One of the cool things about the new fourth-generation Apple TV is that it supports HDMI-CEC, so that you can control your TV or your speaker system using the remote control that came in the box along with it, automatically switching everything to the right input, controlling volume, and turning everything off at once when you’re done.
But like the fourth-gen Apple TV, the second- and third-gen models (so, basically, every “black puck” Apple TV) have another, often overlooked trick up their utterly non-existent sleeves: they can be controlled from any other remote control. (Caveat: it needs to be a remote that issues its commands over infrared, not RF, but since that accounts for the overwhelming majority of remotes, we’re pretty confident saying “any.”)
Doing this won’t mean your TV automatically switches to the correct input, say, and of course it wouldn’t allow you to use Siri on the new Apple TV, since the third-party remote you’ll be using wouldn’t have a mic or Siri support. But what it does mean is that you can either deliberately or accidentally loose the little white or silver remote that you had been using with your Apple TV and just use the big remote that came with your TV. Or indeed, you can use this trick with multiple remotes, so you need never be unable to control your Apple TV again.
The basic idea is that most TV remotes can switch between controlling the TV and controlling other devices (a DVD player, a cable box, whatever) by pressing a button on them that switches modes, so that instead of issuing infrared commands that the TV understands, it’s issuing commands that the DVD player understands. Here’s an analogy that might help: In normal operation, pressing the right arrow on your remote blasts the command “right” out into your room over infrared. Your TV understands “right,” so it moves your selection to the right on screen. But pressing the DVD player button on your remote switches the language of the commands it sends out, so in this case pressing the right arrow now blasts, say, “derecha” (the Spanish for “right”) out into the room. Your DVD player would action this command because it’s expecting commands “in Spanish,” but the TV itself doesn’t react it doesn’t “speak Spanish”, so can’t interpret “derecha” as “right.”
The trick here is to pick one of the modes (languages, in our analogy) of your remote control and then teach the Apple TV to understand the commands it’s issuing. This latter process sounds complicated—as anyone who’s learned a foreign language will attest—but the Apple TV makes it easy.
In this guide we’ll be using a third-generation Apple TV, but the process is identical on the second-gen (assuming you have the software updated), and for the fourth-gen only the first step is slightly different: the menu you want is instead in Settings > Remotes and Devices > Learn Remote. We’ll also assume you want to use your TV’s remote, so that’s what we’ll refer to, but it could just as well be the remote for your stereo or anything else.
Start the process
Begin by pressing one of the mode buttons on your TV’s remote. Pick one you’re not currently using, such as VCR, for example. Then, using your existing Apple TV remote, navigate to Settings > General > Remotes then select Learn Remote.
Teach your Apple TV your remote’s language
Now, as prompted by the Apple TV, press and hold the indicated buttons on your TV’s control remote. Of course you could use any button at all to represent “up," so if your remote is too old to have direction arrows you could use “2” for up, “8” for down, and so on. But it makes sense to use buttons on your remote that most closely represent the software functions on the Apple TV. (Hint: the Select button would usually be the one in the center of the direction arrows.)
Teach additional functions
Once you’ve set up the basic commands, you can just leave the setup process (you can always add other functions later from the Remotes menu) or you can go on to add playback buttons for fast forward, next chapter, and so on, if your remote supports them. As before, just locate and hold the relevant button on your remote when prompted by the Apple TV.
Manage your remotes
As part of the setup process, you’re prompted to name the remote control so you can identify it later, which lets you delete it, or (re)teach it the basic or playback commands from your Apple TV’s Settings menu.
Control your Apple TV—and TV!
Now that you’ve taught your Apple TV to interpret the commands your TV remote issues when it’s set to, say, VCR mode, you can safely lose the fiddly silver or white remote and just use your TV’s remote control instead. Note that if you want to switch back to controlling your TV—even for something as simple as changing the volume, assuming you’re using your TV’s built-in speakers—you’ll need to toggle back to the TV mode of your remote.