There is nothing more frustrating than buying a tech product that has been reported as being the best and finding out that there are some serious concerns with its operation. As a journalist, it is much the same where we analyze tech gear and, when things just don’t seem right, seek published reports to see if we are doing something wrong. It is very uncomforting when the majority of published reports claim this product to be the best, yet we find serious concerns in its operation. Such is the case with the Logitech Harmony Ultimate that we are providing a user review on today.
The underlying cause of the ‘reviewing’ problem is actually twofold, the first being that most published reports on products are conducted after minimal use, and the second of course being that the product is being retained post review. The first we met head on a few years back with an ultrabook that was touted as possibly ‘the best’, yet its Wi-Fi didn’t work outside of the office. I remember the frustration of taking this system to Taiwan and getting absolutely no reception the entire trip. The ultra was useless. The other difficulty is with product retention that is, in most cases, unavoidable as resources retain their reviewers through that retention.
AUDIO RETURN CHANNEL (ARC) EXPLAINED
Technology X had been asked to increase our digital presence and the time had come to build a studio capable of accommodating the volume of digital equipment sent our way. In building the studio, we agreed that a universal remote capable of, not only working with just about any device but also, capable of IR and in tune with today’s innovation was a necessity. Audio Return Channel (ARC) was important as our cabling was routed through walls and only a single HDMI cable went to the TV. ARC enables the passing of the video and audio signal from the source, via the receiver and to the TV. As well, when using Samsung’s SmartHub, it allows the audio signal to be sent back to the receiver from the TV via that same HDMI cable. Our somewhat lengthy background investigation led us to the Logitech Harmony Ultimate remote with no other even close to it’s feature set.
HARMONY ULTIMATE COST AND COMPONENTS
At $250-300, the Harmony Ultimate is pretty much the highest priced remote available and the price was understandable in first checking out the product packaging, which contains the remote itself, the Harmony Hub, a rechargeable stand, two IR Blasters, and power cords. Our initial set up validated that, not only was the remote capable of controlling equipment behind closed doors, but also, over distance as well, which was great for switching audio.
The remote has touch screen with an amazing selection of customizable displays, one of which allows the user to program and select their favorite channels, all graphically depicted in icons. As well, their was no necessity to plug the remote in as it has Wi-Fi and synchronizing it to one account at MyHarmony.Com was no more than a press of a button on the remote.
ARC IDENTIFIES THE ULTIMATE DOWNFALLS
This is where things started to go down hill. We set up the Harmony remote with our Pace RNG200N PVR, Sony STR-DA1800ES receiver and Samsung UN60F8000 television so all would start as soon as we pressed ‘Watch TV’. The remote was very easy to program and turned the PVR on, stereo on, TV on, turned the stereo to CATV/Cable and turned the TV to HDMI 3 which was necessary for using ARC.
Our first problem occurred when we enabled ARC on the stereo and the TV, where an additional command is executed which changes the receiver’s input to ‘TV’. This meant that no sound was output from the receiver and we had to manually change the receiver back to CATV/Cable. A quick Internet search returned hundreds of complaints of using ARC with Harmony remotes. The only solution was to not utilize ARC with the Harmony remote. This brought forward another concern as the only audio return from the Samsung UN60F8000 was via optical capable, which was not capable of compressing audio and returning full Dolby Digital 5.1 and 7.1 signals. This brought us back to the necessity of ARC for complete sound in the Technology X Test Studio.
In trying to resolve this problem, we discovered that the receivers switching to ‘TV’ wasn’t the fault of Harmony at all, but rather a ‘as of yet’ unresolved issue when using ARC with most systems. This occurs as the last thing to occur in the activity chain is the TV taking control of HDMI when ARC is enabled, sending the command of changing the input to ‘TV’. We explored countless articles and couldn’t find a fix to this issue.
NO ABILITY TO PROGRAM HARMONY ULTIMATE
If the remote won’t automatically program itself, we should be able to set it up manually right? Wrong…
In trying to manually input a ‘custom activity’ into the Harmony Ultimate, we learned that Harmony has actually restricted what we can do when setting a custom operation. It seems that Harmony had disabled our access to many of the commands found when viewing the device on its own, and these were not available when setting an activity. We realized this first off, when we figured that we would just throw in another ‘CATV/Cable’ input command after the unavoidable TV command was rendered, but then another situation became evident.
DEVICE INPUT CONTROL
Only after creating an option to the Samsung SmartHub (‘Watch SmartHub’) did we realize that, when we went to the SmartHub, control was still retained by the PVR as it was necessary to be on for TV programming within the SmartHub. As much as this doesn’t seem to be a huge factor, it meant that anyone not knowledgeable with the remote could never use the SmartHub without a great deal of effort gaining control of the GUI. This meant that such great Samsung SmartHub activities as watching videos, listening to music, watching TV, going to Facebook or Twitter, as well as watching an enormous selection of available movies through Samsung and other video resources, were totally useless to anyone not understanding how to get to the Samsung device and then gain control. Even more frustrating was that even this could not be programmed through a macro.
Our next option was to contact customer support, to which we spent just under 4 hours on the phone trying to work through the issues we were experiencing, the two main being the wrong input assignment when ARC was functional and the inability to assign proper control when using the Samsung SmartHub. As frustrating as it was, we allowed the Harmony tech rep to walk us through the basic troubleshooting checks, many of which we had done several times already. During this phone call, we were put on hold as the gentleman told us that he was escalating the problem and needed to consult with their ‘Tier 2’ team.
At the end of these four hours, we abruptly ended our conversation with the Rep after he finally related three things that I told him within the first 20 minutes:
- Harmony remotes do not work when using ARC and one must use another remote to manually change the input; and
- Harmony has disabled many commands when creating custom activities, the ability to change control over to a preferred device being one of these command.
How do we win here? Four hours to finally have ‘the experts’ realize what we had told them right away?
At the end of the day, we found ourselves standing there and holding the worlds most expensive and apparently ‘best remote’ which when pressed, would not start our components correctly and forced our use of two remotes, remained in the “Starting Watch TV’ mode for almost a minute before we had access to any of the remotes functions, and would not allow us access to basic device commands that would allow our creation of a livable custom activity.
As much as I wanted to return it, I conceded defeat in hopes of a cure in the very near future. Our system is now configured without ARC. The initial cable connection runs from the Pace PVR to the Samsung UN60F8000 with a Toslink connection running from the Samsung back to the Sony STR-DA1800ES receiver. To my surprise, the return signal is 48Khz 24 bit 7.1 sound.