While the gear has changed over the years, one constant has always remained: switching between devices has always been a bit of a pain.
When the first Philips Pronto came out in 1998 or so, I snapped it up. It was more than $500, but even so, it was worth it because it unified all those remote controls. Mostly. You had to find and download remote configurations for each device you had, and then use what was basically a drawing program on your PC to design and program the screens that would run on the Pronto.
While the Pronto worked, it was fussy and after about five years, it simply failed. Fortunately, there was a much better product that came out in the interim: the Logitech Harmony.
The Harmony of that time (the mid-2000s) was amazing, because Logitech had solved the multi-remote problem. They were the first company to cater to entertainment center geeks with a controller that not only didn't set limits on the number of devices to control, but also made it rather simple to set everything up.
You connected a PC to the remote via a USB port, and ran a program that managed your devices and grouped those devices into activities. It was not only effective, but it made it much easier for my wife and guests to navigate between all my boxes.
Then, back in 2008 or 2009, we did another entertainment center revamp. My old pre-HD TV died, and we used the replacement of the old TV with an HDTV as an excuse to make things more convenient. My wife and I had been sharing a remote, but we decided we each wanted one on each of our sides of the couch.
At the time, the Harmony One remote was available, so we bought two of them. The nice thing about the Harmony Software was that I could set up our devices and activities once, and download the settings to both remotes.
While we've changed around the entertainment center about once a year since then, we haven't changed our remotes. We're still using those Harmony Ones to turn on and off the TV and amp, switch inputs, and control our devices.
Alexa has become our smart home hub, controlling our IoT devices. But Alexa has never been able to control the TV or the entertainment center. While we have a couple of streaming boxes, the amp and the two HDMI switches don't have any IoT smarts. You can only switch inputs using an infrared remote. Alexa doesn't speak IR.
But Harmony does. The Harmony system has always excelled at sending a sequence of IR commands to enable an activity.
For example, to switch from our media center PC to the Apple TV, our 1x4 HDMI switch needs to be set to input 2, our 4x4 HDMI switch has to be set to input A and output 3. The TV needs to be set to HDMI 1.
These are all IR commands and our old Harmony One executed these mostly flawlessly. But there wasn't any way for Alexa to talk to the Harmony. Until now.
Logitech was kind enough to send me a Harmony Elite, which is a souped-up version of the Harmony One remote control. What concerns us most today, though, is the Harmony Hub, which came with the Elite. While the Elite package costs $349 with the remote and the hub, you can get the Harmony Hub alone for $99.
The Harmony Hub is a Bluetooth and Wi-Fi device that transmits IR signals, either out of its own river stone-shaped shell or via two IR repeater nodes. The hub can talk to an app on your iPhone or Android device, so you can use your phone as a Harmony smart remote.
But of far greater note is that the Harmony Hub talks to Alexa. Logitech has created an Alexa skill, so when you say "Turn on Apple TV" to Alexa, the Harmony Hub responds by executing the programmed activity -- in my case, changing all of those HDMI switch settings I described above.
When you link the Harmony Hub to Alexa through its skill, you can also set a variety of "friendly names" for activities. So while my Roku activity is actually defined as "Center: Roku 4," I defined a friendly name of simply "Roku".
You can give multiple friendly names to each activity, so you don't have to always call the media center PC by "Media Center PC." You can also give it "PC" and "computer" as friendly names.
This capability solves another issue my wife and I often have: remembering which device we've set up for which streaming service. While Prime Video is only on the Roku and iTunes is only on the Apple TV, Hulu, Netflix, and HBO Now can be used on both -- but I've only set them up on the Apple TV because I got tired of entering user names and passwords.
Using friendly names, I've attached "HBO," "Hulu," and "Netflix" to the Apple TV activity and "Amazon" and "Prime Video" to the Roku activity. Now, rather than even caring what device runs what, we can just say "Alexa, turn on HBO" and watch Game of Thrones (when new episodes eventually come out).
What makes this particularly usable is that when Alexa tells the Harmony Hub to change activities, the Harmony Hub sends that change to both the video devices and the remote controls.
Watching this happen is particularly slick. When I say "Alexa, turn on Apple TV," my various HDMI switches make the change, the Apple TV screen shows up on the main video screen, and my iPhone's Harmony app changes to the Apple TV, as does the Harmony Elite.
This means that once you give the voice command, you don't need to change the input on the remote. It just works.
There is, however, one minor fly in the ointment. My old Harmony One remotes do not change inputs automatically. So when Alexa switches to a new device, it's still necessary to make that change on the Harmony One.
On the other hand, I didn't have to set up the Harmony Elite from scratch. Logitech's tech support rep, Ara, helped me import my old Harmony One activities and devices into the Harmony Elite and the Harmony Hub. That saved a lot of time.
The bottom line: this is amazingly cool. The remote and hub combination are expensive at $349, but the hub alone as companion to the smartphone app is a reasonable hundred bucks. There are some challenges for a two-remote family, but hey, what's a week without another incredibly picayune first world problem, right?