Mike Becky

On the Apple TV’s Touchpad Remote

I’m worried about the future of the Apple TV. No, I don’t expect it to get discontinued and I think the vast majority of the updates we see next month will be a welcomed addition to my living room. The App Store is going to change the way I think about the little set-top-box and the rumored television service is going to be another legitimate alternative to cable (although, it’s unlikely we see it this year). But, I’m worried about the Apple TV’s rumored touchpad remote.

I’m a huge fan of Logitech Harmony remotes and have had one in my living room for nearly a decade. It controls my plasma TV, audio receiver, Blu-Ray player, and Apple TV. It’s one of the best parts of my home theater setup. It functions using macros (or activities), so I can tap “Watch Apple TV” on its touch screen and it turns on the TV, receiver, and Apple TV, and switches all the inputs to the proper settings — it’s incredible. And it’s aware of what activity your currently using — after firing off the “Watch Apple TV” signals, the volume and mute buttons control the receiver while play, pause, fast forward, and rewind control the Apple TV. It allows me to have one single remote on my coffee table that controls every component in my home theater setup.

I’ve seen speculation that Apple could change the technology used in the Apple TV remote from infrared to Bluetooth and I’m one of the few that hates the idea. It would likely eliminate the possibility of controlling my entire setup with a single remote and that sounds like a decidedly worse experience than my current setup.

I suppose there’s always the possibility that Apple would build a mechanism that would allow you to control other components in your setup with the touchpad remote. They could build a janky IR blaster system which has worked “so well” for every other set-top-box manufacturer that’s tried it. Another option would be to build IR into the Apple TV’s remote and allow it to function as a universal remote for all of your components. And lastly, they could simply put an IR receiver in the front of the new Apple TV that only exists for users who would prefer the current remote or would like to use a universal remote. The bulk of users would exclusively use the new touchpad remote, but for those of us who want more flexibility it would be greatly appreciated. And heck, Apple kept IR receivers in most Macs for years and I doubt there was a large percentage of owners who actually made use of the feature.

I’ve also seen discussion as to whether or not this rumored “touchpad remote” would include a display. And while I think everyone has agreed by now that it’s going to be a “touchpad” not a “touchscreen” remote, I think it’s important to understand why that would be a terrible experience for a lot of users.

What controlling your home theater with a tablet-like interface does is remove the social aspect of TV watching. While you’re trying to find something to watch, everyone’s just sitting there staring at a blank TV screen. You don’t get the suggestions from the other people in the room regarding what to watch because they aren’t seeing the options, only the person holding the tablet is.

Controlling your TV with a tablet only works in situations when you’re the only person watching. And I don’t know about you, but I do the vast majority of my television watching with other people in the room. Regardless of who has the remote, the other viewers are scanning the screen wth their eyes trying to find something to watch that the remote holder may have missed. It’s a subtle point, but sometimes it takes upwards of five minutes to browse to the next selection and that can get old real quick when there’s only one person who can view the interface during that time.

That’s the main reason I’ve always been opposed to Google Chromecast and seldom use AirPlay — I don’t want to be the only person in the room who gets to browse and I don’t want to sit bored while someone else decides what to watch next. I’m sure one could make the argument that everyone could huddle around the tablet to help decide, but that’s only a realistic option when there’s two or three people in the room. And who wants to get up from their comfortable chair to huddle around a relatively small screen just to help pick what to watch next? I’d guess no one.

What I hope Apple does is build Bluetooth into the touchpad remote in order to appease the masses and include an IR receiver in the front of the Apple TV for those who would like to use Apple’s current remote or a universal remote. This would give users the most options without Apple needing to develop universal remote software for the touchpad or forcing their users to use more than one remote. And I expect there’s plenty of other users who feel the same way.