What was so wrong with the Apple TV 4K remote?

Apple TV
(Image credit: Apple)

There’s a new Apple TV 4K (2021) on the market – and while not much is different compared to the 2017 model, there is one area that Apple did have to rework their original design intentions, and that’s with the Siri remote.

The Siri remote was a broadly criticized hardware accessory, and pretty much the only point of contention for Apple TV owners waiting for an updated streaming box with a competent remote to match – to the point that we advocated for using your iPhone as a remote instead (which is still a great option).

Thankfully, Apple did answer our prayers, with an overhauled remote that fixed the primary issues users had with the previous model – even if we have one lingering complaint about its construction. But what was really so wrong with the older remote, and was it as bad as people say?

Remote working

Back when TechRadar reviewed the old Apple Siri remote in 2017 – and the previous iteration of the Apple TV 4K released – we wrote: “The remote feels like a good balance between lightweight and well-made – although it can be tossed around easily it’s comfortable to hold, with the tactile, brushed feel and rounded edges make it something you want to play with in your palm without thinking.

“Well, don’t – there’s a touch-sensitive pad at the top that will register your slightest quiver, and which clicks to register an input.”

It’s that final point that’s worth dwelling on. Apple saw fit to ‘reinvent’ the remote by bringing across the touch-sensitive controls usually found on a Macbook trackpad or Magic Mouse, no doubt hoping to disrupt expectations of what a remote should be.

Apple TV 4K

The original Siri Remote (Image credit: Future)

The problem is that TV screens aren’t generally designed to be navigated in the same way as a keyboard and mouse, with smart TV platforms and TV channel guides generally having layouts that predict simple up, down, left and right movements – or navigation that circumvents that entirely, using voice commands or universal search functions which can skip to the desired content or app.

It’s something that LG has managed to play with in its Magic Remote, which can move around the remote’s cursor much like a laser pointer, and feels far more intuitive than trying to match the motions of a trackpad to your desired action on screen.

But even if you liked the idea of treating your TV screen like an expanded Macbook monitor, the Siri remote simply didn’t work all that well.

Not Apple’s finest hour

Our Camera Editor, Mark Wilson, tells us how the touch-sensitive pad caused issues through oversensitivity, a confusing layout, and its various attempts at defying traditional TV layouts – and baffling our hands in the process.

“While I’ve never despised my Apple TV 4K remote to quite the same degree as some owners, it definitely isn’t Apple’s finest hour,” says Wilson.

“For a start, it’s probably my most frequently lost object, even beating my keys. The slippery, 5mm-thick design seems to have been custom-made for finding its way into sofa nooks you didn’t even know existed. And the lack of a bezel around the clickable touchpad means that when you do find it, you’ve probably accidentally skipped to the season finale of the show you were trying to watch. 

“Despite its raised menu button, the remote’s symmetrical shape means you’re also never quite sure if you have it the right way up, while the touchpad is ultra-sensitive one minute and sluggish the next. Overall, we’re not quite in Magic Mouse 2 territory in terms of design disasters, but the Apple TV 4K remote is definitely a case of form over function.”

Apple TV 4K 2021

The 2021 redesign of the Siri Remote (Image credit: Apple)

Form over function

Apple has long been a force for design-led hardware development, so it’s not surprising that this can lead the company into off-kilter choices on occasion – though it is odd that it took Apple so long to correct their mistake.

The Apple TV HD streamer launched in 2015, with a 2017 4K model coming only two years after – but it took a whole four years after that to see a 2021 overhaul.

But the Apple TV hardware barely changed in that time, only packing in a faster A12 Bionic process, limited-use HFR support, and a color calibration feature you’ll need a new iPhone to make use of.

The remote did see a big overhaul, though. Our Smart Home & Appliances Editor, Carrie-Ann Skinner, writes:“The new-look Siri remote included here is thinner, and ditches the touch-sensitive trackpad in favor of a circular clickpad, which makes scrolling through the interface far easier.

“For the first time, the Siri remote has a power button, so you can use it to switch the Apple TV 4K on or off, along with your TV too, and it also now features a back button and a mute button. The Siri button has now been moved to the right-hand edge of the remote. 

“We were impressed with the redesigned Siri remote: we found the clickpad to be far more accurate than the previous model when it came to scrolling through apps and shows, and were also impressed that the TV could be switched off at the same time as the Apple TV 4K (2021), which means fewer remotes cluttering up the coffee table. The extra weight – 2.25oz / 64g compared to 1.5oz / 45g – is welcome, giving the feel of a more premium build quality.”

The remote’s been improved, then, but given that this was the major alteration for the Apple TV 4K 2021, and that the remote is also available as a standalone accessory – for existing Apple TV owners who just wanted their remote problem fixed – it’s a shame that this revamped accessory wasn’t released far earlier than this.

Henry St Leger

Henry is a freelance technology journalist, and former News & Features Editor for TechRadar, where he specialized in home entertainment gadgets such as TVs, projectors, soundbars, and smart speakers. Other bylines include Edge, T3, iMore, GamesRadar, NBC News, Healthline, and The Times.