Once upon a time, I had an idea for home entertainment nirvana. I would purchase the same brand of smart TV for each screen in my home. I reasoned that it would simplify the cable-cutting experience for the whole family.
For the most part, it worked. I ended up going with various models of Samsung smart TVs. They all used the same operating system and had very similar remotes. They could also synchronize favorites, apps, and settings if you logged on to a Samsung cloud account. It was very convenient, nobody missed cable at all.
Fast forward several years, and it was time to replace one of the screens. I really liked OLED, and the best bang for my buck was an LG. The LG features a remote that resembles a Wii controller. LG’s WebOS is vastly different than Samsung’s Tizen. Not too long after, we also eventually ended up with an Amazon Fire-TV based screen in the kitchen area.
There went my master-plan. Now, we were using three different operating systems and three vastly different and uniquely ackward remotes. Adjusting to different functionality and layout of the remotes and in the streaming apps themselves, was fun to a tech-head like me. Not so much for the family. I started thinking along the lines of getting the same universal remote for each system to at least lessen the confusion.
A few minutes of research online nixed that idea. Universal remotes are not as robust as they used to be. Most of them do not support modern radio frequency based televisions. Of those that did, I couldn’t locate one that would do everything else I wanted. I really prefer to have one remote that controls everything. The fewer buttons, the better, but I don’t want to have to look at the remote for every function either.
I tried using the smartphone apps, and they work but are also vastly different between Apple and Android versions. The three different apps for each TV have very unique interfaces and functionality. The lack of tactile feedback makes the touchscreen apps difficult to use. You have to look at (and sometimes unlock) your smartphone every time you change the channel, adjust the volume, fast forward, etc. It’s a lot of looking and switching between active apps. There’s more of a “works in a pinch” feel overall.
While discussing the remote situation with my partner, she casually said something along the lines of “almost makes you miss the good ole’ days of cable boxes.” My brain jumped from her remark to “Why not use a streaming box to do the same job?”
I started my little project by hooking up a Roku to the living room TV. It worked fine, but if truth be told, it was clunkier to use than Samsung’s SmartTV OS. It also seemed a little under-powerd. Switching between the streaming apps was annoyingly slow, so was flipping channels in any of the live-TV apps. To be fair, it was a low- level Roku that I had won in a raffle. It’s my understanding that the higher-end models do not suffer the same performance problems.
I learned several things from the Roku. First, it convinced me that the idea of using streaming boxes to get a consistent experience across the screens was going to work. Second, it convinced me that a minimalist remote control backed by the right software would be able to control my screens, audio systems, and streaming apps. Lastly, I had decided that it would be worth purchasing wired network boxes for less chance of issues and better overall streaming performance.
Over the next few weeks, I contemplated and researched the options. In the and, it came down to an Amazon cube, or Apple TV. They’re both high-performance devices with multi-core processors, plenty of RAM, gaming capable graphics, and gigabit wired ethernet.
The Amazon Fire-TV operating system is based on Android. However, like all Fire based devices, they don’t have access to the Google Play store (without extra work). The Amazon shop has most of the apps people are looking for, but not all. The UI is a little frustrating at times. Unexpectedly most of the annoyances seem to be caused by a lack of notification.
For example, after certain updates, the Amazon Fire OS needs to reboot. There’s no on-screen notification that you need to initiate a full restart from the advanced options menu buried in the control panel. The way many Fire-TV owners discover the situation is by searching online for troubleshooting instructions after noticing that apps are not working properly.
The Apple TV hasn’t had any type of technical issue in all the months I’ve been using it. I have it connected to the LG OLED screen and wired to the network. My cheap Visio surround sound bar is connected to the TV via an optical cable. The Apple TV detected and configured everything on its own as soon as it booted up and finished its “hello world” routine. I was impressed.
I find the Apple TV remote to be the best overall media controller I’ve ever used. It’s small, light, made of cool metal, and rounded in all the right places. The main interface is a large depression that your thumb naturally gravitates toward. Clicking in is the Ok or action button, and sliding your finger over the surface moves the cursor like a laptop’s touch pad. Each cardinal edge of the circle can be clicked in to activate a D-Pad function. I find myself holding a nd fidgeting with the remote even when I’m not changing the channel.
Like all things Apple, it is the little things and attention to detail that helps the Apple TV stand out in the crowd. Double-click the home button, and a card deck of all your open apps makes getting back to your previous activities a breeze. Hold the same button down for a couple of seconds and a quick access menu appears to change users or adjust common settings. Click the same button once to wake up the screen, audio system, and automatically switch everything to the correct inputs and outputs.
Eventually I installed the Moonlight streaming app on the Apple TV and paired a Bluetooth Xbox controller to it. The game streaming experience is great, but the Apple TV had an unexpected surprise that I use as a result. When you have paired a gamepad you can also fully control the apps and TV with it. I also noticed the my iPhone and iPad both immediately detected the Apple TV units and allowed me to fully control it without doing anything, no app, no setup, just pull down the quick menu and there’s my TV.