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.