The GoodIt is small, white, cute, looks like an iPod, and has only 6 buttons!
The BadIt has one too many buttons! :-) And one too few click wheels.
The main drawback of the Front Row remote is that its interface is similar to that of the iPod shuffle rather than being identical to that of the click wheel based iPods. The iPod shuffle interface is good enough for a device that does not hold many songs, but lousy for a device that has many songs. The best interface for a device with many songs is click wheel interface. Since a computer running Front Row will most likely have as many or more songs than the higher capacity iPods, the best interface for the Front Row remote is the click wheel interface.
The second drawback of the Front Row remote is a result of the layout of the main options in Front Row. The options in the main-level where you choose Photos, Video, DVD, or Music are arranged in a circular fashion. But the options in the iPod are arranged in a linear fashion. This difference in the arrangement of the options makes it difficult to determine what buttons to press for the main level options in Front Row. While playing with Front Row in the Apple store, I fumbled with the remote and could not predict confidently the result of pressing the various buttons on the remote. I don't own an iPod shuffle and so I am not familiar with the button layout. But even if I had owned an iPod shuffle, I don't think I would have been able to predict what would happen because (1) the iPod shuffle does not have a screen, and (2) even if the iPod shuffle had a screen, the options would not have been presented in a circular fashion in it.
I think Front Row is gorgeous, don't get me wrong. I just think that Apple could have done a better job on the usability if they had chosen a linear arrangement for the options. They did this for the subsequent levels and they are gorgeous too (though they don't have the same wow-factor as the main-level). For example, the dock-magnification effect could have been used with a linear vertical arrangement in the main-level. And if they wanted something that was not used before, I am sure they could have figured out something new for a linear arrangement that had the desired wow-factor. I am not willing to assume that they could not have done better than the sub-levels. The main level has only four options whereas sub-levels tend to have many many more. So there is more freedom in the main-level compared to the sub-levels.
Due to these two drawbacks, it is not easy to carry over your iPod navigation knowledge and skills to Front Row. They result in a learning curve (however small it may be) where none would have been necessary (at least for (non-shuffle) iPod users).
So why did Apple not release a click-wheel based Remote? Was it to save money or was it just an oversight? I hope it is not the former. Steve Jobs said Apple's first goal is to make great products and their second goal is to make enough money to keep making great products. I hope that is still the case and this is just an oversight that will get rectified soon.
And The...Ugly? I can't think of anything ugly about the remote. By Apple standards, I think the "bad" above qualifies as "ugly", but lets not be harsh :-).
What I really want to talk about in this section is the myth that the Front Row remote has far less buttons than competing entertainment center PC remotes because Front Row does not support viewing and recording of live-TV. Many people said this when Front Row was introduced. And I recently read in the Wall Street Journal that the VP in charge of Windows Media Center presented the same reasoning to Bill Gates. I call this reasoning a myth because it is not true.
First, as I described in my previous post, I think Apple should not make a DVR. I don't believe a TV tuner and DVR are required to fill the gaps in Front Row. Equivalent functionality can be achieved using a video-on-demand strategy (assuming Apple is able to provide all the content currently available from the cable and satellite TV companies). A video-on-demand strategy would not require extra buttons in the Front Row remote. It is already capable of showing the on-demand movie trailers with the existing set of buttons (though there have been reports of performance issues and it not being truly on-demand; but these issues don't invalidate what I am saying).
Second, even if Apple decided to go the TV tuner and DVR route, they still would not need more buttons in the Front Row remote. The reason Apple has been able to reduce the number of buttons is because they have in essence moved the remaining buttons to the screen. The actual physical remote just contains buttons (and a hopefully a click-wheel in the near future) to help navigate and select the on-screen buttons. So a TV tuner and a DVR can be easily controlled using this approach.
Now this approach would be cumbersome if every option involved going through multiple levels of on-screen menus and buttons. But luckily that is not the case for the most used functions. The current Front Row remote has physical buttons for "next", "previous", and "play/pause" (and even a click-wheel based remote would have these physical buttons). So once users select the TV option (from the main-level in Front Row), they will be able to use the "next" and "previous" button to flip through channels (or there could be a preference setting to use these "next" and "previous" buttons to flip through user-programmed favorite channels). For changing audio volume, the current Front Row remote has "+" and "-" buttons. And in the case of a click wheel remote, it would be the same as controlling the volume on an iPod: you would have to rotate the wheel while watching TV.
As for DVR functionality, an important feature is the ability to pause and resume live-TV. Even on a TiVo remote, the pause button is given more prominence than all other buttons by making it "centrally" located, larger in size, and different in color. The "play/pause" button already exists physically on the Front Row remote and is similarly more prominent than the other buttons (it won't be on a click wheel remote, but I would gladly trade that loss in usability for the other benefits). And for recording live-TV, I think a click wheel remote would be better than the current Front Row remote. The record functionality can be assigned to the center button in the click wheel interface (with or without it resulting in further on-screen buttons for confirmation).
So what do you think? Do you agree, or am I missing something?
UPDATE (9:30 PM, Jan 10, 2006):
I just realized earlier today that with a click-wheel remote, a circular arrangement for the options in the main level will not be confusing. I am guessing that users would intuitively realize that they should rotate the click-wheel to cycle through the options. Whether this is really the case can be easily determined from usability studies. One more thing I forgot to mention about the current implementation of the circular arrangement is that it is not immediately obvious that the option at the bottom is the selected option.