.

The harmony ultimate is a mixture of the Touch and Smart Control system. The Harmony Touch is an Infrared(IR) remote, with a 2.4″ LCD screen that can use gestures to change channels and control your devices. Then you have the Smart Control system, which includes a hard button remote that interacts with a hub via Radio Frequency(RF). The hub then blasts IR, and Bluetooth signals to devices. RF is only used for the remotes communication between them and the hub. Bluetooth is used for gaming systems such as the Wii U, PS3, and PS4. The hub also uses WiFi to connect to your home network and can be controlled with a smartphone by downloading the Harmony app from Google Play or iTunes. The hub is common between the Smart Control and Ultimate system. Also note worthy is that the Smart Control system can be upgraded with the Touch remote, giving you similar features to that of the Ultimate system. There are however subtle differences between the Touch remote and the one that comes with the Ultimate system. For instance, the touch remote is lacking haptic feedback, a tilt sensor, and it’s ergonomics and materials are slightly different. What does this mean, well the tilt sensor is used to wake the LCD up when you pick the remote up, and the lack of haptic feedback on the touch remote means that you will not get confirmation on your presses. Other than that the ergonomics and materlial on the back of the remote might just be preference.

Upgrade

If you decide to upgrade you Harmony Smart Control with the Harmony Touch it all has to be done online via http://www.myharmony.com. Harmony no longer includes a software application. Programming your activities is done via the website or the Harmony smartphone app. Activities is how you control your devices, for instance an Xbox activity might turn your TV to aspecific input, your receiver to a specific input, and finally turn on your Xbox. Also in the Xbox activity the directional button might be used to navigate the Xbox menus. Where as a Blu Ray activity, might turn on your TV to the same input as the Xbox activity, turn your receiver to a different input, and finally turn on your Blue Ray player. And in your Blu Ray activity the directional pad on the Harmony remote will control your player navigation instead. It’s all customizable, and after the automatic setup can be changed to your preferences.

To use the website you need either a Windows or OSx computer, as the site uses Microsoft Silverlight to get the interface going. Also when you decide to update the Smart Control system with the Touch remote, you will increase the device count form 8 to 15. By updating to the touch remote you will also gain the ability to control the devices via RF from the remote directly, that and you will also be able to access your AV device menus and low level features. Otherwise with Smart Control you will need to leverage the Harmony app and its touch interface to have the level of control you gain with the Touch or Ultimate systems.

www.MyHarmony.com

I found using the app to setup the hub very frustrating, everything I did I had to do twice, seems that the app had some connection issues. Eventually I did manage to connect the hub to the WiFi, update the firmware, and setup all the devices and activities through the app. The connection problems were only apparent when setting it up, creating the activities went rather smoothly. I would recommend connecting the hub to your PC and setting everything up via the myharmony.com website. You will save yourself a lot of trouble and aggravation. To do so you will need to create an account on the website.

The website provides you with a nice level of control, creating and editing activities, changing button assignments, adding granular setting to the activities, etc. A nice level of control which you might want to avoid on the touch interfaces.

Also to note that if you have a previous version of a Harmony remote, the activities from that remote can be transferred to your Smart Control, Touch or Ultimate devices. However if you have never had a harmony remote previously, with a library of 225,000+ devices it’s a breeze setting up your activities. I was able to add things such as a Samsung HD DVD player, and a Zune HD AV dock. This surprised me, but I guess the database of devices is growing bigger and bigger by the day. No codes for your device, no problem you can teach these systems your devices codes and button assignments. As previously stated the Smart Control remote uses RF to communicate with the hub, and the hub is doing all the IR blasting and communicating with the devices. That is for the Smart Control system only though as the Touch remote relies solely on IR when communicating with your devices, unless paired with a hub. Smart Control comes with one extra IR blaster where the Ultimate is equipped with two extras. IR is line of sight and sometimes can bounce off walls. For the Xbox One I found that it really does need to be line of sight otherwise it does not work. It all depends on your room and your surfaces.

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The remote that comes with Smart Control can only control six Activities. The 3 buttons on the top have two functions, short and long press. Upgrading to the Touch or Ultimate allows you an unlimited number of activities. This is where the touch screen really shines. Switching from one activity to the next switches off your active devices and turns on the devices you just selected. The remote buttons can also be customized to perform different tasks for specific activities, that is if you wish to get into the a more detailed setup. Again this is where the touch screen remote is far superior because you can access individual functions on each device with it.That’s not to say that you can not do this with the Smart Control system, but you will need a smartphone or tablet and the Harmony app to accomplish the same level of control as you would with Touch and Ultimate. With the app or touch screen remotes you also have gesture based browsing. Swiping, tapping, pressing, and a combination of the three gestures, all yield different results based on your activity and your activity device settings. For example you could swipe up and tap to change the channel, swipe to the right to fast forward, or swipe to the right and hold to skip forward… I think you get my drift.

As far as hub and IR blaster placement, you will have to play around with that. Some locations might work for you, others may not. Since IR is mostly line of sight, but can be bounced off walls with in reasonable distance, you might want to place it somewhere where it can see all the devices. Having said that the hub has 4 blasters inside it pointing in all 4 directions, and in addition to this you can plug in two extra blasters into the hub. Also this device is designed to work in cabinets with closed doors. Nice thing too is you can assign where the IR signal is coming from for each device via the Harmony website.

HubAssignments

Bluetooth can penetrate cabinets and walls to it really doesn’t matter where you place the hub for Bluetooth devices. Each time you make changes to the site/settings you need to sync your hub with the pc/site.

Logitech has created a very nice universal remote system. Fully featured and very comprehensive. Controlling everything is quite nice and convenient. If you’re somewhat technically inclined you should have no difficulty setting this up, if not you can always head over to their forums and ask a few questions or give their harmony support a call. Logitech has a dedicated line just for Harmony support I would suggest you leverage it to your benefit.

Happy couch surfing.

Xbox One: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The_Good_The_Bad_and_The_Ugly

Image belongs to Justin Reed. (http://goo.gl/mV9M2U)

The Good:

The ability to perform voice commands is by far the best feature on the Xbox one. When you walk into my room and say “Xbox on!” it turns itself on, and can turn the TV and Receiver on as well. Then the Kinect recognizes your face and signs you into your account. When using the “Xbox select..” command, you can navigate the xbox menus without the use of the controller or hand gestures. When playing a game you have the ability to snap applications such as party chat with a simple voice command. With the same feature you are able to add people to the party chat, remove them, and mute the chat, etc. As per the voice commands, if you swear at the ref in FIFA 14, you will be reprimanded by your club. Also keep your potty mouth to yourself when on the field, or the red cards will come flying at you. NBA 2K14 has similar features, BF4 allows you to call in support with voice commands. As for the controller it is a slight improvement over the 360 controller. The analog sticks are comfortable and the redesign is most welcome. Bumpers and triggers are solid, and over all the build quality of the controller is superb. The Operating System interface is really easy to navigate, the layout is basic and makes a lot of sense. It is very hard to get lost in the menus. When signing in to the console by way of Kinect facial recognition it will recognize you in a completely dark room lit up only by the ambient light of the TV screen. The ventilation on the xbox this generation is a huge improvement over last, it runs really cool even when placed in an AV cabinet with front doors. Overall The hardware doesn’t really heat up much. I guess Microsoft learned something from the previous generation. The application snap feature is handy, having two applications side by side really works on this console, and it doesn’t distract or pull your attention from the gaming or watching a movie. This is especially useful when trying to start a Party Chat while in game. Xbox SmartGlass is a companion app for both the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. It is completely free and works on Windows, iOS, and Android devices. You can use your smartphone or tablet to type in the text fields, when sending text based messages to your friends or entering your credit card information to make purchases. Most of us have smartphones and tablets so this naturally makes sense. This app is also a companion to some games such as Dead Rising 3, it enables extra features and in game content. It’s an extension to the users video game experience and adds another level of interaction with the software, in some cases it is easier to type with the smartphone than using the on screen keyboard. Something no one is talking about, perhaps because they don’t understand it, is the “server farm” Microsoft has stashed away for it’s developers. I’m not talking about the Xbox Live military grade servers, I’m talking about the server that can offload some of the XBOs processing to the cloud. All of the rendering and computing does not need to be done locally anymore, and any non critical computing can be done on the servers and sent back to the system. In my opinion this has a lot of potential, and the systems processing power is no longer limited to the local hardware specs.

The Bad:

The Xbox One is not DLNA certified, unlike it’s predecessor. This took me by surprise and is kind of anti next-gen for a device that wants to be the media centre hub of the living room and that calls itself next-gen. DLNA streaming is important to me, especially for my music library. One of the crowning features of the 360 was the ability to listen to your music library while playing games. Also, at the moment the games are not there, Dead Rising 3 looks like a 360 game. Forza 5 is full of micro transactions, $59.99 for a game and micro transactions on top of that seems a little excessive. It will take the developers a longer time to get familiar with the XBO dev kits than the PS4 dev kits. The XBO has specialized hardware, like the Kinect, the ESRAM, and the render server farm, whereas the PS4 is esentially an underpowered PC. Xbox 360 users and Xbox One users can not communicate properly over Xbox Live. If you’re on the Xbox One you can not receive voice messages as the XBO does not have this feature. Party Chat is not possible with 360 and XBO users either. The camera is unable to identify my face sometimes and as such it does not sign me in automatically into the system. I particularly noticed this when reclining in a bean bag chair on the floor. Perhaps the Kinect has a hard time recognizing the skeletal structure when in a reclined position. The lack of proper CEC integration is also surprising. The Xbox One uses some form of CEC an IR blaster to control the television and receiver, however this is not CEC as one can not use the receivers or televisions remote to navigate the xbox menus.

The Ugly:

The gesture based navigation needs a lot of work. It is one of the worst features to use on the XBO. I’d say it works properly 50% of the time. The audio is another problem, it cuts out in certain menus and even though the XBO set to PCM 5.1, sometimes the XBO decides to output DTS. Other times the XBO boost the volume by itself and then decides later that it is too loud and turns the volume down. There is no Bitstream option for the audio output either, and only Stereo, 5.1 PCM, 7.1 PCM, and DTS sound output options are available.This does not work, I would like the option to have the receiver do the audio decoding, specifically DTS HD MA or Dolby TrueHD. My home cinema would appreciate that. No 3D Blu-ray support yet either, for a system that is trying to take over the living room this is unacceptable. Despite the critics ramblings about 3D, it is here to stay, and consumers are slowly adopting said technology. There are other small glitches and hiccups when switching between menus and screens too. Sometimes the xbox goes all Ghost in the Machine on me, and starts launching applications and navigating software on it’s own… Rise of the machines?

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In conclusion..

…there is more good, than bad or ugly, however this next-gen console launch was very underwhelming. The underwhelming part is mostly due to the fact that both Microsoft and Sony released beta products into the wild. But if I were to decide between the new Xbox or the new PlayStation, I’d pick the Xbox. Voice commands, gesture based browsing, a stunning 1080p camera, SmartGlass, server farm, skype and other app within app integration, superior controller, and system that shows promise providing the software comes out of Beta soon. There are a lot of bugs in the software, and a lot of features that need tweaking and revision, this is true for both Sony and Microsoft alike. But if the 360 was an indication of how MS functions, is that they listen to their community, and that their gaming system and it’s software will evolve over time.