Apple refers to the Apple TV
as a “hobby,” and though the home-entertainment device has received
regular updates, especially over the past couple years, for most of its
life that description has fit. Still, the updates have helped make
today’s Apple TV a much more capable device than the one that debuted
back in 2007. It has improved enough that we regularly use it in our
But its remote still stinks.
|The current Apple remote.
That remote is essentially the same accessory that shipped with the
original Apple TV, except that it looks nicer now. The current iteration
has seven buttons—Left, Right, Up, Down, Select, Menu, and
Play/Pause—and you navigate the Apple TV’s interface by moving your
selection, one line or icon step at a time, using the directional
buttons. To choose an option or to delve down into the next menu, you
press Select (the center button); to go up a level, you press Menu.
The process works, but it’s clunky, especially when you want to move,
say, five items down in a list: The Apple TV interface doesn’t respond
quickly enough to five fast Down presses, and if instead you hold
the Down button, the selection will move slowly at first, and then
accelerate, often skipping right past where you wanted to go.
And that’s the user-friendly part. When you have to enter text—for
example, when you’re typing a username or password, or entering the name
of a movie you want to search for—you face the dreaded
process. For a long time, the experience of using the Apple TV’s remote
was frustrating enough to make me reach for my beloved TiVo remote and
watch TV instead.
The $649 remote
|Apple’s Remote app for iOS.
That changed back in 2008 with the release of Apple’s Remote app for iOS,
which let you use an iTunes-like interface on your iPhone to control
your Apple TV and—hallelujah!—use your iOS device’s onscreen keyboard to
enter text. Later updates to the Remote app added iPad support and a
nice touchscreen-remote mode for navigating the Apple TV’s own menus.
The frequency with which my family used the Apple TV increased
That said, the Remote app has some drawbacks, too. It obviously requires
that you have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch handy; and each time you
launch the app, there’s a delay before it finds and reconnects to your
Apple TV on your local network. Also, if you happen to be using your iOS
device while watching something on the Apple TV, you end up
switching back and forth between Remote and your other apps, and when
you do so, there’s a noticeable delay before the Remote app is
responsive each time.
What I’ve long wanted instead was to be able to use a standard Bluetooth keyboard as a remote control and text-entry tool.
It turns out that the Apple TV 5.2 update,
released earlier this year, enabled just that feature, letting you pair
a Bluetooth keyboard with a second-generation or later Apple TV and
then use that keyboard for both controlling the Apple TV and entering
text. Configuring and subsequently using this duo are simple operations.
Before getting into those details, a quick note about keyboard compatibility: Apple’s documentation states that only recent Apple Wireless Keyboards
(where “recent” means “all but the original 2003 model”) are officially
supported. However, the company also points out that “third-party
Bluetooth keyboards that use the Apple keyboard layout may also be
|Apple’s Wireless Keyboard.
Over the past few months, I’ve tested over a dozen third-party Bluetooth
keyboards with the second- and third-generation Apple TV, and every one
of them has worked perfectly. The models I’ve tried include Logitech’s
multi-device Easy-Switch Keyboard and Wireless Solar Keyboard 760,
which are ideal if you want to move your keyboard between your Apple
TV, your Mac, and an iOS device. I’ve also tested several iPad keyboards,
and a compact keyboard designed for use with a media-center computer.
If you don’t already have a Bluetooth keyboard on hand, consider getting
Amazon’s AmazonBasics Bluetooth Keyboard, which works well and costs just $30.
Pairing the Apple
The process of pairing the keyboard with your Apple TV is similar to
what you’d do to pair a Bluetooth accessory with your Mac or iPad.
The Apple TV’s Bluetooth screen
- Put the keyboard in pairing mode. Many Bluetooth keyboards have a
dedicated Pairing button that you press (or hold) until a light flashes
to indicate pairing mode. Others (including Apple’s Wireless Keyboard)
require you to press and hold the keyboard’s power button until the
pairing-mode light flashes.
- Use your Apple TV’s remote (yes, you’re stuck using it one last time) to navigate to Settings -> General -> Bluetooth. The Apple TV will automatically begin searching for nearby Bluetooth devices that are in pairing mode.
- Once your keyboard appears in the list, select it and press the Select key on the Apple TV remote.
- After a few seconds, you’ll be prompted to type, on the keyboard, a
four-digit code that appears on your TV’s screen. Type that code and
press Return or Enter, and you’ll receive a confirmation message that
the keyboard is now paired with the Apple TV.
The Apple TV will return to the Bluetooth screen, and your keyboard will
be listed as Connected. From now on, whenever you turn your Bluetooth
keyboard on, it will automatically reconnect to the Apple TV—you’ll see
an on-screen indicator that looks like Apple’s Wireless Keyboard with a
link symbol above it. (If you ever want to remove the pairing
between a particular keyboard and your Apple TV, just go to the
Bluetooth screen on your Apple TV, select the keyboard in the list, and
choose Forget This Device in the screen that appears.)
Control is key
So what can you do with a Bluetooth keyboard? For starters, the arrow
keys on your keyboard function just like the Up, Down, Back, and Forward
buttons on the Apple TV’s remote—except that the Apple TV instantly
recognizes your key presses, and the response is fluid: Quickly pressing
the down-arrow key five times immediately moves the selection down
exactly five items, and you can whip around the Apple TV home screen
The Return and Enter keys on your keyboard act as the remote’s Select
button, as you’d expect, and you emulate the remote’s Menu button by
pressing Escape on the keyboard. (This also makes sense, if you imagine
the action as “escaping” from the current screen or menu.)
You might think that using a keyboard, with its 80 or so other keys, as
an Apple TV remote would be more confusing than using the device’s own
simple remote, but in my experience—perhaps because I’ve spent years
using arrow keys to navigate interfaces on my computer—it’s anything
but. In fact, it feels quite intuitive to me, and I’m definitely faster
and less frustrated on the keyboard than with the stock remote. That
said, I suspect that people who aren’t keyboard junkies in the first
place might prefer to stick with the Apple remote…
…until, that is, they need to type. When you have a keyboard paired
with your Apple TV, any time you need to enter text, you can simply
type—to search for media, to enter passwords, you name it.
In addition to basic navigation control and
text entry, a Bluetooth keyboard lets you quickly jump to any item in,
say, a long list of artists.
And did I mention that when you’re scrolling through menus on the Apple
TV, you can type the first few letters of any menu item to jump directly
to it? In the past, I never listened to my Mac’s iTunes library on my
Apple TV because choosing, say, an artist name that starts with T
meant holding the Down button and waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
With a Bluetooth keyboard, I can simply navigate to the Artists list and
then type T-R-A-S to jump right to the Trash Can Sinatras.
When I’m done in any menu, I can hold down the Escape key to return to
the Apple TV’s home screen.
Finally, if you have an Apple Wireless Keyboard, or any Mac- or
iPad-focused keyboard with media-playback keys (Play/Pause, Previous,
and Next), you can use them to control media playback. And if your
keyboard has an iOS Home button, you can use that button to quickly jump
back to the Apple TV’s home screen. (Volume, screen-brightness, and
other special-function keys don’t perform those functions for the Apple
We have a couple Apple TVs in our house, and each now has a Bluetooth
keyboard as a permanent companion. For me, the keyboard makes using the
Apple TV a much more pleasant experience. But given that the current
Apple TV design has included Bluetooth circuitry since its debut back in
2010, why is Apple only now adding keyboard support?
I have as much inside information as the next tech pundit (read: none)
but the optimist and technology fan in me hopes that this is yet another
step—along with the gradual addition of more content apps, such as Hulu
Plus, MLB, and Flickr—toward Apple opening up the Apple TV to real
third-party apps. After all, some of those apps will surely require more
than cursory text entry, and maybe a few will even beg for a physical
I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Except when I’m typing on my Apple TV.