I once owned a universal remote that I'm pretty sure was the size of a shoebox. That's how I remember it, anyway — a definite two-hander with a large screen (for the time) and very few physical buttons. Something like this.
It was awful. Awful setup and not much better to use. But it still was better than needing to have three remotes by my side at any given time.
Fast forward some 15 years (I can't believe it's been that long) and we get to what I have today. Last fall I splurged on new Harmony remotes from Logitech, and they're probably one of the more important purchases I've made. They work, they work well, and they were pretty simply to set up.
Here's the gist of the whole Harmony thing: It's first and foremost a universal remote. But gone are the days of looking up codes and hoping the remote would support your device. Also gone are the days of connecting the remote to a computer to sync things up.
First you add your devices (either manually or auto-detected over Wi-Fi), and then you use those devices to fill out "activities", like "Watch TV", or "Play Xbox". Harmony does a good job recommending activities, or you can start from scratch. It's highly flexible, highly customizable, and pretty much just works. My only real complaint is that it can be a little slow to sync, but it's not like you have to do that too often.
As with everything else these days, Harmony works with Amazon Alexa and Google Home, as well as with Philips Hue and other connected devices.
And with that, on to the goodies.
In the bedroom: Logitech Harmony Companion
I'm dead serious when I think the best-designed device in my home is this remote. We talk about curvy phones all the time now, but my wife catches me fondling this remote all the time and gives me a good dirty look for it. It's that good.
And it's that important. Universal remotes — even the ones I'm looking at here — are almost always at least a little more difficult to use than the individual remotes they're replacing. So they have to feel good, and the Companion nails that benchmark.
Beyond that, it's a fairly standard remote. It's got buttons — lots of them — a non-rechargeable CR2032 battery, and that's it. No newfangled touchscreens. It's easy to learn where things are by feel, which is another must-have in any remote. (And why I refuse to use phone-based remotes except for in a pinch — or when I want to lower the volume on whatever my kids are watching without getting yelled at.)
The real bonus in the bedroom with the Companion is the addition of the home control buttons. They look like lightbulbs and outlets and do exactly what you think they do — they control connected lights and outlets. That's a great feature in the bedroom, where I'll do anything I can to stay in bed just a little bit longer. (Yes, in this case that includes spending more money.) You connect Philips Hue to Harmony, set the button, and you're turning things on and off (or dimming) right from the remote. No voice control necessary (not something you want to deal with when someone's sleeping next to you), and no having to get up.
The Companion isn't what I'd call a "cheap" remote. But for me it's been worth every penny in look, feel, and function. (If you want something a little less expensive, you can get the Harmony Smart remote, which basically is the same thing minus the home control buttons.)
In the living room
I splurged (quite) a bit in the living room. But this is where I'm watching TV most of the time, right? It's also where I have the most devices. TV. A streaming box. (Or two or three, depending on the month.) Game console. A lot goes on out there, and more important, a lot of people tend to use remotes in common areas. So I wanted something really good.
And as an added bonus, it gives access to "favorites" for some devices and activities, making things even quicker and easier. If I know what channel I want to go to on Roku or a specific station on Sonos, I just hit the favorite on the touchscreen.
Unlike the Harmony Companion, the Elite is rechargeable and comes with a Micro-USB-powered stand. It keeps the remote vertical while it's juicing up. That keeps it conspicuous, which is a good thing because it means folks generally won't be hunting for the remote. It's also just a very nicely designed charging stand and a definite improvement over the old Harmony One I used to use.
This is a serious remote that pretty much has all the bells and whistles: IR, RF, backlit keys, haptics, 15 devices controlled at once — the works. And the price reflects as much. But it also should be pretty well future-proof. If you want mostly the same features minus RF capability and some of those other bells and whistles, check out the Harmony 950. Otherwise, the Elite is the way to go.
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Phil is the father of two beautiful girls and is the Dad behind Modern Dad. Before that he spent seven years at the helm of Android Central. Before that he spent a decade in a newsroom of a two-time Pulitzer Prize-finalist newspaper. Before that — well, we don't talk much about those days.