The personal website of Chris Coyier

Getting The AppleTV Remote To Actually Control My TV & Reciever

About a year ago I had a local professional come in and install an audio system in the family room at my house. I’ve done this kind of thing before. I’m not afraid of the technology, but I thought having some professional expertise might be nice. More, they were able to do some things I just really didn’t want to do myself, like run speaker cable under the house for the rear speakers, making for a really clean installation.

This is the audio equipment we settled on:

A basic 5.1 system. Nothing fancy in the ceiling or whatever.

The system accommodated a variety of inputs:

  • AppleTV
  • PlayStation 4
  • Blu-ray Player
  • Chromecast Dongle

At the time, accommodating all those was the goal.

Having a receiver is nice as then there is just one cable to the TV, which is extra advantageous in my setup with built-in cabinetry on the sides of the TV where everything is tucked away. I enjoy these modern times of receivers having video passthrough. It was much worse when each device had to connect separately to a TV and a receiver, and you had to change inputs in sync on both.

Nevertheless, the professionals advocated for a universal remote to control everything at once. I figured this would be the case, and it was appealing to have someone else configure it. The remote could one-tap activate the system and make sure any of the inputs were ready to go. For example, I could select the Blu-ray player and it would turn on the Blu-ray player, TV, and receiver, and make sure the receiver was on the right input. It did work, but…

I really disliked the universal remote. It was from the company URC, who are a business-to-business company, selling these remotes to dealers for custom installations. So dealers are their customers, not end users like me, evidenced by the fact I literally couldn’t update the remote myself. I had to call the professional one time to have them come out and change an input, because I don’t have access to the proprietary connection and software necessary to do this. I literally took off work and sat at home waiting for some kid to come over and change HDMI 1 to HDMI 2. Bananas.

Extra sad, as the main competition to this proprietary bullshit is Logitech Harmony remotes, which has shut down.

Ultimately, after a year of having all this in place, I ultimately didn’t like the setup. 😭

Here were the problems:

  • 99% of our usage of the system is using the AppleTV. The universal remote could control the AppleTV, but poorly. No Siri voice control. No touchpad scrubbing. No other special controls, like the fancy screen button that is useful for app switching.
  • Technically the AppleTV remote could control the volume on the Anthem receiver, by AppleTV’s own feature of “learning” other remotes. But only worked when the Anthem receiver was “awake”. Kicker: The Anthem receiver is never awake. It goes to sleep seconds after interacting with it, and the AppleTV wasn’t capable of waking it up.
  • The AppleTV remote could not power on or off the system.

This meant that day-to-day usage meant using the universal remote to turn the system on, then use the AppleTV for everything else, then back to the universal remote to shut things down.

I realize this is a very first-world problem if it qualifies as a problem at all, but hey, I wanted to improve the system.

What I wanted is to keep using the AppleTV remote, because while it has its own annoyances (too small), it’s very useful and no other remote can do what it can do. Ideally we use the AppleTV remote for everything: powering the system on, making sure it’s on the right input, controlling the volume, and powering the system off.

This is all possible! Through some help on Twitter, I was able to track down the clutch feature. I’m going to make the answer very large and green:

HDMI-CEC

You know what HDMI is. All the parts of this system connect via HDMI cables. The CEC part is “Consumer Electronics Control”, which I had never heard of until this little journey. The whole point of it is enabling communication between equipment, such that the need for a universal remote is reduced or removed.

With HDMI-CEC active on all the parts of this system, it means that, for example, the AppleTV can issue a sleep command, sleeping itself, and also shut off the receiver, and also shut off the TV. Perfect. 👍

I thought this is what HDMI ARC was, but I guess not? I’m still foggy on a lot of this. I think I still need to use the HDMI ARC input on my TV for this to work?

The Anthem receiver did not have HDMI-CEC, so it was the thing that needed replacing. I ended up going for an Onkyo TX-NR696. This swapping of receivers felt a smidge unfortunate because I’m pretty sure the Anthem receiver was a 3✕ or more expensive receiver. It literally felt heavier. I have a feeling that, somehow, via some kind of sound-nerd specs, the Anthem was technically the nicer receiver. But the fact that 1) it didn’t have HDMI-CEC 2) it fell asleep at the drop of a hat made it an easy choice.

The replacement Onkyo TX-NR696 totally solved all those problems. After setting up, my AppleTV was all like “wanna switch to 4k?”, which I did, leading me to think that the Anthem didn’t really have 4k passthrough. Another bonus.

Little notes:

  • I had to specifically enable HDMI-CEC on the receiver.
  • I had to specifically enable HDMI-CEC on my LG TV.

The Onkyo prompted for HDMI-CEC during setup, so that was no big deal. But after that, I discovered it wasn’t turning off my TV when I slept my AppleTV, so I had a depressing period where I felt like I was so-close-yet-so-far from the perfect setup. I was very pleased to dig around in the LG TV’s menus and find the HDMI-CEC setting, flip it on, and have it all work.

So now for 99% of usage, we can exclusively use the AppleTV remote. I’m very much looking forward to the new ones. I ordered them quite a while ago but looks like they are still a month or so out.

It’s very satisfying to press the MENU button on the AppleTV remote and watch the whole system kick on as expected. Then use the “hold the screen button down” shortcut, select Sleep, and watch the whole system shut down as expected.

When I need to switch to the other inputs, I’ll have to bust out the receiver remote and switch the input. But that’s pretty darn easy. There are dedicated buttons on the receiver itself for it.

I guess the TL;DR here is that HDMI-CEC is a good idea and if you’re in the market for a TV and/or receiver, you should make sure they both have it.