Logitech on Tuesday announced the Harmony Express, a new universal remote that features the Alexa voice assistant.
Amazon’s increasingly ubiquitous helper comes built into the device and is accessible via a large circular button at the top of the remote. The idea with the Harmony Express is to use Alexa to control the various devices in your home theater. Past Logitech Harmony remotes have been usable with an associated Alexa skill for those with separate Echo devices, but here the voice controls are baked in.
The Harmony Express costs $250 and is available starting Tuesday.
All about Alexa
The remote itself is small, light, and minimalist from a design perspective, emphasizing the newfound focus on voice commands. There’s no built-in display and only a handful of physical buttons: just basic playback, volume, and navigation controls. There’s a microphone and speaker built into the device, naturally, and the Alexa button glows its familiar shade of blue when activated. The few physical buttons are all backlit.
In some ways, the use of voice controls with the Harmony Express is similar to what Amazon has done with its Fire TV Cube streaming box. As with that device, you can use Alexa on the Harmony Express to tune to specific channels on a cable box; saying “go to ESPN,” for instance, will instruct the cable box to input the channel numbers associated with that channel on its own. You don’t have to say “Alexa” to activate the assistant, but the Harmony Express only understands a limited set of phrases—saying “switch to ESPN,” to continue the example above, won’t do anything. The assistant can turn a TV or streaming device on or off through voice commands, as well as access a cable box’s DVR recordings. Logitech says you can use similar commands to tune to specific channels through an antenna as well.
This being a universal remote, you can also use Alexa to control various other home theater devices. At launch, Logitech says the Harmony Express will be able to directly launch Netflix and “similar apps”—including Amazon Prime, Hulu, and HBO Now—on an Apple TV (4th gen or later), Roku, Fire TV, Sony Android TVs, and a select number of Samsung and LG TVs. It won’t be able to do this on game consoles like the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, though you can still use voice commands to switch to HDMI inputs connected to those devices after the proper setup.
Since the Harmony Express is an Alexa device, it also works somewhat like a portable Amazon Echo. You could use the Harmony Express to answer general knowledge questions, detail the weather, see what’s coming up on your calendar, or other typical Alexa tasks. It can control various smart home devices, too. The main exclusion, according to Logitech, is that it doesn’t support music and audiobook commands, since it’d be a drain on battery and the built-in speaker isn’t designed for music.
Regarding battery life, the company says the Harmony Express should last at least a month per charge. (You charge it via a micro-USB port, and we’re a little disappointed it lacks USB-C.)
Logitech says it plans to add additional voice control capabilities post-launch. During a demo in New York City earlier this month, the company mentioned it is looking to add the ability to launch specific shows or tune to specific sporting events by name, among other things.
Still a Harmony
Having the built-in voice functionality is the big reason you’d buy the Harmony Express over one of Logitech’s more standard universal remotes, but the company says the device works with all the same devices as past Harmony remotes, sans voice commands. That includes a ton of TVs, A/V receivers, Blu-ray players, speakers, game consoles, and the like, though it’s worth searching the company’s compatibility list if you’re unsure if your gear would work.
The remote comes with a puck-shaped blaster that utilizes infrared, Bluetooth, and WiFi to control all these devices, as well as a mini-blaster for extending IR range if needed. Having Bluetooth and WiFi allows the Harmony Express to control devices like the PlayStation 4 that aren’t controllable by older Harmony remotes that rely solely on infrared. When you’re paired with a compatible device, the Harmony Express’ on-device controls will automatically map to the device currently in use. The remote doesn’t need line-of-sight to control these devices, either.
All of this is set through a new Harmony Express app made specifically for the new remote. This means the new remote is not compatible with Logitech’s existing Harmony app or the hubs that are designed for older Harmony devices. But it does make the setup process a bit more straightforward: the app will scan for the devices in your home—though you may have to add one or two manually—then have you drag and drop little icons for each found device onto the corresponding HDMI ports on your TV. It then has you associate streaming apps with certain devices, so that when you tell the remote to “go to Netflix,” it knows which device to light up. Unfortunately, you can’t use the app to actually control your home theater; it’s mainly there for setup and the nifty ability to set off an alarm on the remote if it ever goes missing. Again, Logitech really wants you to use your voice here.
For what it’s worth, Logitech says it isn’t taking any data for advertising purposes itself and that the Harmony Express does not record anything when the Alexa button is not being held down. But you can expect Amazon to do the same data collection it typically does with Alexa devices here.
If you have no interest in being a part of that, or in using voice controls first and foremost, it’ll probably be safe to overlook the Harmony Express in favor for the cheaper Harmony Companion. If you prefer having a touchscreen, the higher-end Harmony Elite is a better fit. Personally, given that Alexa is already baked into so many smart home devices these days, my first impression is that the Harmony Express market could be a niche one. It’s not hard to imagine the voice commands here getting mixed up with other Alexa-enabled devices in a home theater. At $250, the remote certainly doesn’t come cheap, either. But if you have a complicated home theater and smart home setup and would prefer to use your voice more than physical buttons, here you go.
Listing image by Jeff Dunn