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How Apple's Remote app ruined remote controls for me


Way back in what we called "the 80s," my father bought a VCR. Its magic let us record TV shows for later viewing, and we loved it. In fact, VCRs did 4 things:

  1. Record the show you were watching
  2. Record a show that was airing on a channel other than the one you were watching
  3. Watch videos previously recorded (your own or commercial movies)
  4. Record shows all on its own
Number 4 required a Tarot deck, eye of newt and a Harry Potter Time-Turner. The VCR had two "clocks" on its face. You set Clock A to your show's starting time, and Clock B to its end. Next, a series of switches that were developed by 14 or 15 blind and drunken NASA rejects required precise manipulation. At last you finished only to realize that your show had begun 11 minutes earlier.

Eventually we upgraded to a model with a wired remote control that was the size of a baby manatee and had more buttons than a scientific calculator. Twenty-eight years later, the DVR has made recording easier but remotes (or "clickers" as we call them) are still stuck in the 80s. To the max.

Eight years ago, I stood before God and my family and I took a vow with my wife. I swore that I'd love her, honor her and not become that husband with a drawer full of remote controls. I've failed on the latter. Above is a photo of our current collection. From left to right:

  1. The television remote. This is used to tell the TV where to look for input. That's it. It's got 49 buttons, and we only ever use 3.
  2. The Comcast remote. Our TV's sidekick is the Comcast box. Its clicker sports 53 buttons and, in an emergency, could subdue an intruder. Not by bludgeoning him into submission, but by asking him how to gracefully exit the Menu screen once it's been called forth. That'll certainly keep him busy until the authorities arrive.
  3. The TiVo remote. Utterly useless as our Series 2 TiVo does not support HD.
  4. The Apple TV remote. The runt of the litter, which we'll discuss now.
Since December, I've been using the Apple TV with mixed emotions. It's certainly convenient and tidy, but the business model doesn't work for me. But this isn't a post about the service.

The Apple remote does its job well: simple navigation; play, pause, stop and rewind; volume. But the plastic feels cheap and, like all IR devices, if it isn't pointed directly at its target extra clicking is required.

Now, think back to Steve's original iPhone demo. What struck me as inspired and brilliant was the keyboard. When you need it, it appears. When you don't, it's gone.


The same is true of the number pad and just about every other UI element. Now look at the remotes above. Fifty-three buttons on my friend from Comcast. I use the channel and volume buttons 99% of the time. If only we could ditch the rest and eliminate the visual noise. The "Last" button on the TiVo remote, which lets me hop between the current and previous channel, is at the bottom, which makes me hold the remote in an awkward position that makes it easy to drop. Like I said about the TV remote, the vast majority of its buttons have never been pressed.

Recently, Apple updated its Remote app [App Store link] to support gestures when working with the Apple TV, and it's the greatest thing to happen in the history of couch-bound laziness. Just look at that UI. When in navigation mode, everything else disappears. Swipe up, down, left and right. Tap to select. When I want to change the volume, I click "Now Playing" and a slider appears. The same goes for fast forward and rewind. When I'm done, they're gone.

At the bottom you'll see options to browse iTunes playlists, artists and albums. Pop them up when you want them, put them away when you don't.

Click More to browse podcasts, music videos and a handy search feature. Plus, the iPhone and Apple TV communicate via my Wi-Fi network, so there's no IR aiming to worry about.

Now I'm not suggesting that Apple get into the remote control business. I am saying that the Remote app gives a glimpse of what could be. Here's hoping that manufacturers will take a huge hint from Apple and hide the unnecessary, simplify and make day-to-day television navigation as pleasant as it is with the Apple TV.

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