In Microsoft's perfect world, the Xbox One Media Remote wouldn't exist. Everyone would be happy controlling the Xbox One using their voice or gestures, and remotes would be a relic of our TV-watching past.
In reality, the Xbox One experience -- outside of the gaming realm -- can sometimes be a frustrating one. You have to give credit to Microsoft for recognizing that with the release of the Xbox One Media Remote (US$25/£20/AU$30). In reviewing the Xbox One's living room capabilities shortly after its launch, I wrote that it "cries out for a dedicated remote", and that's exactly what the Media Remote delivers, letting you do simple tasks like adjust the volume without using your voice or breaking out the controller.
The small clicker is well-designed, with nice touches like a velvety texture and backlighting that turns on as soon as you pick it up. It can't completely fix all the Xbox One's living room shortcomings -- DVR control is still an issue -- but it makes it a much more tolerable conduit for your cable box.
The Xbox One Media Remote may not be the remoteless future Microsoft envisioned, but it makes using the Xbox One fit into your living room a whole lot easier -- and that's well worth your $25.
$25 may seem like a lot for an add-on remote, but the Media Remote feels particularly well-made. It had enough weight to feel substantial, without being heavy, and it's covered in a soft, textured finish that's pleasant to hold. Pick up the remote and its backlighting immediately kicks in, making it easy to see its buttons even when your living room is dim.
The buttons on the Media Remote are unusually flat, raised ever-so-slightly above the front of the remote. Even the directional pad is just slightly recessed, except for the button in the center. Typically, remotes with such a relatively even surface is a bad sign, but there are enough subtle tactile cues that it's actually pretty easy to navigate without looking. The button rockers for volume and channel changing are large and centrally located and even the completely flush mute button in the center has a texture that lets you know it's there.
While the remote's layout makes it easy to find buttons, knowing what the buttons actually do isn't always clear. Of the four buttons surrounding the directional pad, the back button is straightforward, but the other three aren't immediately obvious. Clockwise from the upper left, they're for "view," "menu," and "OneGuide," which is hard to tell from the abstract icons. Xbox gamers might have their functions memorized, but nongaming members of the household would have been better served by using the actual words.
The Media Remote requires virtually no setup: slap in the included AAA batteries and it works right out of the box, with no additional pairing step required.
Used in conjunction with the Xbox One and the Kinect, the Media Remote also functions as a simple universal remote, letting you control other devices such as your TV, an AV receiver, or a sound bar. As long as you've set up your Xbox One correctly already, you don't need to do any more configuration for the Media Remote to control your other devices. Press a button on the remote, it sends commands to the Xbox One, and the Kinect fires out commands to control your other devices. Note that the remote needs to send commands to the Xbox One, not the Kinect, so you'll need to make sure you have line-of-sight to your console.
That need for line-of-sight highlights the fact that the Media Remote uses traditional IR-based remote commands -- the same kind your TV remote uses. It feels a little backwards when the trend has been moving away from direct IR control. New products like the Roku Streaming Stick, Amazon Fire TV, and Logitech Harmony Smart Control all use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, which don't require line-of-sight to send commands. In practice, the Media Remote's reliance on IR didn't make much of a difference in my setup, aside from a few rare instances where my commands didn't quite make it to the Xbox One.
One more item on my wish list was a mic built into the remote, ala the Fire TV. Of course the Xbox One already has voice recognition using the included Kinect, but it sometimes requires more shouting than most people are comfortable with in their living room. The Fire TV's remote lets you speak quietly right into the remote; it would have been a nice bonus feature for the Media Remote.
If you're firing up your Xbox One to watch TV or a Blu-ray, the Media Remote is a welcome addition to your coffee table. If you thought shouting commands like "Xbox, watch ESPN" in your living room feels weird, that's nothing compared to "Xbox, volume up" every time you want to nudge the volume. With the Media Remote, you can kick back with the smallish remote in hand, set aside the bulky controller, and watch TV the way you're used to.
The Media Remote can't solve all of the Xbox One's shortcomings in the living room. The major pain point remains the lack of direct DVR control from the OneGuide interface, which is still frustrating; you have to jump between the OneGuide interface and your cable box interface to handle DVR recordings. On the upside, Microsoft recently announced that some improvements to DVR control are coming to the Xbox One in an update, so it's possible that some this limitation could be lessened soon.
The bottom line is the Xbox One Media Remote solves one of the major problems I had with Microsoft's living room experience: changing channels and adjusting the volume is a pain using voice commands. It's especially nice for households where everybody isn't a gamer, but the Xbox One has monopolized the main living room TV. Given the $100 premium over the PS4, it feels like perhaps the Media Remote should be included with the Xbox One, but it's still worth your $25 if you're tired of using the controller or your voice while watching TV.