By Dan Moren
December 2, 2015 7:46 AM PT
Talking back to your TV’s more fun when it listens
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
Call me crazy, but this voice control thing might be the way of the future.
I haven’t been shy about my fondness for the Amazon Echo, the retail giant’s voice-based intelligent assistant wrapped in a crunchy Bluetooth speaker shell–and the company’s continued to expand the capabilities of Alexa, as the resident intelligence has been dubbed.
Last week, I decide to pick up a new Harmony remote for my AV setup, for a few reasons. Firstly, while my Harmony 700 is well-regarded (it was The Wirecutter’s pick for best remote before it was discontinued), I find it a bit more complex than what I need. And one of its buttons–the right button on the directional pad–was starting to get cranky, often requiring frequent presses to register. (I also suspect that its rechargeable battery was showing its age.)
I’d complained on The Rebound a few weeks back that I wanted a simpler remote, and a couple people, including listener Darren Rogers recommended the Harmony Smart Control. I’d seen it before in my browsing: it has relatively few buttons and no LCD screen, which were both selling points for me.1 But it also comes with the Harmony Hub, which intrigued me: it’s essentially a Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth-enabled infrared transceiver. Plug it in and place it near your equipment, and you can use the Smart Control remote to control all of your devices.
Of course, a universal remote will already do that, but the Hub has a couple of particular benefits: first, its Bluetooth capability lets it control devices that don’t support infrared controllers, such as the Amazon Fire TV.2 Since it’s on your Wi-Fi network, it can auto-detect some of your devices, to make setup easier, and lets you control your devices from your phone, if such a thing interests you.3 But best of all, the Hub also supports online scripting service IFTTT, allowing you to use triggers to start or end activities.
You know what else supports IFTTT? Yep, the Amazon Echo. Even more recently, the Echo added an ability to trigger IFTTT workflows of your creation with a phrase that you designate.
Well, that was too good an opportunity to pass up. So I created a recipe that allows me to say “Alexa, trigger Apple TV,” which in turn tells the Harmony Hub to turn on the TV and receiver, and set them to the correct inputs for the Apple TV. I added similar scripts for over-the-air TV, the Fire TV, and my Xbox One. I also added a script that allows me to turn off all those devices.
Is this a huge timesaver? Maybe not. It’s not that onerous to press a button on a remote, after all. But it does have its benefits, like being able to turn on the TV from anywhere in the house, without fiddling with a remote or my phone. And when I have guests, it’s a lot easier for them to control the system without having to figure out what buttons they need to press on the remote.
Most importantly, it’s just cool. While the capabilities are fairly limited right now, it’s not hard to extrapolate out from this and envision a more integrated connected home where I could use voice commands to not only turn on my devices, but also have them open the right apps, cue up the next episode of the show I want to watch, and so on.
The setup isn’t perfect. I wish that the Echo didn’t require me to say “trigger” and instead let me use plain English phrases like “watch Apple TV” but I understand the limitations inherent in the system. And while I like how much simpler my new remote is than its predecessor, it still has some shortcomings: for one, I don’t have access to Siri on the Apple TV or voice search on the Fire TV, since the universal remote has no mic. For another, I can’t get certain things to map correctly, like the double-press of the home button on the Apple TV remote, which brings up the multitasking switcher.
Perhaps the biggest annoyance of all is Logitech’s Harmony iOS app, which is Awful. Yes, that’s a capital A. It’s that bad. It’s clunky, slow, and needlessly complicated, and on my first attempt at setup it failed a number of times with an unhelpful error message that gave me options only to “Close” or “Restart.” About the best I can say about it is that the iOS app is better than the weird web-based version that I used to have to run on my Mac. Faint praise, indeed.
Jason’s recent adventures in scripting have me thinking seriously for the first time about some Wi-Fi enabled lights for my living room, especially since the Harmony Hub potentially lets me control those along with my entertainment setup to create a movie watching mode. Alexa, trigger WE GOT MOVIE SIGN!
- The one on Logitech’s own site seems to be an updated model dubbed the Harmony Companion; the one I bought was a manufacturer-refurbished model. In the meantime Logitech seems to have added more buttons with an eye towards more home automation control. ↩
- It actually pairs with the Fire TV as a “game controller” which I thought was an interesting workaround. ↩
- It generally doesn’t. Ever had to pause your TV program because you’re getting a phone call? Now imagine that the phone that is ringing is also your remote. Yeah. It’s a problem. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]
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