Review: Apple Remote (2009)
It's easy to say that the 2009 Apple Remote ($19) is Apple's best Infrared remote yet: there have only been two of them, and the new model manages to achieve a trifecta: it's made from better materials than its 2005 predecessor, feels more comfortable in the hand, and offers better functionality, as well -- all while preserving the same $19 price that Apple eventually dropped the originally $29 plastic version to. Though the world has changed a lot since the first Apple Remote appeared, this new model is a very good option for users of Apple's Universal Dock, Apple TV, or Macintosh computers with Infrared ports.
As is obvious from the photographs here, the new Apple Remote is the extremely rare example of an Apple design that actually has grown significantly from its predecessor—previously 3.5” long, it’s now roughly 4.7” long, and thus taller than the iPod nano, a design change that enables it to feel better in your hand. It shaves a fraction of an inch in width to fall from 1.25” to around 1.2”, and similarly cuts 1/16” of thickness from its thickest (roughly 0.25”) point, tapering down on its edges to roughly 1/8”. This shape lets you fully and more or less comfortably wrap all of your fingers around the new Remote while it is in use, a challenge with the diminutive and easily misplaced prior version.
The new shape works due to a large change in materials. Whereas the original six-button Apple Remote was made from white and black plastic, the new version is made from a single piece of aluminum for the body with silver and black plastic buttons and a matching silver battery compartment. Like Apple’s recent unibody MacBook computers, the new remote feels incredibly solid in the hand—like a well-formed chunk of metal—and its body looks essentially identical in coloration and design to those laptops and the now-discontinued fourth-generation iPod nano. Readers and apparently even some Apple personnel have been confused by the nano-like black and silver circle design, which even feels like a nano’s Click Wheel, but there are just five buttons there and no touch scrolling capability. If there’s any obvious functionality miss in the new Remote, that would be it.
Having said that, the 2009 Remote does improve a little on its six-button predecessor, which Apple once touted as a far smarter, simpler alternative to the button-laden remotes of competing media products. The first Remote combined Play/Pause and “Select” features into the same button: use it with an iPod in a Universal Dock and the old center button basically just played or paused content, but with an Apple TV or Mac, it did double-duty, selecting content from menus and also stopping or starting it. This led to a problem when you were navigating menus and wanted to stop the currently playing audio—you’d need to go all the way back to the Now Playing screen and hit the button there.
Apple now splits “Select” into a separate button from Play/Pause so that you can separately stop music from playing while still using the rest of an Apple TV’s or Mac’s Front Row interface. This button is in the center of the circular button array and continues to act as a Play/Pause button when used with Universal Docks; the dedicated Play/Pause button now sits underneath the wheel next to the Menu button, which at least for the time being continues to work only with the Apple TV and Macs rather than the Universal Dock. Apple has removed the former +, -, and track forward/backward markers from the four buttons found in the circle, replacing them with small white dots. This appears to be an acknowledgement that they’re used as often for navigating as for changing volume or track status; they continue to have the same features as before.
Infrared performance of the Remote continues to be strong: it works at least as well as the prior model, seemingly even better when pointed at off-angles from the IR receivers of Apple’s devices. This, despite a seemingly smaller IR lens that’s only a tiny little pill shape on one side of the Remote, rather than the full end cap-styled black bar that was found on the original version. The company has also changed the battery compartment from the prior design, which required a pen to poke the bottom right corner of the plastic Remote to release a CR2032 battery, to a coin-required plastic compartment on the back with the same type of battery inside. We preferred the old compartment, but the new one’s not bad, either; in any case, prior Apple Remotes have continued to work for very long periods of time without battery swaps.
The only other noteworthy thing about the Apple Remote is its packaging. Apple has ditched its prior box for a thin new clear plastic package that is literally just large enough to hold the Remote, an instruction manual, a one-year warranty card, and a thin identification card with a UPC tag for in-store scanning. This packaging is wonderfully minimalist, and another sign that the company is finding relatively brilliant ways to cut down on wasted box materials and shipping expenses.
Is the 2009 Apple Remote a must-buy for prior Universal Dock, Apple TV, or Mac owners? Certainly not. It’s a beautiful-looking little wand that only modestly improves on the feature set of its four-year-old predecessor, which has become less necessary in an age when iPhones and iPod touches can become free remote controls for Apple TVs and iTunes; third-party universal remotes have continued to subsume the Remote’s relatively simple feature set, as well. Moreover, Apple hasn’t given it the one gimme feature—touch-based scrolling—that its look and pedigree would suggest it would contain, the single thing that might make it a mandatory upgrade for many users. That said, given its $19 asking price, the new Apple Remote otherwise has the design and feel of something more expensive, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see more than a few people succumb to the impulse buy temptation to add this to a nightstand or living room. It’s a very affordable distillation of the current state of Apple design, and worth considering for that reason alone.