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The Apple TV is probably Apple’s least intuitive product. I’ve watched people struggling to master the remote’s touch controls, and at times felt like I’ve been fighting with the interface myself.
It’s a great example of how touch input isn’t always the best choice, particularly when it comes to rigid grid-based interfaces. Even people happy with an iPhone or iPad can struggle to use the TV’s remote effectively.
While we can’t fix the remote itself, we can show you how to make the most of it.
A Quick Look at the Apple TV Remote
Let’s first take a look at the Apple TV remote, and what the various inputs do. At the top of the remote you have a touch-sensitive panel that also functions as the “select” button. Scroll around the touch panel to move the currently selected item on screen, then click the panel in to make your selection.
Just below this you have two buttons: Menu and Home (the Home button looks like a TV screen). Use Menu to go back one step, such as when you are in a menu or playing media. Hit Menu to back out of the current video, or get back to a previous screen.
The Home button jumps right back to the home screen. This is the screen you first see when you turn your Apple TV on, where all your app icons reside. You can also tap and hold the Home button when you want to put your Apple TV into sleep mode.
Finally, we have three more inputs: a Siri button (which looks like a microphone), a Play/Pause button, and the volume rocker. These are all fairly self-explanatory; they invoke voice assistant Siri, start and stop playback, and control your TV or receiver’s volume. You can also hold the Play/Pause button to select audio outputs, from AirPlay receivers to wireless headphones like Apple’s AirPods.
On the top edge of the remote you’ll find the infrared blaster, used for volume control. On the bottom edge you’ll find a Lightning port for charging your remote using the same cable you’d use to charge an iPhone or iPad.
Depending on the age of your remote, you might have a white ring around the Menu button. This was a design choice Apple implemented after complaints from users that it’s hard to distinguish the “right way” to pick the remote up in a dark room. You can make it even more obvious by adding a sticker to the glass section at the bottom of the remote if you have this problem.
To navigate your way around the Apple TV’s interface, you’re encouraged to swipe briefly in the direction you want the on-screen controls to move. You accomplish this with a light movement, taking care not to “click” the touchpad by mistake.
Depending on your touch, you might find that this method of navigation is unreliable. It’s easy to swipe a bit hard and overshoot, which makes the whole interface feel a bit unreliable. Fortunately, there’s another way to navigate with improved control.
Imagine a directional pad on the touchpad, like in the image above. Without clicking the touchpad, lightly tap in the direction you want to move the current on-screen selection. By repeatedly tapping you can navigate with near-perfect accuracy, though it does feel a bit slower than the multi-touch swipe.
Try fast-scrolling to navigate long lists by using the right-most edge of the touch panel as a virtual scrollbar (as illustrated above). This allows you to get through long lists of albums or movie collections with relative ease.
Many Apple TV apps use a tabulated menu system at the top of the screen (below), which is hidden during regular navigation. To bring it back on-screen, you’ll need to hit Menu. From here you can navigate to different sections of the app. You can also reveal this menu by moving the current selection to the very top of the screen.
Just like iOS, your Apple TV has an app switcher—a list of all currently suspended apps—which makes navigating the UI even quicker. At any point you can double tap the Home button to reveal the app switcher.
Swipe left and right to navigate to the app you want to use. Click the touchpad to resume using an app. If an app has crashed or is unresponsive, you can swipe up on the touchpad to “throw it away.” Switching apps using the App Switcher is quicker than returning to the home screen and finding the relevant app icon.
Controlling playback is, for the most part, pretty straightforward. Unfortunately not all apps conform to Apple’s conventions, which we’ll tackle shortly. For now, let’s cover how it’s supposed to work.
During playback, you can click the center of the touchpad and scroll left or right to scrub through the currently playing media. This is responsive and intuitive, with a small preview window to indicate where in the video you’ll resume playback. Click the touchpad again to resume.
While a video or audio source is playing, click to the left or right of the touchpad to advance or rewind playback by ten seconds. Click and hold left or right and you’ll keep scrubbing through the current media without interrupting playback.
To access subtitle and audio controls during playback, swipe down on the touchpad to “pull down” an additional control panel. Depending on the app and what you’re watching, you’ll find subtitles in various languages, audio tracks, and additional information about what’s playing. Swipe up to hide the menu.
Most popular TV apps conform to this convention, which is how Apple advises developers to create apps for the platform. That includes every first-party app, Netflix, most catch-up TV services, and on-demand video sources like Crunchyroll. The biggest exception to the rule is YouTube, which we’ll tackle later.
Adjusting Remote Settings
One adjustment that can make navigation easier is adjusting Touch Surface Tracking under Settings > Remote and Devices. If you find that you frequently navigate too far or you can’t scrub through videos fast enough, try turning the sensitivity up or down.
You can also change the default Home button behavior here to launch the TV app instead, though this app (and setting) isn’t available in all regions.
Controlling the Volume
Your Apple TV can also control the volume of your TV and receiver. It does this using a technology called HDMI Consumer Electronics Control, or HDMI-CEC for short. When you connect your Apple TV to a compatible receiver or TV, it will detect which make and model you use and program the remote accordingly.
If you find that this isn’t working as you’d expect, make sure HDMI-CEC is enabled on your TV. Most of the time this is a proprietary manufacturer-specific name ending in “link” or “sync.” Examples include SimpLink for LG TVs, BRAVIA Sync for Sony, and Anynet+ for Samsung.
If you still can’t get the volume controls to work, head to Settings > Remotes and Devices > Volume Control and choose Learn New Device. Here you can follow on-screen instructions to configure your Apple TV remote to enable volume control.
Don’t Forget Siri
Apple refers to its TV remote as a “Siri Remote” for a reason. At any time you can press and hold the Siri button and speak your query. This cuts down your reliance on the touch panel.
Try asking Siri to:
- Find anything: “Search Netflix for Dredd” or “search the App Store for VLC”
- Control playback: “Fast forward two minutes” or “skip this song”
- Get information: “Who stars in this?” or “what’s the weather like tomorrow?”
- Change features and navigate: “Turn on closed captions” or “open Photos”
This is just a small sampling of the many handy Apple TV features you might not have discovered yet.
YouTube and Other Apps That Don’t Conform
In February 2018, Google rolled out its universal Material Design interface on the Apple TV app. YouTube decided to go for a single interface across all apps, including the web-based YouTube TV interface, Chromecast and Roku, PlayStation and Xbox, and now the Apple TV.
The result is a sluggish, ugly, and convention-defying app that throws almost everything I’ve written above out the window. The world’s most recognizable video platform is a frustrating mess on the Apple TV:
- Scrolling during playback now moves the playhead, which is sluggish and unpredictable. It’s also very easy to scrub the video by mistake, which is why Apple and everyone else uses a “click first” approach.
- The on-screen playback controls obscure the current video and you can’t dismiss with a further tap, as you can in apps like Netflix. You have to hit the Menu button to disable them and see more than 60% of the screen.
- You access subtitles and audio options by “tapping” to reveal the on-screen playback controls, navigating to the Menu button, clicking the touchpad, finding the right option, and enabling it from there.
- You can’t use fast scrolling to scroll through your subscriptions, so you have to manually navigate your entire list of subscribed channels.
- The closest substitute for tabs now appears on the left under the Material Design menu, which doesn’t appear when you hit the Menu button (you have to navigate to the left of the screen).
- Your subscription feed is still a horizontal scrolling list, rather than a grid as it appears on the YouTube website.
If you’re having trouble using the YouTube app, know you’re not alone. Despite Apple’s attempts to unify basic functions like navigation and playback controls, not all apps are going to “just work” as you’d expect. YouTube is the biggest problem, but you may find others as well.
Can’t Find Your Remote? Use Your iPhone Instead
With a bit of practice, using your Apple TV remote should feel right at home. But navigation isn’t its only problem. Apple’s Siri Remote is small, thin and dark. It falls down the back of the sofa, between cushions, and blends in with the rest of your coffee table’s contents.
But that’s OK: if ever you can’t find your remote, you can control your Apple TV using your iPhone or iPad instead.