Review: Apple Remote 2.0 for iPad, iPhone + iPod touch
As one of the earliest iPhone/iPod touch applications in the App Store, and still one of only a handful of titles published by Apple itself, Remote (Free) debuted in July 2008 as a free tool to enable the then-small number of iOS devices to take remote control of iTunes on computers and Apple TV standalone units. By using a Wi-Fi network rather than the Infrared found on Apple's plastic and aluminum Apple Remotes, and the screens of iPhones and iPod touches rather than the Apple Remotes' simple six- and seven-button arrays, the Remote application didn't just duplicate other control schemes -- it improved upon them.
Remote has evolved over the past two years, starting by offering two key features—iPod-style navigation of a connected machine’s music and video library, plus an on-screen keyboard to make searching, YouTube browsing, and password entry easier for the Apple TV—then adding more. In late 2008, it grew to include playlist and Genius playlist creation features, then added a gesture-based control system to allow users to swipe and tap their way through Apple TV menus in mid-2009. Conspicuously missing from the application until now was iPad support, or special support for the Retina Displays of iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G models.
With the release of Remote 2.0, that’s changed, and a number of less obvious under-the-hood improvements have also been made to the application, as well. The iPhone and iPod touch version of Remote looks very similar to the prior version, but with high-resolution album, cover, and key frame artwork that looks very sharp on the newer models’ Retina Displays, plus support for the second-generation Apple TV. Behind the scenes, Remote 2.0 adds support for Home Sharing, a year-old iTunes feature that primarily allows iTunes-equipped computers to share files with one another, but here helps Remote to automatically find any iTunes installation or second-generation Apple TV that is sharing media on your network. And Apple has given the new version some modest new visual tweaks to align it with iTunes 10, including swirled metal volume sliders, the new iTunes 10 icon, and the new AirPlay icon.
An inconspicuous but still important improvement is Remote 2.0’s support for iOS 4 multitasking and fast application switching—a feature that enables Remote to be pushed into the background and then quickly called back into the foreground while you’re doing other things. While this feature could easily be forgotten when discussing many modestly-upgraded iOS 4 applications, it particularly benefits applications such as Remote, which would otherwise need to continually occupy your iPhone or iPod touch’s screen during use, or be reloaded every time you quit and come back to the application. Turning Apple’s devices into full-time iTunes and Apple TV remote controls would be a waste of powerful hardware, but as part-time, quick-access remotes, they make a lot more sense.
Even bigger changes are found in the iPad version, which is found inside the same universal application as the iPhone and iPod touch versions. Connect Remote on the iPad to an iTunes library and you get a new interface that’s very similar to the iPad’s iPod application, featuring a grid of album or cover art by default, and text lists of files otherwise. New and important is a small multiple pages icon at the top of the left-side list of playlists and media types. Tap on this icon and you’re brought to a blue screen with large, attractive iTunes and Apple TV library icons to choose from, plus a “Settings” button that lets you hunt for Home Sharing libraries and also add devices that aren’t using Home Sharing. Though Remote works best with iTunes 10, it lets you access shared iTunes 9 libraries as well, displaying them with old iTunes 9 icons and pushing them to the bottom of its library lists.
High-resolution album art fills most of the iPad’s screen, just as it would if being played back through the iPod application—the only difference is that the music’s playing through your computer or Apple TV, instead. As with the iPod touch and iPhone application, you also have the ability to toggle between multiple AirPort Express and Apple TV-connected speakers for AirPlay output at any given time, setting their volume levels independently and even synchronizing them to play the same music from the same streaming device. The application doesn’t allow you to stream an iTunes library’s content back to the iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, though.
Opening up a first-generation Apple TV library is almost identical to opening an iTunes library, making the same art and text lists available from the left-hand bar, while adding a new four-arrow icon in the bottom right corner of the screen. Tap this icon and the majority of the iPad display becomes a gesture-sensitive control system to navigate the Apple TV’s menus, complete with a three-page help system that’s similar to the explanations seen on iPhones and iPod touches since Remote 1.3 was launched last year. If you just want to move up, down, left and right through the on-screen menu options, you can swipe and tap to do so, but additional gestures—flick down to show chapter markers, flick left or right to rewind and fast forward—require a little explanation.
The Apple TV gesture support on the iPhone and iPod touch didn’t strike us as the best possible way for users to interact with an on-TV device at the time, and it makes even less sense on the iPad—a device with more than enough screen space to literally replicate the entire Apple TV interface and render it instantly touchable without the need for swipes and other “learnable” gestures. As with the iPhone’s and iPod touch’s gesture support, we found the iPad’s gestures to be less than completely precise, but unless you want to keep the Apple Remote around, they’ll be necessary to navigate Apple TV’s menus for everything except the hard disk stored content of the first-generation model.
Remote 2.0 is also reportedly capable of letting iOS devices stream their own music directly to second-generation, hard drive-less Apple TVs using AirPlay—a feature that has not as of yet been demonstrated in person, and can’t be tested until the new Apple TV is available. It appears to have been added as a workaround for iOS users who want to start streaming some content to the Apple TV before the release of iOS 4.2, which is set for release in November and will enable music, photo, and video streaming, presumably without the need for Remote; those who can’t use iOS 4.2 may still be able to use Remote for music.
Overall, the fact that Remote 2.0 exists at all is great news for iPad owners in particular, as users of Apple’s big-screen devices can finally rely on an interface that makes better use of the touchable real estate they purchased. Some iPhone and iPod touch users will find it easier to use, more powerful, and better-looking than the version it replaces, as well; it’s responsive, and a very good free application that really reduces some of the Infrared control-related concerns Apple TV and iTunes users would otherwise have. That having been said, its continued reliance upon a gesture-based interface for Apple TV menu navigation is unfortunate, as it’s clear that even Apple’s smaller touchscreen devices are capable of providing more intuitive controls; our hope is that a follow-up version of the software will build upon the solid foundation here and make Apple TV menus even easier to use from afar.