How a touchscreen Apple TV remote could hit all the right buttons

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From the start, Apple has been proud of its simplified remote control. And rightly so–the Apple TV’s simple interface is easily navigated with a directional pad and a couple of extra buttons.

So what are we to make of the New York Times report that Apple is adding a touchpad to its remote?

I’m tempted to don a mock turtleneck and do my best Steve Jobs impression, and explain that the only thing better than very few buttons is no buttons. And there’s something to that. If you’ve ever used the Remote app on your iPhone or iPad, you’ve seen that it’s actually quite easy to navigate the Apple TV using just finger flicks on a touch surface.

In fact, the only real drawback I find with navigating by this method is that it’s far too easy to tap accidentally. Which is, I suspect, why John Gruber mused about haptic feedback in a new remote, and others have wondered if such a remote might support Force Touch, like the trackpad on the new MacBook and Apple’s latest 13-inch MacBook Pro.

appletvremote Jared Newman

It'd be tough to remove buttons from a remote this simple, but that doesn't mean Apple won't try.

A touchy subject

It’s vitally important that remote controls provide you with tactile feedback. I’ve got a programmable TV remote that uses a touchscreen for a few of its buttons, and I hate it. (Or to be more accurate, I’ve programmed all of the key features to use physical buttons rather than a touchscreen.) The reason is simple: When you’re watching TV, the last thing you want to do is keep looking away from the screen in order to control the action. You can find physical buttons by feel.

But with a remote that looks like a Magic Trackpad, there aren’t any buttons to find–so tactile feedback using something like Apple’s Taptic Engine would need to be used for a different purpose. I have to admit I’m not entirely sold on it as being necessary–and presumably adding haptics to a remote would increase its cost and decrease its battery life. But if haptics were to be used, the best reason would probably be the same one found in the Force Touch trackpad, namely giving the feedback that your click was received, even if the remote itself doesn’t move.

Sound ideas

Amazon Fire TV remote Amazon

The Fire TV's remote has a microphone built in—just press a button and execute an impressively quick voice search that finds titles across multiple streaming services.

Strangely, what’s not being rumored in stories about a new Apple remote is the use of voice as an input method. Amazon’s Fire TV comes with its own microphone, allowing you to control the device and search for media with just your voice. It’s a good idea, though another alternative would be to just put a microphone on the Apple TV itself. I don’t think I want to use my voice for every single command, but I’d much rather use my voice to search for something than spend a couple of minutes using a ouija-board interface to peck out the name of a movie I’d like to see.

I’ve also heard from some people who have been surprised how much they like an innovation that has appeared on Roku’s recent remotes–a headphone jack. If you’re someone who wants to watch TV without bothering someone else in the same room, you can plug in a set of headphones and watch along in silence. It’s a pretty clever idea, though perhaps a bit too obscure for Apple to embrace.

Remote island

Then there are the compatibility issues. The current Apple remote may be unlike other remotes in many aspects, but it still relays its instructions via infrared light beam. Other remotes, such as Roku’s and Amazon’s, use Bluetooth instead. The advantage of a Bluetooth remote is that its radio waves don’t require line-of-sight control, so you can hide a device in a closet or behind a TV, and you don’t even have to point your remote. The disadvantage is that many universal remotes–including the one in my house–don’t support anything but infrared.

It would be just like Apple to build a remote control that just forced you to use it, because it’s unlike any other remote devised and utterly incompatible with all of them. I’d be the first to applaud Apple if it created something awesome because it ignored everything done by other remotes. But at the same time, if that new Apple TV requires me to pick up two different remotes every time I want to power on my entertainment system and then use Apple TV, I will also be a cranky consumer.

I still use my TiVo remote, and if Apple makes a great single-device remote, I'll use that too.

The solution is probably to support basic remote-control features on any future Apple TV devices via infrared beam, for compatibility’s sake, but make all the awesome features ones that require Apple’s own remote. If a device-specific remote is cool enough, I will use it–the fact that I keep our TiVo remote on our coffee table is proof of that.

In the end, while I’m excited about Apple doing something crazy with a new Apple remote, I’m far more excited about what it means for the Apple TV itself. A new remote suggests new hardware with new features and a new interface, and that’s something that Apple TV sorely needs. I look forward to seeing how Apple plans on evolving the humble remote control–but it would be nice if my universal remote still worked, too.

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