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A Case for Buttons

The world cannot live on apps alone.


Remotes like the ELAN HR200 combine touchscreen versatility with the immediate responsiveness of tactile buttons. The world cannot live on apps alone.

When Apple came out with the first iPhone, it was a shocking departure from everything that we’d grown accustomed to using: it had just one physical button on its face. “How could you possibly control such a complex device without buttons?” we pondered.

Nearly eight years later, it’s difficult to see a use for buttons at all. We can control our communications, our entertainment, and even our door locks, all with simple gestures. Tap here, pinch there, a little swipe, and you’re done. For most of our devices, especially the ones that we carry around in our pockets, touchscreen control is the undisputed interface king.

URC’s TRC-1080 remote also features a screen to assist in controlling a wide array of devices connected in the home. But the button is not dead. In fact, there’s one type of button-centric device that many users still prefer: the wand-style remote.

For the past few years, manufacturers like Crestron, ELAN, Pro Control, RTI, Control4, URC, and Savant have been producing buttonfilled smart remotes that also incorporate small screens, for easy control of whole-home entertainment systems. These devices reimagine the concept of the traditional television remote, bringing enhanced customizability and expanded capability to a control form with which we are intimately familiar. There are many reasons why these remotes have been so successful, but one of the chief reasons is their dedication of purpose. Imagine you’re watching TV and the phone rings. What do you do?

“With a dedicated remote, consumers are only one button press away from pause,” said Cat Toomey, director of marketing at URC. “That’s not possible with a device whose primary function is texting, talking, posting social media, or gaming.”

Indeed, speed of access is one area in which a tactile button interface will always beat a jack-ofall- trades touchpanel device. And when the device has a dedicated purpose, you know right where to find it (provided it’s not stuck somewhere in the couch cushions).

RTI’s line of remotes features tactile button control “A phone or tablet walks off,” said Ross Livingston, director of listen & watch for Control4. “It goes to the office. It goes to school, or to the gym. A dedicated remote stays where it belongs–in the family room, the theater, etc. When you need to turn on the TV, or control the lights, the remote is there waiting for you.”

But the advantage of buttons goes beyond just speed of access. When you have a big, beautiful, top-of-the-line TV, chances are you don’t want to take your eyes off of it. With a remote with tactile buttons, you can change channels by feel, allowing your eyes to stay glued to the tube.

“With a remote, with very little practice, you can find every key, in the dark, under the covers, or with your focus on the screen you are watching,” Livingston said. “With a flat-surface device, you must look at it to position your finger over the correct button. And you cannot rest your finger on the button; it must hover over the button. Who wants to channel surf like that?”

The SR260 remote from Control4 But ease of use is only the beginning. For better or worse, offerings from companies like Apple have changed the way we expect our technology to look, as well. We want something that’s both functional and fancy. To be successful, companies need to put forth something more than just a standard-looking remote if they want consumers to bite. After all, the remote is always on display–a centerpiece in our entertainment environment.

Remotes like the HR200 from ELAN attempt to meld functionality with flair, creating a device that’s simple yet capable of doing more than just changing channels. And the design is one that people will want to pick up.

“The H200 is all about style,” said Joe Lautner, core brands director of business development at ELAN. “It has a sleek, modern, sexy feel that fits seamlessly into any style room. The charging station also has an elegant and sophisticated design to make it an aesthetically pleasing accessory to show off in each room.”

The HR200 combines the convenience of buttons with a small, backlit touchscreen for enhanced control over multiple zones of wholehome audio, home security, climate, and lighting systems.

Like the HR200, URC’s TRC-1080 remote also features a screen to assist in controlling a wide array of devices connected in the home. Unlike the ELAN remote, however, URC’s remote is controlled completely by tactile buttons that the company has engineered carefully for the best ergonomic configuration. According to Toomey, the reason URC’s remotes have sold well is because they provide the “glitz and glamour associated with things like cell phones and GPS units, but more importantly deliver the utility of a well-designed, durable handheld remote control.”

Savant’s Universal Remote Crestron also has taken great care to develop a remote that both feels right in your hand and is easy to operate too, by focusing on the balance and the ergonomic placement of buttons. “From the moment you pick up the remote, you feel the quality,” said Delia Hansen, senior residential marketing manager at Crestron. “We employed button-use mapping analytics to arrange the mostused buttons near the center, and lesser-used buttons outside.”

Crestron’s latest flagship model, the TSR-302, also features an angled touchscreen at the top for easier visibility, with minimalistic graphical user interface akin to the latest mobile device operating systems.

One aspect at the heart of this new breed of remotes is customizability. The Control4’s SR260 remote, for instance, has a wealth of permutations that can be assigned to a set of tactile buttons. According to Blair Sonnen, PR manager at the company, “These are dedicated buttons that you can specifically map to say, lock all the doors at night and lower the blinds, or set your thermostat, fan speed, HVAC mode, and humidity systems to the desired configuration for watching a movie on a hot night with a lot of people in the room.” And because the remote works over Wi-Fi through a Zigbee wireless standard, line of sight is not required for any device control.

For devices like Savant’s Universal Remote, configuring a remote is as easy as turning it on. The Savant Universal Remote is Wi-Fi based and is self-configuring. “Once you put the remote on the network with the Savant system, the remote learns your home configuration automatically and is ready for use. If any changes or updates are done to the Savant system, the remote updates automatically,” said Tim McInerney, director of product marketing for the company.

With its TSR-302, Crestron has taken great care to develop a remote that both feels right in your hand and is easy to operate too, by focusing on the balance and the ergonomic placement of buttons. Some manufacturers, like RTI, use remotes and apps as a tandem operation. Users of the company’s remotes, such as the SURFiR and T2i, can program home automation controls using the RTiPanel app on a smartphone or tablet, and the remote figures out the rest.

“The RTI SURFiR remote automatically tracks the device the user is controlling via the app, seamlessly changing the functionality of the buttons,” explained Scott Kelley, VP of sales and marketing at RTI. “This lets users utilize their smartphone or tablet as their main interface while increasing system convenience through tactile buttons.”

Pro Control’s Pro24.z remote comes equipped with ZigBee technology for dependable control and two-way feedback from components Like RTI’s offerings, sister brand Pro Control’s remotes also work in conjunction with the company’s app. In addition its 2.4-inch LCD touchscreens and backlit hard buttons, these handhelds also feature a five-way joystick for enhanced tactile control. And like many other smart remotes, they also offer advanced wireless integration. According to Mike Everett, general manager of Pro Control, the company’s Pro24.z remote “comes equipped with ZigBee technology for dependable control and two-way feedback from components–allowing users to integrate third-party systems such as Sonos, Lutron, and Nest–directly from the remote.”

With all of the technological improvements so far–and the many yet to come–the familiar form of wand remotes and their tactile buttons won’t be vanishing any time in the near future. With upcoming releases, like the T3x from RTI, remotes will incorporate more features common to phones and tablets, such as a camera and microphone for intercom support, bringing more and more convenience to a device we always know where to find.