Editor’s Note – We get a lot of questions about how to connect up your home to create the so-called Smart Home or make use of the Internet of Things (IoT). The first question you might ask, is do I really want to do this? Next is how easy is it? And third is what do I need?
In the early days of connectivity, things ran through your electrical wiring using fairly complex systems with standards like Zigbee and Z-Wave. You pretty much needed to be a tech guru to use them. Now many of the big players have jumped in, creating easier to use ecosystems. You’ll recognize the names: Amazon, Apple, and Google. Other players in the space include Samsung and LG. Amazon is the big dog in the game with a combination of hardware like Echo and Dot, and the Alexa operating system. There have been hundreds of companies creating Alexa enabled or Alexa connected devices. Apple’s HomeKit solution is software based, but some manufacturers are supporting it. And Google has come a bit late to the party with it’s Google Home smart speaker and Google Assistant software. For a while it looked like this could be a battle to the death a la BetaMax versus VHS. But now the big three are all starting to cooperate in some form or another so at some point the Apple, Amazon, and Google enabled products may all work together. But that may be a while.
We asked Contributing Editor Bill Stoller to start looking into some of these systems. His first effort is a group of products that work with the Amazon Alexa platform that comes from Logitech.
No, that’s not a typo in the headline, because this is a story about connecting things in your home to work together, and while they often do, they sometimes don’t.
I’ve been trying out several Logitech devices, principally their Harmony Elite universal remote control, which like other “universal” remote controls offered over the years, promises to combine all your remotes in one device. Unlike some of those earlier universal remotes, where you had to keep telling them which device you wanted to control, the Harmony Elite (and some of its Logitech cousins) allows you to program all sort of devices into it, using a smartphone app or an account on your computer.
So, for instance, you could teach it that you have a Sony TV, a cable company supplied Motorola DVR, and a Denon receiver, all wired up. Your cable remote likely already turns on your TV, but if you want to run the TV audio through the receiver, that’s a separate remote, and you have to have it set for the right input. With the Harmony Elite, you could group them as an “Activity” and turn on all three with one command, including selecting the correct receiver input. The Elite’s volume & channel controls figure out which device you want to be controlled.
And that’s just the start. Using Logitech’s POP Smart Buttons which can control enabled lights and blinds, you could use the Harmony remote to dim the lights at night, or close the blinds on a hot summer afternoon, while you settle back and watch TV. Make that an “Activity,” say, Watch TV Daytime and you have the system darken the room, turn on the TV, cable box, audio system, and even start with a favorite channel.
Other “Activities” could be setting the mood with lighting & a Sonos system, or creating a wake-up activity that opens the blinds and adjusts the Nest thermostat. You get the idea.
And the Harmony – as with so many other things – can be linked with Amazon’s Alexa devices, meaning the handheld remote itself may not be necessary for many functions, as you can add the Harmony “skill” to Alexa, and by telling it you want to “Watch TV” Alexa orders the Harmony Hub controller to turn on or off what you programmed. (Harmony also works with Google Assistant, but I didn’t try it.)
The reason I said “imperfect” harmony, is that, first of all, getting all this to work is frankly, work.
Take the Harmony Elite, by itself. The controller needs to be placed in the room where all devices are likely to receive its IR or Bluetooth signals, as well as it getting on your Wi-Fi so you can program it from your phone or computer. And don’t forget the power plug. The remote has a base it sits in, which also keeps it charged, so that’s another power plug. You’ll need to download the app, create a Logitech account (unless you already have one), and then manually enter the make & model of your TV, DVR, Blu-ray, Roku, audio receiver, etc., so you get the exact list of controls for each in the remote. If any of your devices are behind cabinet doors, you’ll need IR extenders, and they supply two.
Now it’s on to testing each device you’ve set up and using the app to combine them into “Activities” and testing each of those. I’m not saying it’s tough, but it takes time, and the more you want it to do, the more there is for you to do.
Add Alexa (and I’m presuming it’ll be similar with Google Assistant), and now there’s more to do, like adding the Harmony “skill” and correctly configuring the Groups, Devices, and Scenes, as Alexa calls them, to work on your voice command.
I got Alexa to turn on my TV & cable together, but she refused to change channels or the volume. I’m sure there’s a fix, but I’m happy grabbing my remote since I could use a little physical activity while sunk into the couch.
I also found some of the Harmony Elite functions had an issue, such as I couldn’t scroll up & down the touch screen with the up & down physical keys or press the physical “OK” button to do anything; I had to just use the touch screen. But I’m sure I can find the fix for that too. Like just about everything else these days, the remote doesn’t come with much more than a basic printed setup guide; all other questions need to be asked online.
Now one day soon all these smart home devices will work together perfectly and you’ll be able to sit on your tuchus in your La-Z-Boy while your robotic butler brings you a cold beer on voice command. And hopefully one of the activities you program is for the chair to eject you in the direction of the front door or treadmill once an hour for you to get some exercise and keep the blood flowing to your brain.
The Harmony Elite remote kit is under $270 at Amazon, which also sells the Logitech POP Smart Button starter kit for under $60.