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

Jason Snell | May 8, 2015
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.

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.

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

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.

 

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