Are We Really That Crazy About the Remote Control?

Someone had to do it, and I'm glad it's finally happened: Chromecast gives us a chance to move on.

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Jared Newman for TIME

When Google announced the Chromecast this week, I didn’t expect the traditional remote to have such vocal defenders.

Google’s $35 dongle allows you to play Netflix, YouTube and Google Play videos on your television, using any iPhone, iPad or Android device as a remote control.

So far, I’ve been enjoying the Chromecast, as it provides faster and easier access to those video sources than any other set-top box in my living room. The fact that there’s no remote involved doesn’t bother me at all.

Not everyone feels the same way.

To some tech pundits, the Chromecast’s lack of remote control and big-screen interface is a drawback. CNet’s Chromecast review, for instance, put the lack of a dedicated remote in its list of “cons” for the device, summing it up this way:

By pushing all of the interaction to smartphones and tablets, one surprising result is that the Chromecast doesn’t really have much of its own user interface. When you’re not streaming, the Chromecast displays some pretty nature photos and status information, but you can’t navigate to apps or select any content from your TV. In other words, there’s no way to use the Chromecast as a “standalone” device — you need to have a smartphone or tablet handy.

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber came to a similar judgement:

The “no remote control” aspect sounds annoying — I like that I can use an app on my phone to control Apple TV, but I only do so when I have to type a password or when I can’t find the actual remote.

Hold on, I thought we were all in agreement that the traditional remote control is a dinosaur. It made sense in the analog TV era, when flipping through the channels was the only option, but with so many more sources of video now, the remote needs to be made obsolete as soon as possible. Now that a tech company’s actually trying kill off the remote, suddenly we can’t live without it? What gives?

With a touchscreen, you can browse for videos in ways that are difficult or impossible with a traditional remote. You can navigate through long lists with one swipe of your finger. You can type faster to search for content. When you see something you like, you can just tap on it instead of making your way over with button presses. Because phone and tablet screens are easier to navigate, they’re better suited for offering supplemental information about a show, such as reviews, comments and links to related content. And when you want to look for something else to watch, a phone or tablet lets you do that without covering up or blocking the television screen.

Ah, you say, but what if your smartphone or tablet is out of reach? I call B.S.: Research by Nielsen shows that 40 percent of Americans who own a smartphone or tablet use those devices while watching TV every day. Ask yourself: When was the last time you watched TV without a phone or tablet in your hands? If you’re like me, the answer is “I can’t remember.”

So why haven’t phones and tablets replaced the traditional remote? The main reason is that no one’s really bothered to rethink the television experience around touchscreens, so giving up the remote has never been worthwhile.

Just look at Comcast’s remote control app for iPhone. It’s basically just the channel guide on a touch screen. Compare that to Netflix, which divvies up shows by category and offers personalized recommendations, and the basic cable guide seems miles behind. Furthermore, Comcast’s app doesn’t let you manipulate volume or provide a way to control other video sources on your TV, such as YouTube. It’s a partial solution that will ultimately leave you looking for the real remote.

Roku’s iPhone app is another example. You can browse and add channels with it, but you can’t dig into individual apps, find something to watch and send it to the television. For that, you need to use a software mockup of Roku’s physical remote, which defeats the purpose.

Even on Apple TV, the gold standard of phone-to-TV streaming, AirPlay takes a backseat to the physical remote. Because AirPlay directly streams video from your phone or tablet to the Apple TV, it puts a strain on battery life and prevents you from doing other things with your phone or tablet at the same time. (Correction: AirPlay does allow you to stream certain video apps in the background, but it’s up to app developers to support this feature.) It also means you can’t switch between devices to control the same video. AirPlay is a great tool for throwing your own photos and videos onto the big screen, but for prolonged viewing you’ll want to use the remote instead.

By skipping the remote control, Chromecast focuses completely the touchscreen experience. When you select a video in Netflix or YouTube, the TV turns on and switches to the correct input automatically. Instead of streaming directly from the phone, Chromecast pulls video and playback instructions over the Internet, so you can control playback with any phone or tablet, not just the one that launched the video. Even if the original user leaves the room, someone else can use their own device to take control.

On Android devices, the experience is even better, because you can control the TV directly from your phone’s lock screen or notification bar. You can also control volume on the video using the physical buttons on your phone or tablet.

I’m not arguing that Chromecast is a complete solution. Given that the only things you can stream from a phone or tablet are Netflix, YouTube and Google Play Music/Video, most users will still rely on other set-top boxes or cable–and therefore, traditional remotes. That won’t change unless Chromecast gets more support from developers, and maybe not until Google puts together its own pay TV service.

But Google has at least laid the groundwork for a TV solution where any phone or tablet can be the primary remote control. Chromecast is the first device I’ve seen that gives up the security blanket of a traditional remote, declaring that the jumble of buttons has outlived its usefulness. Someone had to do it, and I’m glad it’s finally happened.

20 comments
Cymond
Cymond

Chromecast didn't really get rid of the remote, it just integrated the remote into our phones & tablets.


Or in my case, Chromecast integrated OUR remote into HER ultrabook. Additionally, the control is now a single tab in her Chrome browser and we're the kind of people who always have a few dozen browser tabs open plus multiple other programs like photo editing, media player, and email. As much as everyone hates loosing the remote control, it was far easier for me to dig through the couch cushions than dig through her computer.

voidinterrupt
voidinterrupt

I'm not sure about this I can do a similar thing today with the netflix app on the PS3. There i have the option of navigating on screen or using my iDevice to browse and select. What do i do?

Well after using my device to browse and select for a while (nerd geeking over new feature) I eventually went back to on screen navigation. Why?

1. Looking up and down feels a bit unnatural after a while (sounds vague buts hey its an irrational feeling)

2. Plonking down on the couch and just pointing and clicking at the screen again feels natural vs rooting in my pocket for my phone and then launching the netflix app and waiting for it sign in. 

3. Kids! The remote is simple piece of plastic that can take some damage. With a phone or tablet I have to have a dedicated device for the kids (and make sure its charged), they don't have their own, and they tend to drop it as well as do lots of silly things like swipe out to another app and get confused.

For me it boils down to this, phones and tablets are multifunctional devices which can do everything which is great. But sometimes single purpose devices just work better in a given situation. Take GPS navigation, my phone has it but i prefer tom tom as its targeted specifically at a certain need.  When i sit down to watch tv i want to point and click while looking at the screen, not fumble around with my phone.


DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

Yeah, right...  You're trying to find the "Pause" button when you get a phone call...  You can't find it, so your TV is blaring all through the conversation until you get into the "junk" drawer, pull out your old remote, put in new batteries and mute the TV.

GREAT idea...  Not...

Here's the one flaw in the plan: Not everyone has a smartphone.  Not everyone WANTS a smartphone (especially those who have lives they want to live and not just just "app" their way through).  TV manufacturers are bright enough to realize these things.  All TV's will continue to come with remotes.  I don't know how much Google and Apple paid this clown for this article, but I'm thinking it was too much.

After all, too much common sense blows the whole concept of replacing your "remote" with a smart phone out of the water.  Manufacturers are more likely to build in "gesturing" or voice commands than expect people to use smartphones they don't have to control their TV's.

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

I just love that Google calls it a "Dongle." Was there ever something that sounded more like a slang term for a penis? I don't if I want to Google my Dongle while watching TV. One problem is we are giving our smartphones more things to do but we haven't cracked the limited battery power yet. The smartphone is just a reliable substitute for anything yet.

cecil.business82
cecil.business82

People need to put down their iDevices and get an iLife before you iDie. There is only one iLife to iLive so get iStarted 

Oh, and there is no such thing as an "App", They are called "applications"

vrana289
vrana289

My traditional remote always work and very efficiently. On my phone,  I get app processing delay,  sometimes app will crash and will never work when I need it most. Also  I will have to look for buttons etc. So I prefer to use my traditional remote for netflix etc.

ZainiChia
ZainiChia

From experience, Airplay uses a very insignificant amount of battery/processing power, and it can run in the background too.Also, if you want to use the Apple TV with your iPhone, just download the 'Remote' app from the appstore. And that way, more than one people can also control whatever is playing.

Apple TV and Chromecast are two quite different beings, but one thing for sure is that Apple TV is more 'independant'. It also does more things actually, much much more than whatever Chromecast can do. The only drawback is that it only works with Apple Devices.

IntangibleGuy
IntangibleGuy

I prefer to either stay focused on the TV screen or on my tablet/phone screen mutually exclusive. Constantly moving my head up and down and refocusing my eyes is tiresome. Therefore I prefer a traditional remote and stay visually focused on the TV screen. OK, have to admit I'm not a teenager anymore. Guess at the age of 16 I wouldn't care that much.

jnffarrell
jnffarrell

Buggy whips are obsolete. So are TV remotes.

tacoma_boy
tacoma_boy

The lack of a remote is a deal breaker for a lot of people including me because the physical buttons are irreplaceable. No need to look down at your smartphone/tablet to navigate and find the button to pause and start a video.

tacoma_boy
tacoma_boy

>You can also control volume on the video using the physical buttons on your phone or tablet.

How exactly would that work when you're listening to music on your phone?

Cymond
Cymond

Oh, another point. While it's nice to use the computer interface for complex tasks like searching & browsing, it's a slow method for more basic functions. The always-ready remote is much more convenient for quick-clicks like Play, Pause, Stop, Fast-Forward, and Rewind. It's frustrating when my wife needs me in another room and the remote can't pause the movie. Instead of a quick tap on the Pause button, I'm digging through her computer or searching for her smartphone.

thmswhnr
thmswhnr

@DeweySayenoff This product seems to be aimed at pretty tech savvy people, and early adopters at that.  Google likely does not expect to capture any of the "Owns neither smartphone or tablet in 2013" market with it, and their marketing execs are not going to lose any sleep over the fact that someone in that market finds Chromecast to be a bad product.

newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@DeweySayenoff On Android devices, there's a big fat "pause" button on the lock screen. Not too hard to find. And if you're using a tablet it's a non-issue.

The number of people who don't need or want a smartphone is quickly shrinking. Same with tablets.

Oh, and you're accusing me of being on the take from both Apple AND Google for the same article? As far as trolling goes, that's a first.

AdamSmith
AdamSmith

@ZainiChia 

"The only drawback is that it only works with Apple Devices."

and as the Apple share of phone and tablet market shrinks, that's no small potatoes.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@jnffarrell They're obsolete right up to the point when you actually need one.  Then you're out of luck because you tossed them thinking they were obsolete.

newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@tacoma_boy "Physical buttons are irreplaceable." I remember people saying the exact same thing about smartphone keyboards about five years ago.

ZacPetit
ZacPetit

@tacoma_boy In the same way you can turn down your music volume but not affect your ringtone volume. 

Cymond
Cymond

@newmanjb 
Speak for yourself, my wife still looks at her phone when she uses the Swipe keyboard. Physical keys really are irreplaceable when you need one quick click without looking.