Apple today released iOS 4.2 for the iPod touch, iPhone and iPad, and iOS 4.1 for Apple TV. Together, the updates allow you to use the new AirPlay feature to stream audio and video content from your device to your television. It sounds like a killer feature, but does it live up to the hype? NewTeeVee certainly doesn’t think so, but AirPlay does have its good points.
It will depend largely on what you want to be able to do with AirPlay. Right now, it does two basic things pretty well: It streams photos from your on-device camera roll or Photos app to the Apple TV; and it streams audio and video from both the built-in YouTube app and the on-device iPhone or iPad-formatted video library. What it doesn’t do is transmit any video and audio content you come across to an Apple TV-connected display.
No third-party (downloadable) apps I tried had support for streaming video to the Apple TV yet (I tried the HGTV app, CityTV’s iPad app and Air Video). Audio streaming, on the other hand, seems built-in everywhere (works on HGTV, TuneIn radio, and with web-based content). Whether that means that audio streaming works without developer intervention, while video streaming must be programmed in, or whether third-party software will only have very limited access to video streaming isn’t yet clear.
Even if Apple does allow third-party programs to stream video, there will be some limitations. The video being streamed must be in a format the Apple TV can recognize, for example, since AirPlay just pushes the content from the iOS device to Apple’s set-top box, and there’s no processing involved. So .MKV files, a common format for HD video, won’t likely ever be able to be streamed from the VLC app, for instance. It also doesn’t work with home video recorded on your device, which seems like something I’d probably do most with the feature, were it available.
As for what it does provide, there are some limitations that show it’s early yet for the AirPlay tech. First, YouTube videos take quite a while to load before playing, at least in my experience. I thought it wasn’t working properly, in fact. Second, when streaming photos, there’s quite a delay, and no indicator there’s any kind of loading in progress before the image shows up on your screen. I was swiping through my library thinking photos didn’t stream when all of a sudden the first one I’d viewed showed up. The experience of many others on Twitter confirms that I’m not alone in this.
Devices using iOS can still run other apps while streaming content to the Apple TV, so that’s a huge benefit. You can check your email or play games while a movie broadcasts in the background, for instance, and you can control playback on either your portable or using the Apple Remote with your Apple TV. Also, content will display a TV as the AirPlay icon when it can stream video, and a speaker icon when it can only transmit sound, so you know at a glance what you’ll be getting.
For now, AirPlay remains a nice feature, but one that’s in its infancy. To truly have a wide appeal, I think it needs to be extended to third-party applications, and work better and faster while keeping user surprises to a minimum by telling users exactly when it’s loading. Apple also needs to seriously consider making this a two-way street, since being able to stream from iTunes libraries to an iOS device without having to install additional, unofficial software would be fantastic. Of course, it would also limit the appeal of larger on-device storage sizes, which is likely why it’s being ignored by Cupertino.
If AirPlay was the reason you were waiting to make an Apple TV purchase, I’d wait a little longer to see how the tech matures in future iOS iterations. What do you think? Is AirPlay in its current form grounds enough to justify buying the new Apple TV?
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