How to control your Apple TV with a TiVo remote

It all started with the story of a swiss company making a better Apple TV remote, and what a bummer when I learned you couldn't get one in the US. A few weeks later I tweeted about a new set-top box being developed by TiVo, and how much I wanted one just to use that great peanut remote again, and how much I hated the Apple TV default remote when someone said you can just pair and program a TiVo remote to an Apple TV and get the best of both worlds. So that's what I did.

Buy a TiVo remote

You don't have to get the Lux top-of-the-line TiVo remote (any TiVo remote should work) since only about 8 buttons will work with your Apple TV, but I liked the default backlighting and size and picked one up on Amazon for $49.

Once the remote arrived I set it up a few times in different configurations until I arrived at a point that worked best for me. The following are steps to copy my best setup.

First, program the TiVo remote to control your TV's basic controls

Before you do anything, get the power, volume and other basic TV functions working with the remote and your TV. Since there's no TiVo screens to go through you'll have to put it into a learning mode and cycle through codes built-in to the remote. The full instructions are here, but you hold down the TiVo button and the TV power button until the remote light goes solid, then enter 0999 to begin the remote code testing, with an option to cycle it until it successfully turns your TV off.

For my LG TV, the first test worked, and I saved it to the remote. Now, the TiVo remote could control my TV's basic functions.

Next, go through Learn Remote settings on your Apple TV

Go to Remotes and Devices in your Apple TV settings, then select the Learn Remote option in the next menu.

You'll go through a series of screens to set up basic navigation. I used the TiVo button as the Apple TV Menu button, and then the top directional menu to move in four directions with the middle OK button as the Select.

Go through the second set of options to map your play, pause, forward/back, skip ahead/skip behind, next track/last track. I mapped all those to the lower part of the remote, with the slow-mo TiVo button as stop, the arrow button with the vertical line as the skip ahead, the back 5 sec button for the skip back, and I used the thumbs up/down buttons for the next/last tracks.

Use your new TiVo remote

In just a couple minutes I had a familiar remote back in my hand, hit the TiVo button at the top and started moving through my Apple TV. It was fantastic immediately because like any well-designed remote, I was back to familiar controls to play and pause video and it was easy enough to move around the Apple TV UI in it.

Given the TiVo's longer layout, you basically move around at the top of the remote (turn the TV on, adjust volume, move through menus) and then the middle of the remote to control playback. It is kind of a bummer you can only use about 10 buttons out of maybe 50-60 on the remote, but once you get used to jumping to the TiVo button to wake your Apple TV or back out of menus, it starts to feel natural.

These are the only buttons I ended up using to control both my TV and my Apple TV

The one feature of the old Apple TV remote that frustrated me constantly was the "skip ahead a few seconds" feature, which required a tap just on the edge of the glass surface of the default remote. For some reason (my fat fingers?) apps like YouTube would regularly register it as a pause and sometimes it would skip ahead to the next video. Other apps would behave differently and the tap area of the glass surface felt bigger or smaller to register a skip ahead.

With the TiVo remote, I have a dedicated button that always jumps ahead a few seconds in any app, every single time, and never pauses. It's great.

There are a few things you'll miss from using any non-Apple remote with your Apple TV:

  1. There's no "Screen" button mapped. If you got used to double-clicking it to "kill" Apple TV apps like a phone, or your programmed it to jump to the home screen, or you long-pressed to get the time (until last week I had no idea Apple TV had a clock anywhere in it) or swap users, you'll be out of luck since Apple doesn't map this button for any other remote. I could live without it, though I did miss it slightly.
  2. There's no glass surface to swipe across quickly for scanning through a long video. This wasn't much of a deal-breaker for me since the fast forward and rewind buttons in the middle of the TiVo remote can move you through a video fairly quickly when you tap them a few times. I've gotten used to the lack of a glass swipe area really quickly.
  3. Voice control is gone, which is a bummer since the TiVo remote has a voice control button, but you won't get to use Siri for things like filling in a search box like the Apple TV can.

Keep in mind, even that Salt remote designed with Apple's cooperation lacks these same three extra buttons. These may be deal-breakers for you, but I can get by without them.

It took some poking around to figure out how to display how much time was left in a video playing without the glass surface, and that's hitting the Select button (that I mapped to OK on the TiVo remote at the top center). If you point up for channel info or to turn subtitles on or off, the top banner wouldn't disappear until I hit the Menu button (my TiVo button at the very top). I do wish the "Screen" button was mapped or that I could use voice control to trigger Siri, but otherwise it's functional.

After a week into using this, I really like it. I can use the remote without having to look at it, it fits well in my hand, and I no longer get frustrated by a bad fast forward press or an accidental pause.

It just works.