The Xbox One wasn't supposed to need a remote control. That was the whole point, right? With its high-tech Kinect camera, we could just talk to it and tell it what to do. Remote controls were a thing of the past, a finally bygone relic of the 20th century! Except, well, not really.
A few weeks ago Microsoft released a "media remote" for the Xbox One. They sent one out for me to review, and I've been surprised at just how substantially it has improved the quality of my experience watching movies and TV shows on my Xbox One.
The remote works about the same as an Xbox One controller does. It has one four-way navigational pad, with a center button that functions more or less as the Xbox One's "A" button. It has an Xbox button in the middle to turn the console on and go to the home screen, and lets you hit play, pause, turn up the volume, fast-forward, rewind, turn the volume up, change the channel, etc. It doesn't have a number pad, so its functionality as a cable remote is limited, though you can still use it to navigate channels on cable TV.
The media remote significantly enhances the experience of using the Xbox One as an entertainment hub. That's for a few reasons:
You don't have to turn it on.
I've always disliked turning on my controller before selecting a TV show or program to run. It's even worse when I need to pause a movie and the "Xbox, pause" isn't working for some reason. Pressing the middle button, waiting while the controller fires up and syncs, pressing the "A" button a few times before it's quite ready to go through… it's a little thing that over time becomes pretty irritating. Unlike a controller the media remote, like most remote controls, is kind of just always on, so if you want to quickly pause or flip through channels without relying on Kinect, you can grab the media remote just like you would anything other remote.
It's not a universal remote, but it's closer.
It's also nice how, thanks to the Kinect's built-in IR blaster, the media remote lets me control the volume and muting on my audio system. I really don't like using the Kinect to do this—saying "Xbox, Volume Up" over and over again is no way to adjust your volume—but using a remote makes sense. The Xbox One media remote isn't quite a universal remote, but the Xbox One can control a lot of things, and the Media Remote controls the Xbox. So.
It's small and nicely made.
Some people probably won't like the form-factor of the media remote, but I actually really dig it. It's very small and coated in a smooth, rubberized material that feels awfully nice in my hand. It has a rounded back that keeps it from sitting steadily on a table, which I'd imagine will be a point of contention for some but again, I don't mind it. The buttons are springy and the controller is at least water-resistant (it's doing fine after encountering some spilled beer in a coffee table mishap). The controls are all backlit, and making it cool-looking and easy to read in a darkened room. The remote is understated and sleek in a way that the Xbox One itself certainly isn't, and fits right in with my other remote controls.
It's much more immediate than Smartglass.
This is another one where your mileage may vary, but I rarely use the Xbox One's Smartglass app to actually control my Xbox One. It still feels gimmicky, slow, and largely unnecessary. Smartglass takes too long—Unlock my phone, open up the app, and use the odd touchscreen controls to do things. Easier to just use a controller, and that doesn't drain my phone's battery. The media remote is much more direct and convenient, more evidence that for all the new tricks our smartphones can do, dedicated devices are still usually easier to use.
It's a good middle ground for Kinect.
When I reviewed the Xbox One, I said I just didn't think people were ready to start speaking to their TVs all the time. After several months of using the console regularly, I still think that. Talking to the Kinect is often frustrating, it's annoying, and it's distracting—no one wants to talk their Xbox through the many large and small actions required to, say, fire up an episode of Brooklyn Nine Nine through Hulu Plus. The moment I started using the media remote, however, the Kinect became much more manageable and, dare I say it, useful.
When Microsoft announced the remote, lots of people laughed—a remote to replace Kinect so soon after launching the console? But the reality is, I use Kinect a lot more now that I use the remote. Or at least, I use it a lot less grudgingly. Kinect is my blunt instrument, and the remote is my precision tool. I'll usually switch programs with Kinect—"Xbox, go to Hulu Plus," "Xbox, go to Netflix," then pick up the remote to quickly select a show or movie to watch. I never have to wait for a controller to turn on, nor do I have to negotiate the Xbox One's finicky in-app voice commands. But thanks to Kinect, I also don't have to use the controller or remote to wander the Xbox One's boxy menus to find the app I want to run. The phrase "the best of both words" doesn't quite feel right here, but at the very least, the tandem remote/Kinect relationship feels like a marked improvement over the status quo.
For all the things I like about the media remote, there are still a couple of things that bug me about it:
You need a clear view of your console.
The remote speaks directly to the Xbox One and not to the Kinect, so to use it, you'll have to point it directly at the console itself. That won't be a huge problem for most people, but sometimes my coffee table would get in the way, which necessitated switching my Xbox One around in my entertainment center to get a clearer look.
I wish it could turn on my TV.
The Xbox One's "Xbox On" function is still tied to the TV's on/off switch without giving another option just for "Xbox, TV on" or "Xbox, TV off." It's really the same as pressing your TV's "power" button. As a result, tying the Xbox One's power to the TV's power means that if you say "Xbox On" while your TV is on, your TV will turn off. Easier to just turn both things on separately.
I'd love for Microsoft to release an update that allowed us a separate command to turn our TVs on and off, then tied that command to a button on the remote. As it stands, I still have to use my TV remote to turn the TV on and off, though I use other remotes to do everything else.
It's sold separately.
The media remote is $24.99. It should have been included with the already expensive Xbox One, not just because most similar media boxes include a remote (one could argue that the included Xbox One controller fulfills that role) but because it's such a nice addition to the console that shipping without it leaves the Xbox One feeling kinda incomplete.
Even according to Microsoft, the Xbox One is as much a media player as it is a gaming device, and whatever experimental voice-activation tech it may include, a good media player still needs a remote. Hopefully Microsoft will begin to bundle the remote with the console soon—whatever it may cost them to do so, the remote makes their product significantly more appealing.
So, there you have it: A small, simple peripheral that does a remarkable job of helping shore up some gaps in the Xbox One's user interface. The media remote has made it much easier for me to rely on the Xbox One as the primary media device in my living room, particularly because of how it works in tandem with the Kinect's sometimes-useful voice controls. A small plastic rectangle just made Microsoft's big plastic rectangle much more enjoyable to use. Didn't see that one coming.