Alexa, Turn on My Home Theater

As if the act of reaching for a remote control were just too much of burden, I’ve now added the ability to control my home theater by voice command. It’s a neat parlor trick, but will the function really prove useful?

When I was a kid, my family’s living room TV was connected to a cable box with a corded remote control selector switch. It looked just like this. Anyone else have one of these?

I also had a TV in my bedroom, a tiny black & white set with no remote at all. To change the channel, I had to walk up to it and physically turn a dial. We’ve come a long way since then, haven’t we? If my eight-year-old self could have seen the home theater I have today, it would have seemed totally fantastical, like something out of ‘The Jetsons’.

Harmony 880 Remote ControlI’ve used Harmony universal remote controls in my home theater for years. Even today, I still favor the older 880 model, because I like having tactile buttons that I can push in a darkened room without needing to step through a dozen menu pages on a touch screen that illuminates the entire area. I’ve played around with some of Harmony’s newer models, but none has ever quite been to my liking. One downside to hanging onto an 880, however, is the remote’s antiquated, wizard-based setup software, which is very clunky and frustrating. Making even a tiny change to an activity programmed into the remote requires walking through an aggravatingly repetitive series of steps every time. Nonetheless, once it’s programmed, I like the remote’s ergonomics and broad range of control options for up to 15 different devices.

This holiday season, Amazon has been aggressively pushing its Alexa virtual assistant. Among her many tricks, Alexa can pair with Harmony to control home theater equipment by voice. In order to accomplish this, you need both an Alexa device (either the Amazon Echo, the Amazon Echo Dot, or the Amazon Tap) and a Harmony Hub. Alexa on her own will not turn on your TV without the Harmony Hub. Around Black Friday, Amazon offered a bundle package that included the Echo Dot and a Harmony Hub for a price I couldn’t resist. I was eager to play around with the voice control options in my home theater.

Aside from the Alexa integration, the primary purpose of a Harmony Hub is to allow you to use a smartphone as a remote control device by way of the Harmony app that’s available for either iOS or Android. Even if you adore your smartphone and think you want to use it to do everything it possibly can, a phone makes a lousy remote control – especially with this Harmony app, which is terribly unintuitive and has really confusing menus that require you to flip through dozens of screens to find any command outside the most basic options. Trust me, at the end of the day, you’ll still want to use a real remote control. The Hub can be paired with several current model Harmony remotes (including the Harmony Companion, Harmony Ultimate, and Harmony Elite). My older 880 can’t interact with the Hub, but I don’t need it to. It still controls my equipment just fine on its own, whether I use the Hub or not. I bought the Hub only to use with Alexa. Regardless, you’ll still need the Harmony app for most of the Hub’s setup.

Right off the bat, I found the Harmony Hub frustratingly limited. It can only control a maximum of eight devices, which may be enough for the average homeowner but is woefully insufficient for my needs. I have two projectors, a TV, three A/V receivers (though two of them are identical and can be controlled with one signal), a video processor, a DVR, a Blu-ray player, a Roku, an HD DVD player, a Laserdisc player and a couple of game consoles. Because the Hub can’t handle them all, I had to prioritize the essential devices that I use the most. For the others, I need to keep my Harmony 880 handy.

Harmony Devices

The Harmony app is kind of awful. Anytime I try to do anything in it, the damn thing has to first reconnect to the Harmony server, then sync the phone to the Hub, then check for firmware updates. It goes through all three of those steps every time you try to add or edit an activity, even if it just did them five seconds earlier. As a result, even simple edits are agonizingly slow to accomplish.

Fortunately, even though the Hub is limited to only eight devices, it can handle a greater number of activities. Obviously, your primary activities are going to be those that turn stuff on (“Watch TV,” “Watch Blu-ray,” “Watch Roku,” etc.). Beyond that, you can also create custom activities within each device. For example, my OPPO Blu-ray player has a region code hack that requires a specific series of button pushes to activate for each Blu-ray region. I have therefore programmed three macro activities, one for each region, into the Harmony app. I can tell Alexa to “Turn on Region B,” and she’ll enter the code to make that happen. I find that pretty handy.

After you’ve programmed all of your devices and activities into the Harmony app, you then need to enable not just one but two separate Harmony skills within the Alexa app. One allows Alexa direct access to turn on or off your Harmony activities. You can say, “Alexa, watch TV” and she’ll turn on your TV, your A/V receiver and whatever else is needed to make that happen. So far, so good. Unfortunately, that’s basically the extent of what you can do directly. If you wish to enter a one-off command that isn’t a dedicated activity, that requires you to tell Alexa to tell Harmony to do it. In other words, if you want to turn up the volume or change the channel, you have to say, “Alexa, tell Harmony to raise volume” or “Alexa, tell Harmony to go to NBC.” This gets really annoying if you forget to add in the extra “tell Harmony” step and Alexa has no idea what you’re asking.

It’s pretty clear that both the Alexa and Harmony apps are at an early stage of development regarding their integration with each other, and are both full of bugs and glitches that desperately need to be resolved. Among the available options, you should be able to program a list of favorite TV channels that you watch, and then assign them so-called “Friendly Names” to make jumping to them easier (i.e. “CBS” instead of the station number or call letters). I got a couple of these Friendly Names to take, but several others refuse to stick no matter what I do. One that doesn’t is Fox. The Fox station number in Boston is 806. For some reason, when I say, “Alexa, tell Harmony to go to channel 806,” she completely misinterprets this and asks if I’d like to change the default volume. Meanwhile, if I ask her to tell Harmony to go to channel 805 (ABC), that works fine. I hope that a software update will eventually fix these problems. In the meantime, I still keep my other remote at hand.

I’ve encountered some other issues and annoyances that I could spend time griping about, but I’m still getting the hang of this software and I may just need time to figure stuff out a little more. I’d rather end this post on a positive note. Once I got over the initial hurdles of programming my activities, the voice control actually does work. It may be a parlor trick, but I think it’s a pretty cool and impressive parlor trick.

[WARNING: Do not watch this video in a room with an Alexa devices listening or you may confuse the hell out of it.]