A Tale Of Three Remotes

Dave Zatz —  April 12, 2014

remotes

While we rarely have the inclination to tackle a full-on review (like Adam), the $99 Amazon Fire TV streamer that we tracked so closely ahead of launch is worthy of a few posts. Overall, it’s a solid debut… but not quite ready to displace the similarly priced Roku 3 or Apple TV, for those that have already outfitted their televisions.

I’m always fascinated by the decisions companies make in regards to the remote control, which is the primary interface to their TV-based experience. Take the now defunct Sezmi for example – they originally promoted a unique and beautiful remote… only to launch with an off-the-shelf skinned variant to save a few bucks. While that alone didn’t sink the product, a clunky clicker earns no fans. By comparison, TiVo is quite well known for their iconic and practical peanut… still going strong well over a decade now.

In the small streamer category, and without the need for channel number buttons, all entrants have gone for similarly small remotes. None more minimalistic than Apple’s metal sliver of a thing.

remote-profiles

While it’s beautiful to look at, it’s not at all ergonomic, prone to misplacement, and knee-capped by such a tiny IR emitter window – requiring pretty darn good line-of-site for remote control. Further, the “back” function isn’t entirely intuitive and there’s probably not enough buttons in general. By comparison, the Fire TV remote falls somewhere between the Roku 3 and aTV in sleekness and thickness, relying on AAA batteries versus Apple’s CR2032, and is more comfortable hold. Amazon reproduces Apple’s 4-way disc, which is useful and more attractive than Roku’s cross – although Amazon’s build quality isn’t equivalent to Apple as mine is a bit jiggly.

Unlike Apple, Fire TV and Roku do not require remote line-of-site: Fire TV is Bluetooth only, while Roku is more flexible in communicating via WiFi Direct and IR — meaning all your universal remotes are supported. And, along with that RF communication, comes additional features. Fire TV provides a mic to feed Amazon’s (incomplete) voice search functionality, whereas the Roku 3 ships with a headphone jack (and volume rocker) allowing you to stream content without disturbing a sleeping partner. The more bulbous AA-powered Roku 3 remote also integrates Hillcrest’s Wii-esque motion control, along with A/B buttons, to power a very limited number of gaming apps.

Of the three, Amazon strikes the best balance of form, function, and iconography although it could benefit from a bit more heft and girth. And while it doesn’t include Roku’s instant replay button, Amazon has competently addressed this feature via the transport controls interaction.

8 responses to A Tale Of Three Remotes

  1. An additional note on “remote” control… Roku and Apple provide smartphone apps, really a must when it comes to QWERTY entry. Roku’s is better on multiple levels, but anything is better than nothing. Hope Amazon provides something similar soon, given every app install thus far has required my email address and password versus shortcode linkage.

    Also worth mentioning that Roku’s lower end remotes are sullied by product placement.

  2. I’m always amazed that none of these companies produce a ‘premium’ remote with the addition of the four essential ‘learning’ buttons to control TV power, volume, and input.

    As it stands, you always need to grab a TV (or TiVo) remote in addition to to your streamer remote. I’d happily pay $49 (or more) to buy a premium Roku remote that included those four buttons, and would consider switching my streamer box if one of the other companies produced such a remote that included the magic four.

  3. Yeah, that had occurred me when I originally pondered penning this post a few days back… but clearly slipped my mind this AM. :/ Lack of television control is a definite shortcoming when thinking big picture and long term.

    In light of this point and speaking of long form reviews I never got to, I’ve had the Logitech Harmony Smart Control sitting in my nightstand drawer about a year now – probably worth dusting off for a looksee (or passing to Adam, who clearly executes better than I).

  4. The headphone jack is what sold me on the Roku. For me it’s the killer feature. I’m very surprised other companies haven’t implemented this.

  5. And what does Apple intend to do with the company behind the Kinect sensor that they purchased? (Incidentally, had a great briefing with Jinni in Israel last fall and that Kinect company was suddenly subject to radio silence – would have really enjoyed a chat with them too.)

  6. Thanks for this Dave.

    In looking at pictures of the remote my immediate concern was that it looks triangular which doesn’t seem like a good shape for “comfort”. Since you don’t mention it I assume it didn’t bother you, but still worth asking about.

    Agreed that Apple’s is the worst remote ever, though I’m pretty happy with the app. Which suggests that my biggest beef really is about size and shape. I do hope that they come up with something better this next go round but we’ll see. Apple doesn’t have a good track record with this crap (single button round mouse and all).

  7. Oh, one more thing.

    I assume you read this review?

    http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2014/04/amazon-fire-tv-misses-the-same-marks-as-ouya-other-media-boxes/

    Certainly one of the more negative reviews I saw out there, and some of the stuff such as the frayed around the edges apps makes me nervous. Any comment on that Dave?

  8. Hadn’t read the review, but I just took a quick skim. As I said in one of our earlier threads, tracking down Amazon content is a bit unwieldy, which Ars also discusses. Many apps aren’t available or maybe aren’t ready for prime time as simple Kindle Fire ports – but I expect this to be a short term issue. Yeah, QWERTY app registration is painful, but transient – perhaps some sort of Amazon app will improve this down the line. Ars is correct that Amazon content is indeed front and center (both visually and in terms of voice search), but recently accessed third party apps are available up top. Would be nice to see voice expand beyond search into “Launch Netflix” functionality.

    I shot a Vine of the remote for you. It’s not really triangular, more of a rounded bottom – it’s the way the bottom edge extends that maybe gives it a triangular appearance. https://vine.co/v/MJU6xVtLAaQ