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The Apple TV’s touchpad swipes and misses at being a good remote

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Button of the month: the Siri Remote touchpad

It’s rare to find a button that is almost universally hated, but the infamous touchpad on the Apple TV’s Siri Remote might be the exception. Even over half a decade after its introduction, it stands as one of the most reviled pieces of hardware around.

The failings of the Apple TV remote don’t just stem from a bad touchpad (and don’t get me wrong: it is bad) but from a larger misunderstanding on Apple’s part of what makes a good remote and the fundamental purpose of those devices.

The typical TV remote is big and ugly, but it’s also extremely easy to find and navigate thanks to differing patterns of buttons that make it clear what you’re touching even without checking. Generally speaking, no one has ever been too confused about how to find the giant rubber rocker that says “VOLUME” or what the huge, often glowing red power button does.

Apple’s remotes have always been far simpler and smaller, but its older models still had distinct buttons for key features like navigation and controlling playback. And crucially, you could tell them apart.

But the so-called Siri Remote broke from those designs when it was introduced alongside the fourth-generation Apple TV in 2015. The new Apple TV featured the biggest revamp of Apple’s set-top box ambitions to date, introducing its tvOS platform, an App Store, and the goal of becoming a one-stop shop for all your TV needs.

The remote was designed to complement those ambitions. Most notably, the directional pad was removed and replaced with a featureless touchpad that was meant to more closely emulate the touchscreens found on iPhones and iPads. After all, the Apple TV could run iOS-style apps now, so presumably it needed an iOS-style control scheme to match.

But in its pursuit of emulating the smartphone experience, Apple lost sight of the key elements of a good TV remote. The Siri Remote’s slimmed-down glass and aluminum design looked fantastic. In practice, though, the diminutive remote was even easier to lose than its already small predecessors, with a design that seems to be tailor-made for slipping between couch seats and underneath cushions.

The minimalist design stripped the remote down to just just a few buttons, but the virtually symmetrical layout made it nearly impossible to distinguish between those buttons in the dark (say, when watching a movie). Pick up the remote the wrong way, and instead of hitting the play / pause button to stop your show, you might hit the TV button — which boots you out of the show and takes you to Apple’s overstuffed TV app.

Add in software updates that have changed what those buttons actually do (the TV button used to work as a home button until Apple released the TV app in 2019), and it’s another indictment of the remote’s chase of form over function. Even Apple seems to be aware of this: when it refreshed the Siri remote for the fifth-generation Apple TV 4K, it added a white ring to the menu button to make it slightly easier to tell which side is up.

And then there’s the touchpad. With only its matte texture serving to distinguish it from the glossy grip of the remote, it suffers from the same orientation issues as the other buttons. Pick up the remote the wrong way, and you’ll either end up swiping on useless glass when you meant to move around the OS or flinging your way through a show when you meant to just grab the remote.

Even if you can orient it the right way, the overly sensitive and opaque nature of the touchpad makes it easy to overshoot whatever it was you were trying to do in the first place. In theory, the touchpad is a useful tool for playing games, swiping through pages of apps, and effortlessly panning through a Netflix show. In practice, it’s terrible at nearly all of those tasks.

The remote is such a problem that when Swiss TV and internet provider Salt started offering Apple TVs as set-top boxes, it worked with Apple to make a simpler, more traditional remote control to offer customers instead. One of the biggest changes is a swap from the touchpad to a regular, rubber D-pad. The touchpad promises limitless functionality, but it’s so hard to use that a less versatile input method is actually more useful. (The $20 Salt remotes routinely sell on eBay for nearly triple their value to disgruntled customers in other markets.)

But for all those issues, the Siri Remote’s failures all stem from a common cause: the smartphone-ification of the traditional TV remote. The svelte design and touchpad interface are things that helped skyrocket the original iPhone to its massive success. But for a TV remote — a device that needs to be easily found in a sea of throw pillows and function simply without requiring that you tear your eyes away from the latest episode of The Mandalorian — they’re precisely the wrong traits.

Apple made a remote control that’s an undeniably beautiful piece of hardware. Outside of the Siri Remote, how many TV remotes can claim to actually look good? But the touchpad’s minimalism and misplaced attempt at trying to turn the entire remote into something that it’s not makes it like other failed Apple buttons before it: a stark warning of the dangers of chasing form over function.