Home automation is all the rage, especially when you have a voice assistant like Alexa to give commands. It usually refers to the ability to control lighting, thermostats, security and home appliances remotely. However, there is another piece of your life you might want to control with voice commands: your entertainment center.
An entertainment center usually centers around your television but also includes a stereo receiver, multiple game consoles and set top boxes. This article take a look at how you can setup your entertainment center to be controlled from your Amazon Echo, Dot or Tap (or any Alexa device). You will require a piece of hardware called the Harmony Hub.
The Harmony hub is a small black box that measures 4.9 by 4.1 inches. It uses infrared (IR), Bluetooth, and WiFi to control your various stereo components. It also includes an IR blaster which you use to get better control of the components in your entertainment system. It costs around $100 USD at the time of this writing.
Is This For You?
It is probably important to state that this solution is most useful if you have several components in your entertainment system. If you only have a TV and a set-top box, this might be a bit overkill. It will work, but might be a little expensive. If the list of components in your enbtertainment system looks like this:
- Big Screen Television
- Stereo Receiver
- XBox One
- PlayStation 4
- Apple TV
- Fire TV
Then you are in the right place! We will first look at the 'little box of magic" (the Harmony Hub) that provides this capability, then we will look at setup and how to control your entertainment system with Alexa voice commands and using the accompanying App.
The Harmony Hub
Logitech, the company behind Harmony, has been making universal remote controls for a long time. The Harmony hub builds on top of that. It contains the remote control codes for thousands of different brands in an online database. This is used when you setup your stereo components. It then uses the remote control codes to control the components in your entertainment system. It uses not just IR but also Bluetooth (as required by the Apple TV / Fire TV) to mimic the commands those individual remote controls will send.
You can also purchase a harmony hub package which also includes a remote control. This is also handy to have, because the voice commands work at a higher level of choosing activities. You can always use the original remote controls provided. One area (unfortunately) not covered by the remote is voice input (ouch!). For both Fire TV and Apple TV (for which their respective remotes have a microphone) the harmony remote does not have that functionality and you need to revert back to the original.
Devices and Activities
With the Harmony hub, there are two concepts to understand. The first is that of devices and the other is that of activities. There is a one to one match between a device and each component in your system.
Activities act on a combination of components to make something work. For example, if you want to start your Playstation 4, you don't just turn it on, you also turn on your television and your receiver (and maybe more). As a result, the activity of "Play PS4" which controls those three components, sending the correct commands to turn them on and set the inputs correctly, and whatever else is needed.
In order to use the Harmony Hub, you have to set it up. It is not hard, but it will take a little bit of time. You use your phone or tablet to set it up which is available for iOS and Android (although, not on Fire Tablet). You need to specify each component in your system, and give them a name.
You then need to define the activities you want. For example, for the list of components presented at the start of this article, your activities might include:
- Watch Television
- Play PS4
- Play XBox One
- Watch Apple TV
- Watch Fire TV
- Listen to Music
That is just an example of some common activities you might setup. You can give them any name you desire, these make sense in this example. You can also create Activities to listen to a specific television channel by name (i.e. "NBC", "HBO" or "Discovery"). It is a good idea to initially, think through the names you give to your activities. Although, you can always edit their names later.
You will have to tell the App what components are in your system. There are thousands available, and you can even go to this site to check for compatability to make sure every component is added in your system. As Logitech has been building this database for years, it is sometimes surprising how complete the list is.
Setup Alexa Skills
Once you have the harmony hub setup, you need to head over to the Alexa Companion App, choose Smart Home and add the Harmony skill. This requires to you link your Harmony password to Alexa, and will prompt you for the appropriate information. There are a couple of other options, the most useful is to Add Friendly Name, where you can add another name to reference the component by.
What can be confusing is there are actually two skills to setup with Alexa. One is named "Harmony" (blue icon) and refers to the connected home. Get to this in the Companion App with Skills > (search for "Harmony"). The other is also found in Skills but named "Harmony - Optimized for Smart Home". It has a red icon.
The first one (named "Harmony") lets you have fine tune control over your system. You can use voice to move between tracks, change the volume and set a sleep timer. The other skill (named "Harmony - Optimized for Smart Home" gives you the ability to turn activities on and off. The voice commands, as you'll see are slightly different for each one.
Both skills require account linking. It is cumbersome to have to setup two different skills to control a single piece of hardware. But, welcome to the early days of home automation! Each of these skills have several screens of information you must confirm. Make sure you move through until you get the message "Your Harmony Skill was successfully linked.". I found several times it appeared I was complete, but it had finished early (somehow) and had not enabled the skill properly.
You might notice the relatively low rating for the Harmony Smart Home Skill. I believe this is probably for the fact that it can take some time and effort (and confusion) to get it setup correctly.
Additionally, you might need to update the firmware in the Harmony Hub. This is carried out by going to the hamburger menu in the upper left corner of the Harmony App > Harmony Setup > Add/Edit Devices & Activities. If the firmware needs upgrading, it will do so, and you will see a flashing red light in the front of the hub while this is carried out (it takes a couple of minutes).
Alexa Voice Commands
The voice commands themselves are pretty simple. You can say "Alexa, turn on the XBox One" or "Alexa, turn off the XBox One". You can use this command to turn activities on and off. You notice that these commands are pretty "natural", meaning this is how you might speak to a human to accomplish those tasks.
Remember how I said there are two skills to setup? The other skills gives you more fine grain control of each component in your system. You use the phrase, "Alexa, tell Harmony to ...". Here are some examples:
- "Alexa, tell Harmony to Pause"
- "Alexa, tell Harmony to increase the volume" (volume on your stereo, not on the Echo)
- "Alexa, tell Harmony to skip forward"
- "Alexa, tell Harmony to set a sleep timer for 15 minutes"
I have found the best combination one of using the main skill to turn activities on and off, then use the other skill ("Alexa, tell Harmon...") to change channels or volume level. You can still use the main skill to turn the activity off, as it will turn off all related components.
Harmony Remote App
Besides system setup, the Harmony App can also be used like a remote control. There are options to access all your activities, as well as all your devices. You access all your Activities with a swipe from the left side of the screen, and you access your devices with a swipe from the right side of the screen.
The center of the screen is reserved for messages about what is being carried out. A nice touch for the Harmony App is that it will still control your entertainment system, even if you are not on the same WiFi hot spot. This means, you can be anywhere that has access to data (like a cellular connection) with your mobile device and still control your system.
Overall my integration with the Harmony Hub works well. It does take some time to set it up. Myself and my family have been happy with it. I found that pairing it with the harmony remote control gave me the best of both worlds. Certain things like changing volume or channel feel more natural just pushing buttons (and the latency is quicker). Yet, I love the ability to use voice commands to turn on activities. I believe anybody with an entertainment system with several components would do well with the Harmony Hub.