With more cable-cutting in favor of streaming video, HTPCs are becoming more common. As technology advances, things that used to be somewhat difficult are now made easier. Take, for instance, the home theater PC (HTPC). You used to need some wizardry about it, but these days installation and set up is a breeze.
The benefit of having a HTPC is the ability to stream all your online content to that huge TV and fantastic surround speakers you own. Plus, any casual gaming or web surfing is made bigger than life too. If you have a few different components together, it’s pretty nice to be able to consolidate all the remotes. If a computer or laptop is in the mix, a keyboard makes life so so much easier. Thankfully, Logitech has been a pioneer on both counts, and their most recent Harmony Smart Keyboard does the trick.
If you’ve owned a Logitech keyboard in the past four or so years, the Harmony Smart Keyboard will feel familiar. It has the hallmarks of Logitech design and aesthetics, but with some small subtle additions. The curves and texture make the Harmony Smart Keyboard less like a traditional keyboard and more like part of your home entertainment equipment. This keyboard looks as comfortable on the living room coffee table as any of the IR remotes it replaces.
In the box, you get the keyboard, hub, a pair of USB receivers, a USB extender, and an IR mini blaster. The pair of AA batteries that come to power the keyboard can be tossed/shelved for something better. The hub requires the included USB cable plugged in for power. No batteries here.
Although the documentation is sparse, the concept is easy to follow. The hub, in conjunction with the keyboard and mobile app, communicate with connected home entertainment devices. The hub works wirelessly as well as blasts IR, which are the ways it doubles as a remote.
So long as the hub is positioned so it can bounce rays off walls, then everything is good to go. The USB extender is for those hard-to-reach ports, and the pair of USB receivers can grant Bluetooth wireless connectivity to the whole system. The underside of the keyboard battery door can store one Bluetooth receiver in it.
The Harmony Smart Keyboard itself is nice and grippy. It feels like one of Logitech’s most recent gaming mice, and that tactile performance is not lost on me. One thing about this surface is that it can and will collect thin layers of dirt. The charcoal coloration can make this dirt blend in at first, so you just have to pay attention and keep it clean. You know. Germs.
Overall, the keyboard is lightweight enough so that the rubber feet keeps it from skidding. The huge miss? It’s not backlit. I do a lot of my gaming and movie watching later at night, so it would have been nice.
The instructions included in the box are minimal, since the Harmony App does most of the heavy lifting. The instructions are clear as you step through the process of getting everything set up, but a mobile device is required. The app is available for both Android and iOS.
If you don’t have a MyHarmony account, you’ll be prompted to create one. This is where all your saved configurations and settings are backed up. Always handy. The app does a good job at stepping you through the process, adding devices as you go. What takes the most amount of time is finding the model number for each piece. This usually requires flipping things over or around to find the manufacturer’s label. Logitech’s library is huge and had no problem finding my equipment.
The app also prompts the creation of activities. If you skip it, you can always go back and create or edit later on. The activities turns on all the proper equipment, with the correct input settings, for whatever it is you want to do.
Whether it’s watching TV, watching a movie, or playing video games, one button press does it all. Since only the necessary electronics are included (as dictated when you set up each action), there’s less energy waste for having everything else on.
Up to eight devices, total, can be managed by the app at a time. Upgrading something? Just use the app to delete the old and add the new. Of course, the pre-set actions will also have to be updated.
Not all devices are so simple to work how we want with a press or two on a remote. As such, the Harmony App lets users program commands and set delays. Some devices can only accept and execute a command every X number of seconds. You can tweak the delays and timing so each command is registered and executed correctly.
The Harmony App also doubles as a remote control to rule them all. Within the app you just choose the device you want to operate and voila. Remote! Most remotes will have anywhere between two to four screens to slide through for all the commands. If you know your way around remotes, the button icons will be self-explanatory. Since the mobile device communicates with the hub through Bluetooth, you also don’t need to worry about line of sight.
As you’re getting started, you can choose to set up your favorite channels and places you watch. If you skip it, it’s easy enough to go back and add or change them as you like.
The keyboard is fantastic. It absolutely positively beats out using directional buttons to tap out words for input. Having the media controls right at your fingertips is handy too. While keystrokes aren’t completely silent, a light touch keeps the noise down to a minimum. The trackpad is smooth and fingers glide easily across it.
I find the default acceleration and sensitivity to be perfect, and the left and right buttons click nicely too. The trackpad is far more useful in conjunction with a PC, since little else uses it. But if you’re looking to create a home theater PC (HTPC), this element is critical to have.
The Harmony hub is set to command the Toshiba television, Sony home theater (DVD player and surround speakers), and the AT&T U-Verse cable box. The receiver sits on top of the TV and has had no problems with line of sight. I think you’d really have to bury devices or stack up obstacles for it not to. Both the keyboard and my mobile device maintain a connection to the hub for a solid 25 feet (or so), through a wall or a floor. While it may go beyond that, the point of usefulness is lost for me since I can’t see or hear much.
The hub has crashed on me a few times. Each instance happened while I was also operating the app, which also crashed. The app starts back up again, but the hub requires a disconnect-reconnect to set it proper. Other than that, the hub has worked faithfully for me.
I like how the hub is easily movable. The bedroom TV is a large, Sony plasma. When I want to stream online content, I bring the hub in there with the laptop. A few quick cable connections is all I need before I’m relaxing in the bed with keyboard controls in my hand. The trackpad is perfect. I consider this as my impromptu HTPC, when I get a chance to hide from the kids.
The Harmony Smart Keyboard is subject to some quirks. I call them quirks, even though the whole system is actually operating like it should. During the initial set up (and I think it’s also mentioned in the paper documentation), we’re told to not use anything but the Harmony system to control everything. No original remotes. No manual button operation. Why? Because then things “won’t work correctly”, or something quoted along those lines. Trust me, they’re not kidding.
The Harmony system works under the assumption that it and only it is used. Ever. It doesn’t verify if something is already on or somehow has been set to an incorrect input. All Harmony does is execute the commands for each set of actions. In the case of my Sony home theater, the DVD player’s functions cycle from video 1, video 2, DVD, tuner FM, and tuner AM. The default setting is video 1. Problems arise with interlopers.
Lets say one of my kids manually switches the function setting to video 2, and then turns the Sony player off (happens). So when I hit the “watch a movie” action with the Harmony keyboard or app, the hub bumps the function setting two more times. It thinks the DVD player is now set to the DVD function, but it’s actually on the tuner FM function instead. And the kids never mention they messed around with things, of course.
One small change like that throws everything off. The only way to correct it with the Harmony system is to manually change everything back to what the app and hub expect it to be. This can be problematic if you live in a household with kids that do things or others who aren’t into using newer tech. But sometimes, it’s the very equipment you’re controlling that does stuff instead of people.
Here and there, my Toshiba TV doesn’t like to be told what to do by remotes. Even with its original remote control, I sometimes have to press power twice to make the TV cooperate. With the Harmony Smart Keyboard, I would just push the “watch TV” activity button again, right? Right. But when I do that, the Sony home theater turns itself off as the TV turns on.
This nuance belongs to my Sony home theater. To it, there is no such thing as “off” or “on”; it just switches power states. On the Harmony Smart Keyboard, pressing the Off button makes the Sony device turn on if it had been off. Press it again, then the Sony turns off. The Toshiba TV and AT&T U-Verse cable box understand that on means on and off means off. To the Sony, it all means the same thing.
Of course, one might say that I need to upgrade my television and home theater. I totally agree, and I’m totally accepting donations toward that goal. Oh, and consoles too. They’re not mentioned within this review, because I don’t own any (lame, I know). But in the meantime, I and so many others will just have to live with what we currently own. And I’m quite sure that so many more electronics out there have similar types of quirks that can throw Harmony off its game.
Whether you have the basic elements for a home entertainment system, or an impressive HTPC layout, the Logitech Harmony Smart Keyboard can simplify and streamline. They keyboard with trackpad is great and it doesn’t take too long to get everything up and running. Once set, you have all the control and power consolidated within your mobile device(s). The keyboard, too.
While using the Harmony app as a remote may require a bit of getting used to, I’ve found it easier to navigate than a stock remote control. Of course, a bonus is having a lit screen, as many remotes aren’t backlit. The other benefit is not needing a small pile of remotes to operate what I want. Plus, it seems we tend to have a mobile device always within reach, these days. It’s a little unfortunate that the keyboard couldn’t also have been backlit. Logitech does have the Illuminated K830, but it’s not part of the Harmony family.
Although my experience with the Logitech Harmony Smart Keyboard has been superb, I wouldn’t say it’s “perfect.” This doesn’t have as much to do with Harmony as it does my own temperamental electronics. Considering the hundreds of thousands of different products out there requiring compatibility, I think Logitech deserves a pass on this. Quirks aside, the Logitech Harmony Smart Keyboard makes having connected entertainment easy. All I need to do now is get the rest of the family on the same page, and it’ll be smooth operation here on out.