Harmony App

Remote Dis-Harmony

I’ve used Harmony universal remote controls for years. As much as I greatly appreciate their broad range of device support, sometimes I find the limitations of Harmony’s programming options extremely frustrating.

Some background: I have a couple of different Harmony units in use right now. For a physical remote, I still favor the older Harmony 880 model because I prefer tactile buttons over an illuminated touchscreen when I’m sitting in the dark watching a movie or TV show. The 880 can control 15 different devices, and I’ve gotten it to where I can conveniently access most important commands and macros from the buttons and keypad without needing to dig through menu pages on the LCD screen.

Harmony 880 Remote ControlIn addition to that, I’ve also paired a Harmony Hub with an Amazon Echo Dot in order to use Alexa voice control on certain activities. (More on this here.) For example, when I tell Alexa to “Turn on Theater,” she’ll power up all of my A/V equipment (including the projector) and turn off the room lights all in one step. I mostly just use this to turn things on or off, while I continue to default to the 880 for the majority of practical commands, such as Play, Pause, Fast-Forward/Rewind, Volume, changing TV channels, etc.

The Harmony Hub/Alexa combo is also handy for certain esoteric functions that require complicated macros with multiple command steps. If I tell Alexa to “Turn on Region B,” she will cycle through all the necessary buttons needed to activate the region hack in my OPPO Blu-ray player. While I’ve also programmed this same macro into the 880 remote, I don’t use it very frequently and sometimes forget which button I’ve mapped it to. It’s easier to just speak the command.

All of this is great. Unfortunately, Harmony is sometimes a real pain in the butt as well.

Test Pattern Trouble

As I recently discussed in my article about Watching 4k Ultra HD on a 1080p Display, I’ve been having difficulty downconverting the High Dynamic Range video on UHD discs for playback on my Standard Dynamic Range projectors. The settings I use that might look good with one disc wind up looking terrible with another.

Because no UHD calibration discs are sold for consumer use yet, the only available HDR test patterns (limited through they may be) are found as an easter egg on Sony Ultra HD Blu-ray releases. From the main menu of any Sony disc, press 7669 (the digits corresponding to “SONY”) on the remote to bring up the calibration screens.

One problem: My Sony UBP-X800 player doesn’t have any numerical buttons on the remote!

This left me in quite a bind. Luckily, the Sony UHD player responds to the same remote frequencies as other Sony Blu-ray players. I was able to load another Sony BD player model as a new device on my Harmony 880 and use that to punch in the necessary numbers.

This worked well enough, but it was kind of a nuisance to keep switching back and forth between devices every time I wanted to pull up the test patterns. Loading this extraneous player onto the 880 also maxed out the number of devices I can store on that remote.

What I decided to do was learn the frequency codes for 7, 6 and 9 into the Harmony Hub and program a macro I could access by voice control. Sounds like a great idea, right? It even worked… the first time.

App Annoyances

Issue #1: The Harmony Hub only supports a limit of 8 devices and I’d already maxed that out. I couldn’t add another Blu-ray player to it. (Even my OPPO and UHD players aren’t programmed into the Hub. I exclusively use the 880 remote for those.) To work around this, I had to get sneaky by learning the three important numerical codes from the Harmony 880 remote into another device already in the Hub – and it had to be a device that would be turned on during all of my activities. What I did was create three new custom buttons – called “Sony 6,” “Sony 7,” and “Sony 9” – and added them to the device settings for my A/V receiver.

Harmony HubNext, I created a new Activity in the Harmony App called “Sony Test Pattern.” The macro for this triggers the A/V receiver device to send the commands Sony 7, Sony 6, Sony 6, and Sony 9 in sequence. When I then told Alexa to “Turn on Sony Test Pattern,” the Activity ran and… voila!… the test patterns came up. Success!

Almost.

Issue #2: This only works once. If you exit the test patterns, you can’t go back in. If I say, “Alexa, Turn on Sony Test Pattern” again, nothing happens. Because the Harmony App believes the Sony Test Pattern activity to already be in an “On” state, it won’t turn it on again until the activity is turned off.

Issue #3: Turning off one activity turns off all activities. This is by far my biggest gripe with the Harmony App software. It’s not possible to turn off one Activity while leaving others active. If you power off any Activity, the entire system goes down. Telling Alexa to “Turn Off Sony Test Pattern” caused my entire home theater, including the projector, to shut down. This is infuriating.

The only solution I found for this was to create another Activity called “Sony Test Pattern 2” that was an exact copy of the first one. This way, if I exit the test patterns and need to go back in, I can switch between Activities (even though they’re exactly the same as one another) without powering anything else off.

The Point of This Post

Do I honestly believe that very many other people out there are dealing with this exact same Sony test pattern issue that I’ve encountered? Probably not. I write all this to illustrate how frustrating the Harmony App can be. Although it’s possible to program workarounds for problems like this, they’re needlessly complicated. I shouldn’t need to create two Activities that do the same thing just to be able to repeat a simple action. Why can’t I just tell Alexa to “Turn On [Activity Name] Again” and get it to work?

If anyone out there is more of a Harmony programming wiz than I am and has a simpler solution to this issue, please share it in the Comments. Likewise, if you have other problems with Harmony remotes, feel free to use this post to vent about them.

7 comments

  1. I have a love / hate relationship with Harmony. We had one of the touchscreens at work for our wall of televisions. The annoying thing was its limited field of view, so it would hit about 5-6 of the 8 screens depending on how you held the remote. Half the time the screens would register button presses at all, other times it would register it several times. Yet one screen may register a button press one time, the one next to it 3 times, the one under it, two, so not really sure what was up with it.

    The touchscreens are also a bear to program, as you have to setup all of your commands and such.

    I had a much simpler Harmony at home, and I get its like the cheapest remote Harmony makes, but I would expect a $50 remote to work better than that thing did. The battery compartment was just ever so slightly too big for the batteries, so picking it up would cause the remote to think you inserted new batteries and walk you through the welcome again (which there was no way to skip or disable). So if I wanted to turn down the volume, it would take about 20-30 seconds after I grabbed the remote before I could even start. I bought same model for a friend, mainly to setup activities. She has the same problem, and now, after she actually did replace the batteries, the volume no longer works. I am going to have to go over there tomorrow and look at it.

    Another annoying feature is I had programmed it to launch Netflix on her SmartTV. It doesn’t actually launch the app, it just pulls up the Samsung Hub. At least she is smart enough to then know to select Netflix. Still, not sure why that is not working – I can only guess there needs to be a delay between launching the hub and starting netflix, but I see no way of programming in a delay.

    Main reason I got her a Harmony was because I got sick of her calling and saying “Hey, my Blu-Ray player is not working” and I would be like “did you change the input” and she would be like “Oh, probably not. How do I do that again?” Every single time. Setting up activities in the remote really helped.

    Another annoyance i have had is that activities don’t really work well for me at home. It is like it tries to send all the commands at once to the different devices. I think I may have some devices that use the same frequency or something because, for example, even without the Harmony, I cannot turn on the amp and the Blu-Ray player at the same time – its like I have to turn the amp on, wait a couple of seconds, put the amp remote down and facing toward me, then pick up the Blu-Ray remote to turn on the Blu-Ray player. So it seems to be a similar issue with the Harmony – i cannot get it to turn on the amp and the Blu-Ray from the same activity. Now I can go to Device, Amp, turn it on, then Device, Blu-Ray and turn it on. Once again, there seems to be no way to set a delay.

    Then having to program the thing through the Harmony website, and having to log in every single time, is annoying. So when I went to my friend’s house, I had to tether my laptop to my phone as her internet was out, then spend time on a slow 4g connection (that part of town has crappy 4g service, its like being on dialup, even though it says 4g, it acts like Edge) and trying to log in, then dealing with downloading graphics and stuff to send to the remote. Just give me program i can install with some default graphics so I don’t have to go online every time I want to reprogram her remote. (So yeah, she has Netflix. Why don’t I use her WiFi? Because she doesn’t know where her router is, doesn’t know what the SSID is or what her password is).

    I have an Alexa, but I haven’t figured out how to automate anything other than my A/C. Plex has Alexa skills, but I don’t know what Plex is calling each device, so saying “Alexa, launch Plex on Bedroom television and play Dune” results in an Error ding from my Echo, even though my television is named Bedroom television on the network with Plex on it. “Alexa, launch Plex on Nvidia Shield” or “Launch Plex on Roku” results in “I’m sorry, I am not familar with a device called Nvidia Shield” or “I am not familar with a device called Roku”.

    So yeah, right now, there is a lot of frustration, a lot of which could be fixed if these apps and devices and remotes played together more nicely. The Harmony could fix a lot of this if the interface to program the remote was better, and Amazon could fix a lot of their issues if there was an easier way to configure the skills you install on the Echo (the Alexa phone app is almost useless in this respect, and i see no way to do it from the web).

      • I have not been able to figure out how to do this on the Harmony 600.

        Just looking at myharmony.com, it looks like they went away from the website application to destkop software (YAY! This may answer a lot of my frustrations!) Before when I logged in with my remote, it said the software was not compatable and I had to use the website app, which SUCKED! I will have to play with this over the next few days and see if it fixes my issues.

  2. DarthTrumpus

    The hub is only limited to 8 devices if not paired with a “premium” remote. Get a refurbished One or Elite to replace your 880 and you’ll get 15 devices again.

  3. DarthTrumpus

    Also, I use a Google Home to control my Harmony and I found that saying the same command twice does in fact make the hub send the whole sequence of events all over again (even though it would technically be redundant) so maybe this is just a quirk with Alexa or they treat such an event as a “Help” event where Harmony would resend all the “safe” commands a second time.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I don’t think it’s an Alexa problem. Even if I try to run the Activity through the Harmony App directly, it does nothing if it believes that Activity to already be in an “On” state. Maybe Google Home somehow gets around this?

      I’m not buying a premium remote just to add more devices when I already get 15 on the 880.

      • DarthTrumpus

        One would think simply have your 880 be unaware of the state of anything controlled by the Hub and the convenience of using the 880 with devices in a cabinet would be worth the $120 (or <$100 for a rerfurb) to get an Ultimate.

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