AirPlay. Much more beneath the surface

Apple released iOS 4.1 hinting at a revamped AirTunes dubbed, “AirPlay.” Steve Jobs initially showed of this new technology during an extensive demo at Apple’s Fall Music Event back in September. While AirTunes was system of allowing iTunes to stream audio out to either an Apple TV or Airport Express [router-slash-device], AirPlay moves ahead by adding more devices to the mix, while also adding video streaming capabilities. AirPlay was officially released in the 4.2.1 release last Monday, alongside the 4.1 release of the new Apple TV’s iOS firmware.

Prior to the release of Airplay, the only devices able to use the AirTunes technology were the original Apple TV (as well as the 2nd-gen.) and the Airport Express. Both of these devices were able to sit on your home network — the same network that your iTunes Library PC/Mac was on  — and receive the audio of whatever you were playing in iTunes (minus the audio from video being played). Now Apple has added the entire array of devices (namely iOS devices); the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, and the new Apple TV are fully capable of AirPlay. And of course, iTunes running on your Mac or PC as always works with AirPlay.

Starting with your computer, iTunes has always been able to output audio to the Apple TV (1st- & 2nd-gen.), but it can now output video to the 2nd-generation Apple TV. When you’re playing video — pretty much any kind of video — you can choose the Apple TV to stream that video to. Initiating AirPlay in iTunes will have that video up on you HDTV within seconds.

I don’t have an iPad, but the iPhone (and iPod Touch) will work in the same fundamental way. When you’re watching video in the iPod app for instance, you can just as easily throw that video (and audio) on to your HDTV through your Apple TV. While AirPlay with video in the iPod app is pretty seamless, video from the YouTube app on iOS will take a but longer.

For example, an HD video in the iPhone YouTube app that was about 5-7 minutes in length probably took about 10-15 seconds to start playing. The good thing with using AirPlay like this is that all control is taking place on the iPhone/iPod. Play/pause, fast-forwarding/rewinding and moving about the YouTube interface all happens on the iPhone; in contrast to using the Apple TV YouTube app and the clunky Apple TV remote (or the Remote iOS app for that matter).

And if you are ‘AirPlay-ing’ video to the Apple TV, you can still use the physical remote to play/pause or seek through the video. You can even leave the YouTube app on the iPhone while the video continues streaming to the Apple TV in the background. It’s also worth mentioning that with the 4.2.1 release of iOS, Apple has added another volume control slider (for AirPlay volume) to the left of the iPod controls in multitasking mode. Think: the iPod controls are a scroll to the left of the background running app icons; this is another scroll to the left of the iPod controls.

This is the new icon that which tells that some form of AirPlay is available for whatever you’re listening to or watching. You’ll see this logo in iTunes on your computer (bottom right-hand corner), as well as in any app in iOS that supports the new AirPlay feature. Although, the Achilles Heel here, is that not every app that’s capable of video is also capable streaming video out to the Apple TV. For instance, the Netflix app for the iPhone at this time will only give you the option to output audio from video that you’re watching. This is likely something that Netflix may fix with an update to the iPhone app. Hulu Plus on the other hand is an app that probably won’t ever let AirPlay see the light of day because of the developer’s inherent lack of openness. Hulu also doesn’t use iOS’ core Quicktime video player interface — any app that uses the core video interface on iOS seems to automatically offer AirPlay capability. Hulu’s app doesn’t use that interface, but one that resembles their website’s video player.

My personal experience with AirPlay over the past few days has been nice. Wednesday I was streaming YouTube videos almost non-stop from my iPhone 4 to the Apple TV. Video and audio quality does’t seem to take a hit whilst pushing the content from the iPhone to the Apple TV which is a good thing. However, what I’ve taken from my time using AirPlay is that I’m longing to see more app developers jump on this system and allow this inter-device streaming to take off. I’ve heard that Apple isn’t necessarily locking down the AirPlay technology, which means most any developer should be able to integrate AirPlay into their apps. For instance iHome has already announced third-party speakers that will work with AirPlay (much like the Airport Express works with AirTunes/AirPlay for audio streaming).

In a future post, I think I’ll touch on something along the lines of a Google TV vs. an Apple TV+iPad/iPhone topic. I think there’s something to being able to stream content like Netflix to my TV from my iPhone. I kept thinking to myself: why stream these YouTube videos from my iPhone when the Apple TV already has a YouTube app? Should we be moving towards something like Google TV where we throw everything on to a set-top box and use a clunky keyboard/trackpad contraption to control it? Or would it be nicer to have a tablet-esque device in one’s lap that allows for control over the interface (e.g.: YouTube) and streams the content out to a small, dumbed-down box like the Apple TV?

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