By John Gruber
Flatfile: Never format messy spreadsheets again.
The old aluminum Apple Remote shipped with the 2nd and 3rd generation Apple TVs (2010 and 2012). It’s not obvious from looking at it, but the center of the D-pad ring is a Select button.
The despicable black Siri Remote shipped with the Apple TV HD (a.k.a. 4th generation Apple TV) and 1st generation Apple TV 4K (2015 and 2017). Apple made one minor tweak when the Apple TV 4K shipped: they put that raised white ring around the Menu button, but otherwise the remote was unchanged. Apple doesn’t even list them as different remotes in their support pages. The black Siri Remote also has a button that doesn’t look like a button: the whole top of the remote is a trackpad surface that is clickable. Conceptually it really is just like a laptop trackpad — you can swipe around and click to take action.
I never liked that black Siri Remote, but over the years — six! — that I’ve been using it, I’ve grown to truly resent it. It is offensive, because it’s so clearly a bad design. It’s been around for so long — six fucking years — that surely you’ve heard all the complaints about it numerous times. A few of them:
It’s easy to pick up backwards because the buttons are centered.
It’s easy to click the trackpad inadvertently — especially when picking it up — because the whole top of the remote is clickable. This pauses whatever is playing or maybe does something else, depending on the current context. It’s never good.
The glossy bottom half never looks good in real life because it’s a high-gloss surface with (seemingly) no oleophobic coating at all. A remote control is something that is supposed to be touched, but Apple chose a surface texture that looks bad as soon as it is touched, unless you wear gloves while watching TV, in which case you won’t be able to use the capacitive trackpad.
It’s black and has no backlighting, which makes it harder to see in the dark. I believe some people like to watch movies in dark rooms.
The new aluminum Siri Remote that ships with the new 2nd generation Apple TV 4K looks, feels, and acts like the black Siri Remote never happened. I mean, just look at the three of them: the new aluminum Siri Remote looks like the direct successor to the 2012 Apple Remote.
Seriously, if you’re an Apple TV user, break out the champagne. This new Siri Remote is good. It’s easily my favorite Apple TV remote ever, and Apple TV has been where I watch the vast majority of my TV for over a decade. I’ve been using one for the last week, and here’s what I like about it:
It feels great in your hand. It’s a nice object, with serious heft. I think the bottom is mostly solid aluminum. The old aluminum Apple Remote weighs 33g, the crummy black Siri Remote weighs 45g, and the new Siri Remote weighs 63g. That’s still lighter than most remotes (my TiVo remote weighs 163g), so it’s not like anyone is going to complain that it’s a brick. Also, it’s bigger — taller and thicker — but only to the point where it just feels better.
Because it’s bigger and thicker I think it’s less likely to get lost or slip between sofa cushions.
The center of the D-pad is a trackpad. Apple calls it a “clickpad with touch surface”, which is apt. You never wind up swiping or clicking it accidentally. The one good thing from the goofy black Siri Remote is the basic idea of having a swipeable touch surface. tvOS was designed with that in mind. It’s a great way to move around the tvOS interface and tvOS’s Focus UI interface was designed for it. The new remote’s clickpad with touch surface works great for scrolling lists, etc. It’s big enough, but because it’s not edge-to-edge, you never engage it accidentally.
Even with a touchpad surface, sometimes you do just want to go up/down/left/right one step at a time — the D-pad ring brings that back.
Even better, the D-pad ring is also touch sensitive — you can run your thumb around it to use it as a jog dial for scrubbing forward or back in a video timeline,
or for scrolling up and down a list. [Update: It doesn’t really work for scrolling vertical lists.] It works exactly like a classic iPod click wheel. Making the remote feel like an iPod in your hand suddenly seems so obvious. That’s a sign of a great idea — that it feels obvious once you’ve experienced it.
The Back button does the same thing as the old Menu button. But “Back” is the right name for what it does! There was no menu that came up when you hit the Menu button — it took you back, always.
Putting the Siri button on the side is clever. It’s like all the buttons on the top of the remote are about interacting with what you see on screen. Engaging Siri is a sort of meta action — you’re asking Siri to find content or do something regardless of where you currently are in tvOS — and moving that button to the side feels meta, and reduces clutter on top. It also matches how you engage Siri on post-X iPhones. (And if you don’t use Siri with Apple TV because you think Siri is junk, you should try it. Siri works better on Apple TV than anywhere else in the Apple ecosystem, in my experience. But if you truly don’t want to use Siri, putting the button on the side puts it out of the way. There’s nothing on the top of this remote that everyone won’t use.)
There are only three things I don’t like about the new Siri Remote, at least so far:
I wish that the positions of the Play/Pause and Mute buttons were swapped, because the new Mute button (which is a good idea to have on a remote — it’s kind of crazy none of the old Apple TV remotes had it) is in the same position as the Play/Pause button on the stinky black Siri Remotes I’ve been using for the last six goddamn years. So I keep hitting Mute when I want to Pause. Time should cure me of this habit. And the right solution, I think, is to click the clickpad to play and pause — I got out of the habit of doing that with the last remote because the edge-to-edge trackpad wasn’t a safe place to rest your thumb. But if Apple had just kept the dedicated Play/Pause button where it used to be, and put the new Mute button in the spot where the Siri button was, it wouldn’t be an issue at all.
Putting the Siri button on the right side is biased against lefties. You can press it with your index finger left-handed, but it’s not as convenient as using your thumb right-handed. You could say the same thing about the power buttons on every recent iPhone, though, too.
The new remote doesn’t have a U1 chip or in any way support Find My. I don’t get why it doesn’t. “Hey Siri, where is the Apple TV remote?” seems like a natural thing to do.
The reviewer kit with this nice new Siri Remote also came with the updated 2nd generation Apple TV. That’s nice too. If you already have an Apple TV 4K, though, it doesn’t offer much as an upgrade: it plays high frame rate (60 FPS) Dolby Vision/HDR content, and the old Apple TV 4K doesn’t. But at the moment, there isn’t much high frame rate Dolby Vision/HDR content. (Most of what you might want to watch is what you can shoot yourself using an iPhone 12 Pro — if you’re shooting 4K/60 video.)
There are other improvements too, like support for Wi-Fi 6 (instead of just Wi-Fi 5) and HDMI 2.1 (instead of just HDMI 2.0a). The sleeper feature in the new Apple TV 4K, though, might be support for Thread, a peer-to-peer wireless networking protocol for smart devices, including HomeKit. I’ll be honest: I don’t know anything about it other than what I already wrote in this paragraph. I certainly haven’t felt like I was missing out on anything because my old Apple TV 4K didn’t support Thread, but perhaps I will.
But if you’re using an older Apple TV, and have been holding off on buying the 1st generation Apple TV 4K for a while because you figured a new one must be right around the corner, this is the Apple TV you’ve been waiting for. Get it, it’s good.
Apple has a nice little support page showing every Apple TV ever made and their corresponding remotes. ↩︎