Logitech’s new $250 Harmony Express remote puts Alexa in control
Logitech just announced a new remote control that shakes up what consumers have come to expect from the company’s Harmony lineup. The $249.99 Harmony Express, which starts shipping today, has a revamped, tiny design that gets rid of the touchscreen and many programmable buttons of other Harmony remotes. Instead, Logitech is betting everything on Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.
Alexa is built right into the remote itself; yes, there’s a microphone in there, along with a speaker so you can hear Alexa’s responses. If Logitech’s other Harmony remotes are aimed at the home theater enthusiast crowd, the Express is meant for casual consumers who want to walk into their living room, turn on the TV, and get to Netflix or Prime Video with voice commands. That sounds great in theory, but my time with the Express so far shows that Alexa might not yet be ready to handle all that responsibility.
Also, why in the world is this thing $250? Plenty of TVs and streaming platforms like Roku and Fire TV already support Alexa. Is Logitech’s ability to control a vast number of living room devices worth such a premium? Voice search is a nice bonus to have on remotes, but making voice the central user experience is also taking quite a leap.
For the launch of the Harmony Express, Logitech is starting fresh. The company created an all-new companion app that offers an extremely simple setup process and streamlined interactions thereafter. For now, that app only works with the Express. This remote isn’t compatible with Logitech’s older Harmony app, nor is its hub cross-compatible with older remotes. It charges over Micro USB, but you’ll rarely have to worry about a dead remote battery.
To get started, you power all of your devices on, and then the app scans for them. It successfully recognized my TCL Roku TV and Xbox One; I had to add my PS4 and Vizio soundbar manually. Then, you drag and drop each device onto its respective HDMI port so that the Express knows where to find everything. It supports most popular devices including Apple TV, Fire TV, and Roku. You can even choose which device you prefer using for each of the popular streaming apps. After this comes the Alexa setup, where you’ll need to link the Harmony Express to your Amazon account.
Once everything’s done, you can say something like “go to Netflix,” and your TV will power own, switch to the right HDMI input, and load up the app. You can open any number of streaming apps, but you can’t tell Alexa to play a specific show. So you’ll find yourself using the circular four-way navigation pad often to actually start watching something. The Express can also tune to specific channels (by channel number or name) on many cable boxes or, in my case, through the antenna plugged into my Roku TV. You can do basically any command your device supports — but it requires talking to the remote instead of tapping a touchscreen or shortcut button as you would on another Harmony.
The remote itself feels nice. I found that my thumb rested naturally on the OK / voice button. It weighs barely anything, and there’s a matte soft-touch finish on the back for added grip. Alexa’s voice comes through the speaker clearly, as well, if a bit sharp at times.
And of course, you can always just ask the Express general Alexa questions about things like the weather or sports scores. Logitech designed its Alexa integration to be press-and-hold-to-talk, so it’s not like the remote will constantly be listening for “Alexa” like an Echo speaker might. You can adjust the volume of Alexa’s responses, but the voice can’t be fully turned off.
Logitech includes a hub / IR blaster in the box, which is what connects to Logitech’s server and pulls in all the commands for each of your devices. Once you’ve set up the Express, those smarts extend to your Echo speakers, so you can similarly tell those devices to turn on your TV, for example. Your TV or game console might already support Alexa individually — my TCL TV and Xbox One do (no IR blaster required) — but there’s definitely a convenience in chaining everything together.
However, there’s also opportunity for crossed streams and conflict among Alexa skills. If both your TV and the Harmony Express understand “go to Netflix” as a command, which one wins and actually performs the request? How does Alexa know to use the Logitech Express instead of just controlling your Xbox One with Microsoft’s own skill? Logitech admits this is an area where consumers might get inconsistent results from time to time, and it’s something Amazon also needs to have a hand in solving. If you prefer just using the remote like a remote, the physical buttons on the Express will control whatever app or device you’re using at that time, and they’re all backlit. You can also customize each button to do a different device command with either a short press or long press, which is useful since there aren’t many of them.
I haven’t spent enough time with the Harmony Express to offer a review just yet, but I’m very confused about who is going to buy this product. I get the concept and who it’s for: people who want a universal remote that’s not overly complex. But… $250? At the price, wouldn’t home theater power users prefer the customizability and more advanced automation capabilities of the Harmony Elite? Alexa isn’t yet quite reliable enough for that crowd, and having to constantly talk to a remote control can get pretty annoying.
Likewise, I don’t see many casual consumers handing over that much just for some added Alexa convenience in their lives. For $100? Sure, you could make a far better argument to give the Express a shot. It’s done what I’ve asked so far without many issues or hiccups. But I don’t think Alexa has evolved enough in the living room for Logitech to be asking for $250. As it stands, the Harmony Express isn’t replacing any member of the Harmony lineup. The Harmony Elite still remains the flagship, and there are cheaper options if you prefer a more traditional universal remote. But if you want to give Logitech’s newest approach a try, you can order the Express starting right now.
June 3, 2020