For 15 years Logitech Harmony universal remotes have tamed sprawling multi-device home entertainment systems, making them simpler to use. They replace a coffee-table full of remotes with just a single clicker that commands your TV, AV receiver, cable box, game console and more, seamlessly. One button-press turns everything on, switches to the correct input(s) and you’re ready to go.
With the new Harmony Express, that button-press becomes a voice command: ‘Turn on the TV.’
The Harmony Express has been completely redesigned from previous models like the Harmony Companion and Harmony Elite to make things even simpler, starting with built-in Alexa. Me and my family, including two elementary-school-age kids, have been using it for the last week to control the main entertainment center at home. It’s already everyone’s favorite clicker, mainly thanks to Ms. Alexa herself.
Here are the basics.
- Harmony Express costs $250 and is available now at Amazon and Harmony.com and coming soon to other retailers like Best Buy
- There’s just 10 buttons and a four-way directional pad. The buttons are backlit and the D-pad has a colored ring just like an Alexa speaker.
- You press the main top button and speak into the remote to issue commands.
- Voice is powered by Amazon Alexa, but you don’t have to say ‘Alexa,’ just the command itself like ‘Turn off the TV’ or ‘Launch Netflix.’
- A built-in speaker lets Alexa talk back even when your system is turned off. Words like ‘Getting Netflix from Harmony Express’ issue from the remote in her familiar voice.
- You can pair the Express with any Alexa speaker for hands-free commands. For example, ‘Alexa, turn on the TV’ works hands-free, no remote required.
- The remote finder function, a first for Harmony, causes the remote to play a tone, allowing you to find it if it’s lost among the couch cushions for example.
- It includes a small hub and IR blaster, just like current Harmony remotes, that controls gear via Infrared, Bluetooth and IP/Wi-Fi commands.
- The remote doesn’t need line-of-sight to your devices so you don’t have to aim it or even be in the same room, and gear can be stashed inside cabinets.
- A redesigned app for iOS and Android, called Harmony Express, makes the setup process easier than previous Harmony apps.
- It can control up to 15 AV devices and, just like any other Alexa device, control smart home devices like lamps, thermostats and more with voice commands.
It’s a miniature handheld Alexa speaker, you guys
The craziest thing about the Express is that it has not only a mic built-in, but also a speaker. It talks back with Alexa’s dulcet tones just like an Echo. My kids love Alexa, and one of the first things they did with the Express was test its limits as a speaker. Their favorite ‘Sing a song’ worked, causing Alexa to spout her own little ditties, and ‘What is your anus?’ evoked the familiar ‘Uranus is the seventh planet from the sun.’ They even got it to play music from iHeart Radio, although the sound was terrible through the Express’ tiny speaker.
I asked for the weather, set a timer and, more useful in a remote, turned off the lights in the TV room and turned on the bias light behind the TV. I asked when the next Mets game was on and ‘Who are the stars of Stranger Things?’ Having Alexa in a device in my hand already was really convenient and a great alternative to raising my voice to reach the Echo in my dining room.
Voice > buttons
The Express does away with the numeric keypad, the four color-coded buttons, smart home buttons and other Harmony staples. Instead there’s that huge central push-to-talk Alexa button. Past Harmony remotes have buttons that correspond to so-called Activities like ‘Watch TV’ and ‘Play Xbox.’ Pressing one turns on the TV, switches the input to device and maps all the buttons like Menu, Exit and the directional keypad the the device itself.
To watch TV or Hulu or play Xbox on the Express you’ll have to talk into the remote. Issuing that command does all the same stuff as before. Its simpler in one way — no need to figure out which activity button to press — but also arguably more of a pain to speak rather than mash a button. You also have to speak (e.g., ‘Turn off the TV’) to shut everything down since there’s no Off button anymore.
The main use for a numeric keypad is inputting channel numbers, but Express does that via voice, too. Just say ‘Go to ESPN’ or ‘Go to Net Geo’ and it dials up that channel from your cable or satellite box directly — no need to remember the channel number.
In fact there’s only nine keys — all backlit — below the big voice/select button and circular four-way D-pad, and three (volume up/down and mute) are devoted to controlling your audio device. That leaves just six for the actual device you’re controlling, by default Back, Home, Menu and Rewind, Play/Pause and Fast Forward.
You can map any of those to any command using the app, and program each with long- and short-press, but people who like dedicated keys for additional functions, like DVR, Guide or Record for example, may be annoyed at the paucity of keys. There’s also no way to create custom voice commands.
Seriously, who needs buttons?
Just like switching channels, launching apps is faster with voice. ‘Watch Netflix’ with everything off fired up the TV, switched inputs correctly and bright me right to my profile page in a couple of seconds. I also loved that you can map different apps to different streaming devices. I had a Roku, an Apple TV and a Fire TV hooked up and I was able to choose which one I wanted to associate with each app. Some devices are excluded, however — associating an app with my Xbox or Nvidia Shield wasn’t an option, for example.
You get access to deeper voice integrations on Fire TV. I was able to say ‘Find Comedies’ or ‘Find movies with Julia Roberts’ or ‘Watch Roma’ and the Fire TV served up exactly what I expected, even within the Netflix app. Unfortunately these kinds of deep links won’t work with other streamers like Apple TV and Roku (yet). Logitech’s reps also said the Express wouldn’t be made compatible with Google Assistant or other voice systems in the future.
And if you have other ‘helper’ apps installed the Express can get, well, confused. Alexa video skills for Dish, Xbox, Roku and others can interfere with the Harmony Express Alexa skill (required to use the remote), causing you to have to specify the device (‘…on Express’) or disable the skill entirely. For example, when I said ‘Switch to Fire TV’ Alexa replied ‘I can do that on your Harmony Express. Which would you like?’ I has to answer ‘Harmony Express’ before it switched over. The more helper skills you have installed, the greater the potential for confusion (both yours and Alexa’s).
Otherwise my voice commands were executed flawlessly. The most common, including turning on and off and switching my various devices, happened much more quickly than the Fire TV Cube. Response times to key presses with devices and apps were similarly very quick.
Easy on the eyes and in the hand
The Express is quite small but doesn’t feel cheap or toylike. It looks sleek on a coffee table and there’s a pleasing symmetry. Unlike with an Apple TV remote, it was always easy to tell which end is ‘up’ thinks to the big button and light ring. The attractive matte finish repelled even my kids’ grubby fingerprints well.
The rounded sides and bottom felt natural in my hand. I really liked the fact that every button was an easy thumb reach away, and my thumb rested naturally on the play/pause button, which is concave for tactile reference. After a couple days use I rarely had to look at it to identify buttons. When I did, the clear icons and full backlighting served well.
The remote charges via mini-USB and battery life is excellent. In a solid week worth of use, including plenty of songs from the kids, it went down to about halfway according to the battery indicator in the app.
Setup with my system was as simple as any remote I’ve used, and much clearer than past Harmony devices. Yes I had to provide exact model numbers and know which inputs I had connected — not necessary with the Caavo — but the steps made sense and I didn’t hit any snags. I especially liked the suggestions telling me what phrases I could use.
I did miss the ability to use the app to control devices directly. Unlike the standard Harmony app, the Express app is strictly for setup, help and finding the remote. And speaking of help, the Harmony Help skill for Alexa (automatically enabled during setup) walked me through troubleshooting when something unexpected happened. When the TV didn’t turn on at one point, for example, a series of Alexa prompts fixed the issue quickly.
The $250 question
Do you need Harmony Express?
I would argue that for a system with an AV receiver, a TV and more than two connected devices, a universal remote is a necessity. But if you have a simpler system, say a smart TV, a game console and a sound bar, it’s probably overkill.
If you decide you need a universal remote, there are a couple that will work just as well as the Express for less. The Harmony Companion, my current CNET Editors’ Choice, is less than half the price and can do pretty much everything the Express can, aside from built-in voice. It also works well with Harmony’s Alexa app, so you can do a lot of stuff with an Echo speaker, no remote required.
Then there’s Caavo Control Center, which costs $100 and requires a $2 monthly service fee. It has Caavo’s own voice system built-in, which lets you search across services and perform other functions, and overlays everything with an onscreen interface. We used it for a couple months in my house before installing the Express and liked it a lot, although the onscreen stuff often felt unnecessary and I prefer the feel of the Express. I also like as well ts backlit keys better than Caavo’s capacitive onscreen indicators.
The Fire TV Cube is another cheaper universal remote option, but it requires you to hold onto your original remotes since Amazon’s included clicker is very basic. And for pretty much the same price as the Express you can get the Harmony Elite which has a screen screen, making some functions like direct app and channel access easier. But not as easy as asking Alexa.
None of those universal clickers is as intuitive to use as Harmony Express, however. If you have a complex AV system and like the idea of simplifying it as much as possible with a combination of voice and buttons, it could be worth the steep price.