Comparative Review: Remote Controls from Apple and Microsoft

Apple Mac Mini and Microsoft XBox 360 products

Apple and Microsoft both recently introduced two very similar products, though they weren’t intended to be direct competitors. They probably aren’t even supposed to be talked about in the same context.

The XBox 360 is Microsoft’s next-generation gaming console which also happens to sport some advanced digital media centre capabilities. The Mac Mini is a diminutive desktop computer that also happens to sport some digital media centre capabilities.

The similarities between these two products are very interesting for a few reasons. First, they’re not designed to be compared to one another. The XBox 360 is a gaming console and the Mac Mini is a desktop computer in the traditional sense. That said, their secondary roles, as digital media centre hubs, have almost equivalent capabilities. Finally, they both sport unique remote controls that implement their media centre capabilities in very different ways.

This review will focus on the remote controls of the two systems. The test environment for these devices is not a laboratory and my results are not scientific in nature. This review is based on my personal experiences using the two devices in my living for personal recreation. As such, it’s a subjective write-up, and open to interpretation and feedback.

The Remotes

Apple Remote Control

Apple’s Steve Jobs touted his company’s new remote as revolutionary for one reason: it has only six buttons. He made a big deal of this when it was introduced and boasted that the plethora of buttons on competing products was confusing and unnecessary.

The Apple remote fully depends on a piece of software called Front Row that runs on top of the Mac OS. It manages the user experience with the variety of digital media that is stored on the computer, including photos, movies, and music.

Apple’s remote is very small, thin, and light, hardly as large as a pack of gum. It sports a shiny white finish and bears more than a passing resemblance to an iPod shuffle. The Apple remote can be purchased individually for about $30. It comes included with the latest iMac, Mac Mini, and Mac Book Pro models.

XBox 360 Remote Control

Microsoft’s XBox 360 comes with a basic remote control that’s designed for interacting with the game console’s interface when a user is doing something other than playing games. The console sports a very attractive interface called the Dashboard that appears on screen when there is no game or DVD movie disc in the drive.

The Dashboard offers access to a very broad range of content including movies, music, and photos. The remote control is smaller than most of its ilk, but still relatively large and burly compared to Apple’s. It offers a slightly curved profile that falls nicely into hand.

Buttons

As previously mentioned, the Apple remote control offers only six buttons. The XBox 360 remote, on the other hand, has 26 buttons.

Apple’s remote control button structure is based on their successful iPod device’s physical control interface and, as such, is designed to control media playback based on a central “Menu” structure at the heart of their Front Row software.

The six buttons are as follows: play/pause; volume up; volume down; advance playback; rewind playback; and “Menu”.

Beyond basic playback capabilities, the Apple Remote control relies entirely on the Front Row interface for functionality and navigation. This can be cumbersome at times. To eject a DVD, for example, a user must dig down into the DVD menu structure in Front Row.

The XBox 360 interface splits its buttons into five fairly distinct groups. At the top of the device are three buttons: open/close for the disc tray; a large “X” button for quick access to user settings on the console; and an on/off button for the XBox 360 itself. This first collection of buttons is fairly global in nature and offers function-specific capabilities that are frequently used.

The next group of buttons offer basic media playback functionality. Compared to the Apple remote control, where the buttons’ functionality can be ambiguous, the playback buttons on the XBox 360 remote are much clearer. For example, play and pause are each separate buttons; and playback advance and fast forward are each their own buttons.

The third group of buttons are designed for the specific control of whatever physical media is in the drive, though some of the real application of each button is contextual, based on what that media is. These buttons are: Display, Title, Back, Info and DVD Menu. From my experience, the “DVD Menu” button is the single-best item on the device as it allows a user to quickly skip all of the annoying advertising at the beginning of a DVD.

The physically largest group of buttons on the remote offer general navigation control for the XBox 360’s Dashboard interface or a DVD menu. It’s a circle of directional buttons (up, down, left, right) around a large “OK” button.

Just below the general navigation buttons comes a set of buttons adopted from the remote’s game controller cousin. These four purely contextual control buttons decorated with bright colours and identified only with letters (Y,X,A and B) each carry a “character” of usability and each performs a unique function based on the Dashboard’s user interface status.

The B button, for example, is very similar to the Apple remote’s “Menu” button in that it’s commonly a hierarchically-upward directional tool. If you happen to dig down into one area of the XBox 360’s interface a bit too deeply, just hit B a few times and you’re usually good.

The final two buttons on the XBox 360 remote have to do with interacting with a Windows Media Centre PC. I won’t comment on these as I don’t own such a device and didn’t have the opportunity to try out this functionality.

An important aspect of this class of remote controls is the contextual nature of many of their buttons. This is because the on-screen interface for each device can alter the application of certain aspects of the remote control. The Apple remote control is fully dependent on the Front Row interface as the totality of its functionality occurs as a result of this interface. The XBox 360 remote control maintains a limited functionality without the Dashboard for functional events such as ejecting a disc and turning the console on and off.

Look and Feel

Apple’s remote control is an attempt to revolutionize a traditional controlling device in the spirit of the infamous iMac puck mouse but with the style of the popular iPod. In typical fashion, with this remote control Apple has placed form well ahead of function.

The unit itself is far too small, far too light, and its buttons too supple. The extremely flat design does not suit itself well to regular use and its smooth finish makes it very difficult to hold onto, especially in arid climates.

While the company’s efforts to revolutionize what is truly a common, mundane household device are admirable, the result feels half-baked and clearly favours the design engineer over the user. What today’s handheld remote control really needs is a usability shake-down, not an aesthetic makeover. Apple has opted to inject vanity rather than utility into the device.

Microsoft has done a much more admirable job with the remote control for the XBox 360. It’s almost unfair to compare this much more capable, far more usable device to Apple’s. Plus, the XBox 360’s Dashboard on-screen interface, while performing much of the same functionality as Apple’s Front Row, is light years ahead.

In one’s hand, the XBox 360 remote just feels better. It slips into the palm of your hand easily. It’s neither too big nor too small, too thick nor too thin. The finish of its plastic is tactile with a slight grip, appreciating the user’s need to manipulate it in-hand to access buttons. The buttons themselves are rubber-like and flex perfectly under a finger. They depress slowly and offer a subtle but clear click of action.

After months of being tossed around the living room by a toddler the XBox 360’s remote shows no signs of distress. Apple’s remote, on the other hand, demonstrates heavy scratching after just a few weeks.

Usability

Because of a combination of capability and design, Apple’s remote control is ultimately not very usable. When interacting with Front Row, the experience is sluggish. The Front Row interface often failed to respond to the remote’s clicks.

This lack of response is due in part to the very small receptor area on the front of the Mac Mini and the way it’s hidden in the disc slot drive. Compared to the large plastic panel on the XBox 360, this definitely limits the unit’s ability to interact with the remote. Additionally, the Apple remote control is powered by a very small “watch” battery compared to the XBox 360’s two AAs. No doubt this accordingly reduces the amount of signal output the Apple remote is capable of.

The XBox 360 remote offers a much more pleasant experience. I have never “lost a click” and the Dashboard interface is instantly responsive. The Microsoft remote feels pleasant in-hand.

The XBox 360’s on-screen interface is designed to more articulately interact with the remote control, whereas Front Row often left me guessing, despite its simplicity. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the Front Row interface due to the minimalist design of the remote control.

Because the Apple remote control is designed purely to control the drab Front Row interface there is a lot more clicking to complete an activity. For example, to play a DVD it requires 3-4 clicks (typically at least one of which is “lost”) on the Mac Mini. Compare that to the XBox 360 where simply hitting the play button on the remote will get things started.

The XBox 360’s remote is a joy, due in no small part to the excellently engaging on-screen Dashboard interface. Accomplishing simple tasks with the Microsoft remote is definitely easier, more intuitive and much more efficient.

Losability

A key weakness of any remote control is its ability to get lost. I’ve always believed that a remote control should come with a paging feature, like many cordless phones have, that can be activated with a button press on the device it controls.

Both the Apple and the Microsoft remote are at least as “losable” as any other remote. One aspect of their design that works in their favour, however, is the light tone of their plastic finish. This makes them much easier to see in dark places, like under the couch.

Speaking of under the couch, my Apple remote control has taken up residency there. Alternatively, I’ll often find it under the seat cushions, or in my pants pockets just before they get tossed into the wash.

This identifies an important weakness in the design of the Apple remote: because of its extra-tiny size, it’s far more losable than any other remote I’ve ever used. I have no doubt that it will just up and disappear one day, requiring that I buy a new one.

In a world where any remote controls’ primary usability flaw is its losability, Apple shouldn’t take any pride in the fact that they’ve enhanced this aspect of their product.

Conclusion

I’m primarily a Mac user in life, so it sort of pains me to bash an Apple product so relentlessly. Unfortunately, it’s a simple fact: the Apple remote and the Front Row interface are two of the biggest technology disappointments for me in recent years. After witnessing how skilfully the company stole the mobile music player market with the iPod, it’s almost embarrassing to experience the degree of ineptitude that Apple’s displaying in the living room.

That said, you have to give them credit. Compared to the XBox 360 and its remote, the Mac Mini and the Apple remote have got some serious style. (That’s not to say the Microsoft hardware is ugly — it’s just not as pretty.) Unfortunately, good looks don’t naturally beget a positive user experience.

Apple’s going to have to reduce their focus on design if they really want to make progress in the media hub market. When one is relaxing, watching a movie or browsing photos from the couch, one doesn’t want the remote device or the on-screen interface frustrating — or worse, baffling — them. Apple needs to spend some time looking at the absolute utility of future living room devices from a user’s perspective.

The XBox 360 provides users with a ridiculously smooth, enjoyable media browsing experience every time with its remote control. The on-screen Dashboard interface is absolutely brilliant and fun to just play with, while the remote interacts with it flawlessly. The button selection and organization on the remote is excellent, providing a balance between general on-screen navigation and one-touch access to common functions, such as ejecting a disc.

The XBox 360 remote feels like it was tested rigourously against real-world usage patterns. It’s as though people as well as engineers were involved in its design and implementation. The Apple remote, on the other hand, feels like the product of a secret laboratory where only systems engineers dare tread. I doubt it was ever tested by “real” people and I would bet most of its development life-span was spent on paper, the device only being rendered in three dimensions for production. But that’s just me guessing.