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Hands on with AirPlay: iPad and Apple TV updates make a magic combination


On the topic of iPad 4.2 and Apple TV 4.1, the first version combination to support video streaming via AirPlay, we might as well get all the caveats out of the way first. Yes, you still can't push streaming audio or video from your Mac to your iPad without third-party apps. No, you can't use AirPlay to show videos from your iPhone's camera roll, and people are plenty steamed about that. It's not a codec issue, as iTunes can easily stream the same videos to the Apple TV, so most likely the iPhone 4's AirPlay implementation isn't quite fully baked yet to handle those streams.

You can't play video from most iPad apps until they're revised for iOS 4.2 (which may not be possible yet, see note below); right now it's the Video app and YouTube for videos, Photos app for picture slideshows, iTunes for streaming from your Mac. Aside from audio (supported from most applications) that's all there is. Some iPad apps (Hulu Plus, for example) may never allow AirPlay support for licensing reasons.

[Update: As noted by a commenter below, the current version of the iOS SDK does not expose the video portion of the AirPlay APIs to third parties, meaning that any app developers who are reportedly looking to implement video streaming (like Netflix) are going to have to negotiate support with Apple on a case by case basis. If the SDK is revised once the frameworks stabilize and third parties do get access to the AirPlay video streaming capabilities, that changes the landscape considerably.]

Doesn't matter. AirPlay is astonishing. In a stroke, the $99 Apple TV has been transformed from a capable but somewhat pedestrian streaming player and video rental device into a true digital hub -- the home entertainment equivalent of a Star Trek replicator. Pushing content to the Apple TV feels fundamentally different than pulling from iTunes, mostly because it's so much easier to control and switch when sitting in front of the full library.

Pushing video from the iPad to the big screen is revelatory; it looks and sounds fantastic, and knowing that I can walk into any Apple TV-equipped household and instantly show any media on my device is going to make that holiday gift list for the grandparents a lot easier.

It's true that the lack of iPhone camera roll playback is pretty surprising, and for a lot of people that potential feature was a big driver in going out and getting the Apple TV in the first place. I hope it gets corrected soon, but there's plenty more in AirPlay that's worth exploring.

Let's walk through the one-click Apple TV update process and take a look at the basic AirPlay functionality.

Upgrading your Apple TV is the first step, and for me it was very straightforward: apple tv settings menu

Go to the Settings menu, choose General (at the top), scroll down to Update Software and click.

apple tv update software command

The Apple TV quickly took note of the available update, and I gave it the go-ahead. The download took about 10 minutes and began installing without further intervention.

apple tv update confirmation

During the update cycle, I noticed a green Apple logo screen, which gave me a moment of nervousness in light of the ongoing HDMI handshake problems reported by some users (mostly in Europe). I'm happy to say that my screen returned to normal and within a few moments the Apple TV was back in business.

Below, the dreaded (poison?) green apple. Fortunately it was transient.

As soon as I got back to the menu, I looked over in Settings to find AirPlay. There's not much to the controls -- the service is either on or off, and you can assign a password if you're concerned about other users on your wireless network putting their content on your TV (probably quite useful in dormitories).

Minimalist, to be sure.

As soon as the Apple TV was back online, I was able to select it as an audio output device in iTunes. The output selector appears at the bottom right side of the main iTunes window, and all your AirPlay-savvy devices (including Airport Express base stations) should show up there.

Audio playback routed smoothly to the Apple TV and sounded great to me. What was a bit surprising was that I was able to route video as well -- the AirPlay icon showed up in the control bar and I found myself playing back a ripped DVD on my TV.

Video playback worked just as well with iTunes store purchased videos. The main difference between playing videos in this mode -- pushing from iTunes, instead of pulling from the Apple TV -- is navigation ease and speed. Aside from a two second caching pause at the start of a TV show or movie, the experience is seamless. Anything in iTunes plays back on the Apple TV just as naturally as it does in pull mode.

Moving to the marquee player, the iPad's streaming over AirPlay worked just as gracefully as the Mac's streaming from iTunes. I started playing a movie (in this case, a clip from Elvis Costello's Spectacle)...

... then pressed the AirPlay button, selected the Apple TV, and after a moment or two the video was playing on the TV. No muss, no fuss. I was able to sleep the iPad via the top power switch, and the video kept playing merrily along; I was also able to use non-audio apps in the foreground while the movie played, without any noticeable performance drag. The Apple TV remote also worked for controlling pause/play and fast forward.

This was HD content from iTunes, and it looked like it -- perfect picture, great sound and no network artifacts. The iPad screen blanked out with the control display you see below.

The sheer ease of getting video from my iPad and onto my TV was a little bit dizzying. Over the years I've been fighting a long cable battle with VGA to composite, DVI to VGA, mini DisplayPort to HDMI and never mind the audio aggravation, just to get a consistent means of connecting my computer to my TV for ad-hoc playback. Now I've got a great solution, and I don't even need the computer in the loop anymore.

YouTube streaming was a little bit flakier. There were a couple of false starts on videos as they were downloading, and I had to go back to the selection screen and start again to get them to play correctly. Still, they worked pretty well, looking about as good as most YouTube videos do via the internal Apple TV application -- that is to say, not all that great, but a lot easier to search and select from the iPad.

Audio playback from the iPad worked just as smoothly as it did from iTunes; started playing a track, sent it to the Apple TV, there is no step three. Volume controls on the iPad adjusted the TV playback level, and you can get to them even after leaving the iPad app by double-pressing the Home button (to bring up the multitasking dock) and then swiping to the right to reveal the orientation lock, brightness/volume controls and the playback buttons.

I don't know yet what kind of impact AirPlay is going to make on media habits in our house, but considering we're a four-iDevice family, I have a feeling that there's going to be some changes precipitated by this simple but compelling technology. I'll report back in a week or two, but in the meantime, get yourself set up and share your experiences in the comments below and on our Facebook page. Viva AirPlay!

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