When Apple released its AirPort Express — a wireless hub that allows you to stream music between iTunes and an audio device connected to that hub — it didn’t take long for people to realize that, while convenient, the device had one major drawback: Navigating the iTunes library requires traipsing to the host computer and mucking with iTunes’ controls. Surely, there’s an easier way.
Keyspan has proposed that easier way in the guise of its Express Remote, a $60 infrared remote control that you can use to control iTunes or an application on your Mac or Windows PC. When used in conjunction with a computer it’s a great solution for controlling your computer’s media player or presentation software from across the room. Yet when coupled with an AirPort Express located far from a host computer, the remote is less helpful as it requires that you control iTunes without seeing its music library.
To control an AirPort Express, the Express Remote requires iTunes 4.7 and an AirPort Express with firmware version 6.1 or greater. A quick check of my AirPort Express within the AirPort Admin Utility revealed that its firmware wasn’t up to date. A fast dash to Apple’s Software Update and I soon had the AirPort Software 4.1 update that brought my AirPort Express into compliance (but only after I ran AirPort Setup Assistant — the software update didn’t automatically update the AirPort Express’ firmware).
After a restart I installed the Express Remote software and connected one end of the included USB cable to the small infrared receiver and the other to the AirPort Express’ USB port. I fired up iTunes on my AirPort-equipped PowerBook (you must manually launch iTunes, the Express Remote can’t do it for you, but iTunes needn’t be the foremost application to work with the remote), pointed the credit card-sized remote control at the receiver, pressed Play, and music streamed from the PowerBook to the AirPort Express and out my stereo’s speakers.
The remote sports 17 buttons, 11 of which work with iTunes when you use the remote with the AirPort Express — Stop, Play, Pause, Rewind, Fast Forward, Previous Track, Next Track, Volume Up, Volume Down, Mute, and Cycle (which throws iTunes into Shuffle mode and begins playback). The receiver bears a cutout that acts as a handy stand for the remote control. When connected to an AirPort Express you can’t configure the buttons for other functions, the Express Remote controls iTunes only. Attach it to your computer, however, and you can configure the device’s buttons to perform any function that can be initiated with an application’s keyboard commands.
Range is reasonably good — I was able to control iTunes from 15 feet away with no problem. Because it’s an infrared device, line-of-sight is required — you can’t control iTunes or your computer from the other side of a wall as you might with a Bluetooth controller. The receiver’s infrared window is generous enough to allow you to stand off-axis by as much as 45-degrees. While I wouldn’t characterize the buttons as responsive — there’s a discernible delay of about a second and a half between the time you press a button and action ensues — the delay isn’t so pronounced that you’ll find yourself mashing the buttons time and again in the hope that something will eventually happen.
The Missing Link
I found the remote’s Pause, Mute, and Volume buttons immediately useful — I can easily imagine situations where I’d need to quickly silence my stereo or adjust its volume. But I found Express Remote’s navigation options too restrictive. While this asks far too much of a $60 remote control, a device that controls an AirPort Express cries out for a display that shows you the contents of your iTunes library — complete with playlists. One of the major selling points of the Express Remote is its ability to control iTunes without forcing you to leap back to your computer every time you want to switch to another track. Yet without the capacity to see what music is in your iTunes library, you’re flying blind. Yes, you can use the Previous- and Next Track buttons to move from one song to another, but it’s impossible to move to the exact song you desire unless you repeatedly press those buttons until you finally arrive at that track. Imagine that your cable- or satellite television’s remote control carried only a Previous and Next button and no way to access a channel guide and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the Express Remote’s limitations.
The workaround is to create playlists designed for specific occasions — a party mix or something that won’t hurt the morning after a long Saturday night — essentially creating playlists that offer exactly the kind of music you want to listen to (or playlists that are solid enough that you’re willing to put up with whatever plays when you invoke iTunes’ Shuffle command.
As a remote control for your computer, I have no complaints about the Express Remote. It works as advertised at a very reasonable price. As a first-of-its-kind remote for the AirPort Express, I’m thrilled that Keyspan’s engineers were able to find a way to control iTunes through Apple’s diminutive wireless base station. But I’d like more from the Express Remote than what it delivers. My greatest desire is that Keyspan will find a way to access iTunes’ library information and make it available and navigable from a more advanced remote that features a display. In the meantime I’ll continue to use the Express Remote’s limited controls and work on those navigate-by-Braille playlists.